Govt probes cramp NGO sector in India

Greenpeace activists rappelling down their office building to unfurl banners in Bangalore last month. The group had its accounts frozen for "under-reporting" foreign funds.
Greenpeace activists rappelling down their office building to unfurl banners in Bangalore last month. The group had its accounts frozen for "under-reporting" foreign funds.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It is using complicated regulatory system to curb dissenting voices: Critics

AT THE Delhi office of a non-government organisation (NGO) that deals with human trafficking, activists say they have removed the name plate from the front door for fear of attracting undue attention.

"We don't want someone in the neighbourhood complaining against us," said an activist from the NGO, who did not want to be identified or have the organisation named.

This is just one reaction to the government's recent actions against non-profit groups.

Over the past three months, the government has cancelled the foreign fund licences of nearly 15,000 NGOs and universities for violating the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. Many of the cancellations are for the failure to furnish an annual declaration of funds.

Investigations against foreign funding of NGOs started under the previous government. But the current government, which has made economic growth a key aim, has ramped up such probes. Some civil society groups have been campaigning for local communities that are affected by infrastructure projects.

In April, the Ministry of Home Affairs froze the bank accounts of environmental group Greenpeace India, saying it had "under-reported" foreign funds and spent money that was not accounted for on stopping developmental projects.

A US charity, the Ford Foundation, was put on a security watchlist, with all its funding of Indian groups brought under scrutiny, for funding groups that were not registered with the ministry.

While the government has said it is only enforcing the law, critics accuse it of using a complicated regulatory system to curb dissenting voices.

"Certainly, there are organisations which are corrupt... But it is almost impossible for smaller NGOs to navigate the maze of rules. It is getting harder and harder to be technically compliant," said social activist Harsh Mander.

What has further worried activists are recently unveiled draft guidelines by the Ministry of Home Affairs that would require NGOs to post details of all foreign funding on their website within seven days of receiving the money. They will also have to disclose details of their social media accounts like Facebook and Twitter. Under current rules, NGOs have only to list foreign donations in annual reports.

Banks have to report financial transactions of NGOs within 48 hours. The rules, to be finalised after public consultations, warn NGOs against using foreign funds for activities "detrimental to national interest" or which affect India's "security, scientific, strategic or economic interest".

Activists said the government moves are demoralising the non-profit sector. Concerns are mounting that activists may put issues that could be controversial or attract government attention on the backburner.

gnirmala@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2015, with the headline 'Govt probes cramp NGO sector in India'. Print Edition | Subscribe