Muzzling NGOs, NDA way

Crackdown: The Narendra Modi government is coming down on the NGOs with an iron hand

Muzzling NGOs, NDA way
The non-government organisations are having a hard time. The NDA government, ever since it assumed office, has led a reign of repression against the NGOs making it difficult for them to carry out their functioning. The latest in the series are the amendments to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Rules (FCRR) through which foreign funding to the NGOs are sought to be regulated.

The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), a topical issue of democratic concern, was first passed during the Emergency 40 years ago. Though this Act has been controversial ever since it was passed, the context now is very different. Indira Gandhi’s then government was wary of foreign influences on the government.  Foreign capital was not allowed except under very strict conditions. From “Made in India” to “Make in India” is a long conceptual journey from domestic self reliance, to actively seeking foreign collaboration. Despite greater suspicion of foreign intentions in 1975, the FCRA was far less draconian than it is today.

The scenario today is perhaps just the opposite in terms of foreign investment. It is the era of globalisation where foreign domestic investment is being sought and multinational corporate bodies are welcomed with a red carpet treatment. As a result, foreign money is playing a strong influential role within the country.  Countries around the world talk of a global context and argue that in a globalised world, national boundaries cannot prevent the flow of money, ideas or global standards of  living. 

It is within this context that the current FCRA framework is contradictory to the overall beliefs the world now espouses. India is part of this global alliance. If investment is globalised, it stands to reason that the emergence of global citizens’ alliances and institutions should have equal access to funds, as well as the freedom to form alliances across the world to express different and contradictory opinions. Universal concerns about the fallout and effects of such investments also need to be taken into account. There is no doubt that what affects a part of us, affects all.

However, the BJP-led government has again demonstrated that it has double standards and has concocted a new form of nationalism. Its plea is that the UPA started it all, which indeed it did. This FCRA based crackdown  began during the regime of UPA II when the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Home Ministry enthusiastically followed up on prime minister Manmohan Singh’s statement that foreign funded NGOs were coming in the way of India’s nuclear energy and GM food programmes. He failed to mention the overwhelming investment of foreign funds in nuclear energy/GM food, and completely ignored the organic and domestic opposition to these contentious programmes.

The present Narendra Modi government seems to have strengthened the mandate for the IB and the Home Ministry to ensure that nothing hampers their FDI based growth agenda. The IB report which held protestors against various FDI projects responsible for negatively affecting India’s growth rate and economic interests, was leaked to the press and acted upon, after the BJP government came to power. 

Major problems

There are three major problems with the use of the FCRA to quell dissent. Its application only to foreign money that comes to India to support social or environmental concerns is fundamentally motivated and objectionable. It is clear that the government is giving a free hand to the profit driven corporates who want to use India’s land, resources, labour and markets for the benefit of their shareholders.

At the same time, it openly wants to partner with these corporates to make sure no democratic or domestic protest is allowed to come in the way of this profit making machine. In this scenario, the FCRA is an effective instrument for the government to be able to further silence any irritant. In fact, it is able to brand home grown domestic resistance as being a product of “foreign forces” by selectively using the FCRA against certain organisations.

The fact that the FCRA is administered by the Home Ministry and the IB is another major concern. The IB has appropriated for itself the power to decide what is in national interest, and to brand anything its political bosses oppose as “anti-national”. This is alarmingly incorporated in the latest FCRA draft Rules of June 2015, where the government has proposed that any NGO applying for foreign funds has to give a written undertaking that:

“I affirm that the receipt of foreign contribution and its utilisation shall not be used/committed for any activities

i) detrimental to national interest
ii) likely to affect prejudicially public interest
iii) likely to affect prejudicially the security , strategic, scientific or economic interest of the State and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”

Which organisation would claim to work to prejudicially affect national or public interest? It is obvious that the interpretation of these ‘interests’ by the state will be used to blacklist, harass, persecute and prosecute those organisations that disagree with the current ideology of the ruling party.

Persecuting NGOs

 It is not surprising, therefore, that in addition to persecuting organisations like Greenpeace which even the UPA had targeted, the NDA has also decided to harass organisations like Sabrang Trust and one of its funders, the internationally powerful Ford Foundation. The government is passing a message to funding agencies and NGOs that to operate in this country, they must not support any project or organise activities that might run counter to the political ideology of the ruling party.

National interest is now synonymous with government interest, and government interest with the interests of the ruling party. The latest organisation to have been put on the list requiring “prior consent’ from the Home Ministry is “Caritas”– a church-based organisation that funds humanitarian relief. It needs to be asked whether the field-based sister organisations of openly religio–political bodies like the RSS,  whose programmes receive foreign funds, will be measured with the same standards ? 

Finally, even if one were to agree that foreign contributions need to be strictly regulated to ensure complete transparency of use of funds and to make sure that they are not used for political ends, two important steps need to be undertaken. The same standards should apply to all foreign money, including FDI. All companies using FDI must also be asked to sign the same FCRA declaration before foreign money comes to Indian shores.

Second, the regulatory authority for FCRA and any such foreign contribution/investment should move out of the politically controlled Home Ministry and the IB, and must be handed over to an independent regulator with citizen oversight. This will help ensure the regulatory mandate is carried out, and that India’s civil society is truly transparent, independent, accountable to the people, and not made an appendage of the state in a totalitarian regime.

The strength of a democracy is the space that it gives for dissent. Our dissenting voices are the warning bells of our body politic. Whether we act on them is a matter of choice. But to suppress these voices and shut them off is the equivalent of making the state blind and deaf to reason. What could be more anti-national than this?

Changing Rules to Tackle NGOs

Proposed Amendment to FCR rules -- 13 (a) and 13 (b) NGO receiving foreign funds under FCRA should declare funding within 7 days. Should place details on its website or on website prescribed by government

Banks should

16(1) report to govt within 48 hours of any receipt of foreign funds by any NGO or organisation which does not have required permit

16(2) Bank should report to government within 48 hours of any transaction of receipt
or utilisation of foreign funds by any NGO which have licence to collect such funds

17(1) NGO should file foreign fund receipt and utilisation details ONLINE for every fiscal
within nine months of closure of financial year

Declaration seeking registration, renewal or prior permission – NGOs will have to declare that foreign funds will not be used for (wrong) activities

FCRR 2011

Rule 13 –NGO with FCRA licence getting foreign funds of more than Rs 1 crore in a fiscal should place details of receipts and utilisation pertaining to the year of receipt as well as for one year thereafter in public domain. Besides, the government will also display summary data on its website

Banks should

16(1) send report to govt within 30 days of any receipt of foreign contribution by NGO without licence to collect such funds

16(2) Details like name and address of such NGOs, bank account etc

16(3) send report to govt within 30 days from the date of receipt of foreign funds in excess of Rs 1 crore

17(1) NGO which receives foreign contribution should submit a report in Form FC-6
In general tone, through declaration, NGOs promise that furnished details are "true and correct" and foreign funds were used for the purpose for which permission has been granted

Don’t for NGOs

Do not approach middlemen for foreign funds
Do not deviate from purpose of grant
Do not use ATM/debit cards for foreign contribution account
Do not mix foreign contribution a/c with account of domestic receipts
Do not encourage “cash” withdrawals, as every cash withdrawal can be suspect
Do not invest foreign contribution in mutual funds or other speculative investments
Do not transfer any foreign contribution to NGOs not registered under FCRA

Govt crackdown on NGOs

June 2015

Asks CBI to probe Teesta Setalvad’s NGOs about utilisation of funds received from Ford Foundation. Seizes its bank accounts.

May 2015

nArgues vehemently against Greenpeace India in Delhi High Court to continue freeze on its accounts. HC orders de-freezing of two accounts

April 2015
Cancels licence of 8,975 NGOs and institutions for collecting foreign funds as they did not submit annual returns for three years

Puts Ford Foundation on “prior permission” list

Earlier in 2015

Offloads Greenpeace India activist Priya Pillai from a London-bound plane as she was to brief British MPs on Mahan coal block. Delhi HC quashes govt order.

In 2014, govt blocked 3 accounts. Delhi HC de-freezes them in January 2015 saying insufficient documentation and reasoning.

(The writers are Rajasthan-based social activists)

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