Maja Daruwala, the executive director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, an international NGO based in New Delhi, suggests officials not to tar everyone with the same brush. Excerpts:
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had blamed US-based NGOs for engineering protests against nuclear reactors in Koodankulam. How do you see it?
When a Prime Minister speaks we have to imagine that what is said is well founded. But the claim is a very specific one that indicates a deliberate move specifically “US based NGOs” and a deliberate plan to “engineer”. This notion having been dropped into the public mind as an accusation of ulterior motivation and manipulation of policy is left dangling without further proof. The subtext is that there is ‘something wrong’ ‘something devious’. But that is hardly the issue.
From senior chief executive officers (CEOs) of countries to secretaries of state, all try to influence policy. International solidarity in doing so is not forbidden or considered morally wrong. It is just something that has to be known and has to be legal. If these two elements are there while we may not approve of support from foreigners, one should not ideally let a drop of poisonous innuendo drop into public consciousness and then let it remain there.
The thing is to follow through - also openly and without victimisation or targeting because one finds the actions of a or b inconvenient. After all it is the Indian citizenry that is in protest mode not some strangers in the land.
What do you think about the Indian government’s policy towards NGOs?
In recent times there has indeed been a ‘tightening’ across the board. The new foreign contribution law and the income tax law do disadvantage to the sector. The sector feels it is necessary to regulate just as one would regulate the corporate sector or the inflow of FDIs or even the individual inflow of funds. But there is a subtle difference in regulation and control. I think there is a tendency to the latter. This is based on a subterranean suspicion of the sector as being too vociferous too vocal and proliferating and the tendency of government to hold the cards in its hands and use it when necessary.
The sector has been saying in regard to foreign funds that it should be regulated under the FEMA. You bring money in through official means it can be monitored and that is that; good for the goose good for the gander. The government has resolutely refused to do this, citing undesirable activities and groups that do not use the money for the purposes that they should. Amongst a billion people the activities of some will always look undesirable to others. Conversion in one
instance; but the issue is not whether we like it or not. Individuals are free to convert and be converted. The issue: is the activity illegal? If an activity is illegal the group or association whether they are a political party or they are an unregistered association a gang of robbers or a money laundering cartel, it doesn’t matter.
Their activities funded or not associated with an NGO name or not are illegal. The problem with the new NGO law is that it is full of wide discretions and vaguely worded definition of “political activities” and cumbersome processes for registration.
All this combines to create a sheathed weapon or a Damocles sword hanging over everyone who associates for a cause; any time a government functionary wants to act against someone he can and so it acts ‘in terrorism’. This is bad whether it applies to NGOs or corporates or individuals. Law must be clear, simple with simple processes that everyone can comply with. Law must make it easy to obey and to tend toward not so difficult that people tend to illegality. When this law combines with the new income tax code which makes it hard for NGOs to sustain themselves through honest activity, it does look as if the government would like to discourage the proliferation of civil society groups.
On the other hand we do have a lot of groups and it is necessary to have a system of regulation, but it just has to be honest, fair and equally applicable to all and encouraging of the constitutional right to associate; associate here in the country and across borders in international solidarity of purpose.
The Govt has started taking action against non-reporting NGOs registered under FCRA.
Non-reporting is an offence If the government is being even handed, giving time to compound and right the wrongs if there are any, then that is fine. If the government is doing it selectively because something an NGO has done recently is not to their liking, then even though the government has every right to check up on the legality and compliance of regulations by that NGO, it does smack of vindictiveness. Also the degree of consequence matters; if the infraction by the NGO can be sorted out with self correction in a time frame,then let that take place; if it merits a penalty or fine let that take place, but one need not go for the harshest punishment when for all these years nothing has been done by government to assist the NGO to comply. Were notices sent? Were they disobeyed? And so on. One would hope that the same standard of compliance is required of NGOs as of corporates at every level, proprietorial shops and political parties. Even handedness does tend to create a sense amongst all that the law should be obeyed.
There are allegations that some NGOs support insurgent groups in the name of human rights. Your comment.
Allegations are easy to bandy about and they have the effect that is desired of them. Repeat a lie several times and folks will start believing it. We have many such allegations that have turned into prejudice; about women, about minorities, about civil liberties groups, I have no idea if insurgent groups or right wing religious groups or political extremists and ideologues in the fringes of political parties use fronts to garner support. If the sector is properly, regularly, transparently, and honestly regulated it would be easy to find out whether actions of receiving support (not only financial) were illegal permissible or not. In the absence of an India wide system that works in standard fashion, we will be ruled by allegation and suspicion and not by law.
Do you think some NGOs are misusing foreign fundsfor their own purposes, which goes against national interest?
As stated above I have no idea. This is a diverse country. The RSS wants a Hindu country; the Marxists want another kind of rule; the Constitution allows both points of view to progress through the democratic process. So which one is anti- national?
Also what exactly is ‘national interest’? Is a model of development based on big dams more anti-national than one based on small dams? I don’t know and don’t want to comment on this. You have to be very sure that x or y is actually using funds that come for an anti-national purpose through channels and are in fact being used for this. You don’t only have to have foreign funds to use them for ‘anti-national purposes’. Suppose there are millions gathered in the name of some individual that is popular with the public at large - what is the difference, even if you don’t like their purpose? Suppose half the money Baba John X gets is from his congregation and the other half is from folks all over the world to promote some outlandish thing like the world is flat and it is a sin to eat wheat flour!