Shut up or ship out is the Modi govt's message to NGOs

Cancelling their FCRA licence, which controls access to foreign funds, is the government’s preferred gag for non-conforming NGOs

Representative image (Image courtesy: taxconcept)
Representative image (Image courtesy: taxconcept)

A.J. Prabal

On 2 February, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) raided both the official and residential premises of human rights activist Harsh Mander in New Delhi, and filed an FIR, accusing Mander’s NGO Centre for Equity Studies (CES) of violating the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA).

This is but the latest episode in a relentless crackdown by the government on not just political opposition and dissent but also on non-profit, non-governmental organisations. Ex-IAS office Mander co-founded the CES in 2001, with the vision of ‘influencing public policy and law in favour of people of greatest disadvantage’.

An outspoken critic of the Modi government, it is not in the least surprising that his work should be targeted thus. Other organisations that have been systematically harassed by the Union home ministry (MHA), which monitors them, include Christian charities such as World Vision India and think tanks such as the 50-year-old Centre for Policy Research (CPR)—both of which have had their FCRA licences cancelled—as well as other NGOs working with and for the disabled, women and children.

In December last year, the independent news portal NewsClick was also raided under similar allegations. The FCRA is an act that allows NGOs to receive funds from abroad. Any organisation that invites foreign donations must register under the Act.

The increased weaponisation of its purported regulatory function ‘to prevent any possible diversion for activities detrimental to national interest’ is evident for all to see. The MHA’s annual report for 2021–22 argues that the FCRA was amended in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic to discourage NGOs from spending on ‘inflated salaries, posh buildings, offices and luxurious vehicles’.

While there have been some bad apples in the barrel, what might explain the figures? Till date, more than 20,000 FCRA licences have been cancelled, and counting. Between 2016 and 2020, as many as 6,600 NGOs had their licences cancelled. Between 2018 and 2022, there were 1,827 cancellations, all citing sundry violations.

Greenpeace, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), Amnesty International, Oxfam, Save the Children Foundation, CARE India, the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and the Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust were among those organisations. The omnibus reason given for this spree of cancellations is that these NGOs have damaged the country’s reputation and interests.

The minor reasons include typographical errors, mistakes made in statements of accounts, payments made to consultants who didn’t file personal income tax returns etc.

Recommendations by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the international watchdog on money laundering and financial terrorism set up by G7 countries, is also ostensibly among the reasons for targeting NGOs. The status of sovereign governments in the FATF list affects their ability to attract FDI (foreign direct investment) by G7 countries.

Political opponents and civil society bodies are soft targets, and though the FATF is mainly concerned with where the drug mafia and terror organisations get their funds from, the government of India can package its crackdown on NGOs as action taken against defaulters.

In September 2023, Amnesty International wrote to the FATF Secretariat to ‘take on board key insights and concerns from the NPO sector when conducting the MER’. The FATF admits there have been ‘unintended consequences’ of its recommendations and has undertaken a Mutual Evaluation Review (MER); the final review is due in June 2024.

It’s been tough going for donors and NGOs that do not have the blessing of this government. And it’s only going to get tougher. Civil society is the target. Field work, social science research and ‘activism’ of any kind, including approaching the courts with PILs (public interest litigations), are all regarded with extreme suspicion, assumed to be hostile to the government, and attacked as ‘anti-national’ activities, says an activist, requesting anonymity.

While political parties are permitted to receive unrestricted, undisclosed and anonymous donations from abroad, the 2020 amendments in the FCRA have made it even more difficult for voluntary bodies to secure foreign funding. One of the mandates arising from the amendments was that all FCRA accounts were to be held only with the State Bank of India’s Parliament Street branch in New Delhi.

Transferring foreign contributions to registered bodies or individuals that do not have a license under the FCRA was prohibited, and the ceiling on administrative expenditure reduced from 50 per cent to 20 per cent. A 2012 report by the MHA claimed there were over 2 million registered NGOs in the country, while the number registered under the FCRA was less than 2 per cent.

In December 2023, the MHA informed the Lok Sabha that a total of 13,520 associations received Rs 55,741 crore foreign contributions over three financial years (2019–2020, 2020–21 and 2021–22). Registrations are supposed to be renewed every five years. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the amendments to the FCRA in 2020, several NGOs could not complete the process.

The MHA has extended the deadline multiple times; the latest being 31 March 2024. NGOs are reported to provide employment to approximately 7.2 million people in India, making it one of the largest employment generating sectors. A government that cannot provide job opportunities to the youth has no business making it difficult for those who seek to actively address the livelihood concerns of many, not just in urban centres but also semi-rural and rural areas.

There was a systematic push to support the NGO sector in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s because it was felt that the government alone was not in a position to tackle grassroots development and the needs of the voiceless and marginalised sections of society.

NGOs were also encouraged as platforms which demanded accountability from the State, and filled in local gaps in governance. In January 2023, the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) had moved the Delhi High Court to direct the government to constitute an independent committee to monitor the selective misuse of the FCRA.

However, a bench of chief justices Satish Chandra Sharma and S. Prasad dismissed the petition by observing, ‘The entire case of the petitioner (ADR) is premised on the possibility of a political party, that is also at the helm of affairs at the Centre, abusing the provisions of the FCRA to suppress dissent and receive foreign contributions in its own favour.

The instant writ petition is entirely built on surmises and conjectures.’ ‘Surmises and conjectures’ that are, in fact, the sticks and stones of reality. In July 2023, the Civil Constitutional Group comprising former civil servants put their finger on it in a letter to Union home minister Amit Shah: ‘It seems as though, using the FCRA, the government of India seeks to deter civil society organisations from seeking funding from foreign sources, although such access to foreign funds, through other legally sanctioned means, is freely available to the private sector, digital and print media and political parties.’

In 2016, while addressing a public meeting in Bhubaneswar, PM Modi had said that civil society organisations were out to finish him but he would finish them first. Well, as Aakar Patel, chairman of the board of Amnesty International India said in a News Minute interview this week, he seems to have done just that.

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