One of the noticeable strengths of India’s democracy are its Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), a voluntary action movement which is all encompassing in both quality and quantity. NGOs are firmly embedded in the country’s socio-economic life. They are involved in a variety of activities — from policy analysis to school programmes, from participatory natural resources management to activism, now even to street-level activism. Many NGOs are involved in capacity building and creating mass awareness in a wide range of fields: from children rights, women empowerment, old age, health, nutrition, human rights, environment protection, disability, disarmament issues, tribal protection, education, income generation, rural issues, farmers, Dalit and minority issues, disaster, advocacy, corruption, governance, transparency and integrated development — you name it. The NGO sector is robust in its truest sense.
India has more than 43,000 registered NGOs under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), a number that ranks among the highest in the world. While there have been controversies about just how much regulation the voluntary sector requires and questions have been raised on its sources of funding, it is also commonly acknowledged that the government cannot do every thing: there have to be non-government actors who can take development plans down to the masses because the country is so huge and varied that you need outside help. So a sector which has seen untrammeled growth in the last three decades or so, is now suddenly in the eye of the storm after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accused US-backed NGOs of fueling protests against nuclear reactors in Tamil Nadu’s Kudankulam, leading to an outcry.
The question that needs answering is this: is the Indian government tightening its noose around NGOs? According to well placed sources, the government is actively working on a blue print to regulate the NGO sector. It is examining a Planning Commission proposal to bring the voluntary sector under the ambit of the RTI Act. The ostensible aim is to make this vast sector of civil society activists, who receive public funds, more accountable and transparent. The crackdown, it would appear, has begun. The government has issued show cause notices to 21,000 NGOs out of total 43,033 that are registered, which it says are not complying with its new policy and action is being taken for cancellation of their registration certificates after examining their replies. Union home secretary R.K.Singh, explaining the government clampdown in a January 2012 report, has noted that “while it is not proper to make sweeping generalisations, it is necessary to note that the NGO sector in India is vulnerable to the risks of money laundering and terrorist financing’’.
Therefore, necessary steps for rigorous enforcement as well as coordination with countries for law enforcement will continue.” The Planning Commission has even suggested the creation of a separate ministry of voluntary affairs and an apex body to bring all NGOs under one umbrella. Says Catherine Bernard, member of the Sisters of the Cross (SCC) Chavanod, France, “I think the government is in a bind and it seems not to trust itself and this reflects in its relation to other institutions, including NGOs. It is certainly not democratic to ‘regulate’ NGO’s in ways we hear it reported in the media and other wise. It is ‘control’ not ‘regulation’. The need today is partnership and dialogue.’’ The move against NGOs is considered surprising, considering the clout of Sonia Gandhi-managed National Advisory Council (NAC) which includes a clutch of some of the most reputed voluntary activists in the country like Aruna Roy, Deep Joshi, Madhav Gadgil and Mirai Chatterjee, coordinator of SEWA, Ahmedabad. Manmohan Singh in an interview to ‘Science’ magazine was quoted as saying that “the Atomic energy programme has got into problems because these NGOs, mostly I think based in the US, don’t appreciate the need for our country to increase energy supply,” referring to the protests against Kudankulam nuclear power station whose launch has been halted by protestors raising safety concerns.
Dipayan, a Kolkata-based environmental activist, chooses his words carefully. “I believe, we are still not that empowered to lodge a protest unless supported by any external agency (in this case American NGOs) else locals would have also raised their voices for debating uranium mining in Porkut area, Nongri in West Khasi Hills or in Yodogawa mines of Jharkhand. To that extent the PM is right, but would he pay equal attention to genuine issues raised by civil societies in the development sector? I think not, because the issues have to suit the political will.’’
According to the government report, NGOs have received more than Rs. one Lakh Crore in the last 20 years as foreign contribution from various countries. Nearly 5o per cent NGOs have not declared the amount which they have received from foreign donors.
Only 21,508 associations out of 43,000 odd have submitted their returns while 7,275 have reported ‘nil’ receipt of foreign contribution. The report accepts that the number of NGOs registered under FCRA would be less than 2 per cent of total number of NGOs.
While the reality is that India has no centralised database on the number of NGOs and the quantum of finance involved in their operations, unofficial figures indicate that there are over 40 lakh NGOs registered under the Societies Registration Act, Trust Act and other such enactments.
To be sure, India has a long distinguished tradition of voluntary action but post 1947, this practice has seen a dip in the form of donations from non-institutional communities due to urban migration and the beginning of state welfare as policy. Before Independence, voluntary organisations imbued with Gandhian philosophy involved themselves in the social welfare sector.
Notes a steering committee report of the Planning Commission on the voluntary sector: “It has been shaped by two major influences: one rooted in indigenous traditions and value systems, and the other a product of the interface between the Indian society and the western world. Indian traditions and value-systems are rooted in religion that prescribes a code of ethics for the individual and the principles governing social life.’’
Historically, philanthropy and individual acts of social service have been the main forms of voluntary activity in India. Institutionalised social service activities existed largely within the domain of religious institutions: ashrams and maths among Hindus, Waqfs and Khanqahs among Muslims and Gurudwaras and Deras among Sikhs.
Notes the Planning Commission, “The concept of secular voluntary activity accelerated with the advent of western, mainly British, influence in India. The work of Christian missionaries in the field of education and health care, especially in remote tribal areas, stood out as examples of dedicated service to the poor, even though the motivation may have been to win over these people to Christianity.
The example of Christian missionary work exerted a great influence on the new English educated elite that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries. The organised form of charity and service to the poor practiced by the Christian missionaries impressed many who tried to emulate them.”
The activities of the Brahmo Samaj in Bengal, Arya Samaj in north India and the Ramakrishna Mission in different parts of the country are noteworthy.
Resource mobilisation for NGOs or in India today is not an easy task. They manage it either from internal sources or external. Earlier funds were mobilised from various non-institutional and institutional sources.
Since the late 1960s, foreign funding to NGOs started flowing from international private non-institutions and global private institutions. Funding from the Lions Club, International Red Cross Society and Amnesty International come under this category. Similarly NGOs of industrialised countries such as Oxfam-America, CARE, Action Aid, U.K. became the source of funding.
Solidarity groups and international trade unions are another source of global funding from developed nations. Their funding is mainly confined to issues relating to human rights, women and child development and environment. Most of the private institutional funding to NGOs come from the international corporate bodies.
Institutional funding also comes to NGOs from bilateral and multilateral donor agencies. Bilateral funding includes aid from agencies, departments and ministries of countries such as U.S.A., U.K., Japan, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Canada and Australia. USA is the leading country followed by Germany, Italy, Denmark and the United Kingdom among the bilateral aid donors to India.
In addition, there are the multilateral institutional funding agencies who support grassroots activism. However their funding is very limited and is confined largely to the major voluntary organistions in India and they do not fall under the FCRA. Such Multilateral funding agencies include UN agencies like WHO, UNESCO, UNICEF, FAO, UNFPA, UNDP, ILO, UNEP, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), Asian Development Bank (ADB), African Development Bank (AfDB), Islamic Development Bank (IDB), the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC), the Arab and OPEC multilateral aid agencies. These agencies provide funding under the overall supervision and regulation of the government. There are many governmental and semi or quasi governmental agencies like the National Children’s fund, Central Social Welfare Board, Family Planning Associations of India and CAPART which act as donors. At the local level, funds are provided largely through the district rural development agencies (DRDAs), zilla parishads and panchayati raj institutions etc.
Interestingly, state funding of the voluntary sector easily outstrips what they receive from external sources. For example the ministry of social justice and empowerment had supported 2,100 voluntary organisations in the country and had released Rs 1,800 million during 1999- 2000, as against Rs 1,110 million in 1998-99.
At present the total central government funding is estimated to cross Rs 10 billion from Rs. 1,500 million during the Seventh Five Year Plan period.
Despite their over-arching presence and solid work on ground, a section of those opposed to NGOs have levelled a variety of charges, which include voluntary groups raising anti-development slogans in the name of environmental or safety hazards like Kudankulam, unfair criticism of security forces on human rights issues, influencing voters and could be some instances, be supporters of radical politics through funding.
In 2002, minister of state for external affairs Digvijay Singh named an European NGO for its involvement with underground insurgents in the North East. In his reply, Singh named Netherlands as one of the countries used by radicals to further their anti-India activities, besides Pakistan.
According to official records, Netherland-based NGOs NCIV (Netherlands Council on Ingeneous Volk geist) led by Leovander Vlist was said to be instrumental in bringing various North East insurgent groups under one umbrella. In March this year, home minister P Chidambaram told the Rajya Sabha that some foreign funds to NGOs were being diverted to terror groups. Writes Rajiv Malhotra in “Breaking India”, a book co-authored by him: “India’s integrity is being undermined by three global networks that have well-established operating bases inside India: (i) Islamic radicalism linked to Pakistan, (ii) Maoists and Marxist radicals supported by China via intermediaries such as Nepal, and (iii) Dravidian and Dalit identity separatism being fostered by the West in the name of human rights.”
All these streams are being intellectually and financially supported by foreign donors with vested interests. Former Indian diplomat Arundhati Ghose agrees. “There are many examples to show how some of these foreign-funded NGOs are harmful for the nation and playing into foreign hands.” Her own nephew and NGO activist Sanjay Ghosh was killed by the ULFA in Assam. She wrote in an article, “There is a veritable industry of human rights organisations. These NGOs are powerful, as they are given almost equal speaking time on any subject on the agenda in the UN bodies.
They offer their platforms to wanted terrorists of India. Anoop Chetia of ULFA was given a chance to speak by a UK-based NGO “Liberation”. There appears to be no dearth of funding for these organisations.”
There are, of course, some who are seriously concerned with human rights violations – if only by the state – and base their charge on well documented or well researched situations.
There are NGOs that are funded, directly or indirectly, by governments to project their own government’s point of view. There are groups who regularly brief their government representatives, before and during meetings and who sometimes act as domestic pressure groups on the government concerned to raise a particular issue about a particular country.
The government, keeping in mind the large scale growth of registered NGOs along with quantum leaps in the amount of foreign contribution coupled with a changed internal security scenario and spread of use of communication and information technology, has gone in for changes in FCRA which were enacted in 1976 and was last amended in 1984. Thus the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Rules, 2011 was made under section 48 of FCRA, 2010. Stringent provisions have been made in the FCRA, 2010, in order to prevent misutilisation of foreign contributions. States the ministry of home affairs, “The focus of the act is to ensure that the foreign contribution and foreign hospitality is not utilised to affect or influence electoral politics, public servants, judges and other people working in important areas of national life like journalists, printers and publishers of newspapers.
“The Act also seeks to regulate flow of foreign funds to voluntary organisations with the objective of preventing any possible diversion of such funds towards activities detrimental to national interest and to ensure that individuals and organisations may function in a manner consistent with the values of the sovereign democratic republic.” In addition, the new law has stipulated a five-year validity for all associations registered earlier, doing away with the concept of a permanent’ registration.
The act regulates acceptance of foreign hospitality by certain individuals, which includes members of a legislature, office-bearers of a political party, judges, government servants or employees of any corporation, while visiting any country or territory outside India. Such individuals can receive foreign hospitality only with the prior permission of the central government.
According to sources in the MHA, the central government has sent letters to state governments to take strict actions against defaulter NGOs. The results have been immediate: there is already a declining trend in foreign funds. While in 2009-10, 21,508 associations had reported receipt of foreign contribution amounting to Rs. 10,337.53 crore, in 2010-11 only 14,779 NGOs reported receipts of Rs 7810.84 crore of foreign funds.
All told, the voluntary movement itself has spawned some famous household names: Medha Patkar, Teesta Setalvad, Sunderlal Bahuguna and Arundhati Roy. There are others who opt for a hard life and work relentlessly, completely anonymous. They are the heroes.