Modi Government’s witch hunt cripples NGOs, pandemic relief affected
FCRA registration of 20,675 NGOs were cancelled between 2011 and 2019, 16,746 (81%) of them since 2014
Even international NGOs like Greenpeace and Amnesty International, or the Catholic Relief Society or CARITAS have borne the brunt of restrictive rules, inspections, black lists and delays in releasing grants and worse. Criminal cases were slapped against many. Some were arrested on drummed up charges and their lives destroyed. Donations received from abroad came in for stifling scrutiny, making NGOs spend more time in doing paperwork than on the ground.
Research and collection of data suffered. Nobody knows how many NGOs have been shut down and how many people working with them have lost their ‘jobs’ and livelihood. Community service, always looked upon with a certain disdain and suspicion, was never more difficult than in the last few years.
Anecdotal evidence in the last seven years spoke of NGOs affiliated to the RSS receiving more patronage from the government and CSR funds from corporate bodies diverted to them. But in the absence of transparency and independent social audits, funding and financial health of the sector remains shrouded in mystery and dependent on arbitrary decisions of the government.
Voluntary and non-profit workers point out that the NGO sector cannot be equated with the corporate sector. But the Modi government tried to put the NGOs through similar management practices.
As early as in 2015, over 10,000 NGOs lost their FCRA registration for not filing ‘Returns’ and other papers on time or missing out on one or more documents. “Earlier governments had a more liberal approach. We were allowed grace periods to file papers, but this government treats us as criminals and looks upon us with suspicion.
It is as if every NGO that receives foreign funding is guilty of some crime unless proven otherwise,” says Sameet Panda, a development professional from Odisha.
The NGO sector at the tier two tier three cities was already reeling under pressure with many of them having to shut down due to government audits. Then in September 2020, amidst the pandemic the government ushered in even more draconian changes.
The new rules have made ‘sub-granting’ illegal. That means big NGOs based in Delhi or Mumbai receiving funds from international NGOs like Ford Foundation or Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation cannot sub-grant the fund to implement programs via partner organizations in districts and villages.
The NGO sector in Odisha used to be one of the largest employment providers. Community workers or field workers employed by smaller NGOs at the local level who coordinate with villagers on empowerment and awareness raising programs remain the backbone of city based bigger organizations who do not have the penetration at grassroot levels.
In the NGO sector the world over, there is a partnership model at work. Urban professionals are better trained to raise funds, lobby with government for policy changes, grants etc while field workers are better acquainted with ground conditions, people and their culture and issues at the local level.
But field workers and other social activists who worked in the smaller NGOs for the last 20-30 years are suddenly out of job because the bigger NGOs are not able to pay them their meagre salary.
New FCRA rules have also reduced administrative expenses of an NGO from the earlier 50 per cent to 20 per cent; the rest of the funding can only be used for program cost.
Administrative expenses, which include salary, office rental, furnishing, stationaries, communication and transport. But while this constitutes necessary expenditure, it cannot now exceed 20 percent of the total project cost.
A Delhi based NGO which runs legal awareness programs for women panchayat members and ‘Self Help Group’ members in Uttar Pradesh would hire a team of professionally qualified legal practitioners who would then visit the villages twice a month to conduct workshops.
The actual cost of the workshops, often conducted in the open field, under a tree or in the village community hall, would often be low but keeping the legally qualified team on payroll, pay for their travel and hotel bills, local travel and so on would cost more. But the 20 percent restriction effectively spells an end to the activity.
Community work involving awareness building, legal and constitutional literacy, participatory research and rural empowerment projects have been hit by the new rules.
Even more bizarre is the rule that mandates NGOs desirous of receiving foreign funds to open a bank account in the State Bank of India, New Delhi branch. Many NGOs in states and remote parts of India have been deterred from registering. Even surrendering the FCRA license is now a more complicated and punishing process, involving an audit, summary inquiry and seizure of assets built using the FCRA money in the past.