Recent reports by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) on activities of NGOs funded by foreign sources in India has stirred up controversy. Acting on IB’s recommendation, the home ministry on Thursday put on hold direct funding of an NGO, Green Peace India, and asked it to inform the RBI prior to any funding it receives from abroad. The Centre’s action came a day after the IB prepared yet another report on the NGO, recommending cancellation of permission given to it for collecting funds abroad besides reassessment of its tax compliance.
The NGO concerned has denied the charges, dubbing the IB report as “a pack of malicious lies”. Since the relevant documents are not in public domain, the jury is still out about which side is right. The leaked IB report, however, refers to several instances in which such NGOs have been involved in organising resistance to development projects, from the nuclear power plant in Kudankulam to the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. Its basic conclusion is that foreign sources have used these NGOs to promote their specific global agenda, which has impeded progress on projects that are critical to India’s development.
Given the manner in which protests against many projects in India in recent years have been supported and funded by NGOs, the inference cannot be dismissed as totally imaginary. One of the implications of this is that foreign funding of NGOs should be more strictly monitored. If the causes that domestic NGOs take up have merit, the organisations should be able to promote them on their own, which will lend legitimacy to their position. On the other hand, if they are unable to garner widespread support, they cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the government’s development agenda.
Many civil society activists have described such a move “restrictive” and “anti-democratic”. It’s true that a broad-brush approach to all civil society groups in India can lead to excessive use of state power to stifle dissent and the government needs to adopt a more nuanced approach.
The fact is, the word NGO has a wide sweep that covers organisations ranging from those engaged in socially meaningful work to those exporting terror. The BCCI is also an NGO, registered under the Tamil Nadu Societies Registration Act. So is the Confederation of Indian Industries.
Indian society is one of the most NGO-ised societies in the world and the civil society organisations are one of the most under-regulated entities. By the government’s assessment, there were about 3,200,000 registered NGOs in India in 2008. This only includes the ones registered under the Societies Registration Act of 1860, the Bombay (now Mumbai) Public Trusts Act of 1950, and its other state variants. But when the Central Statistics Organisation tried to verify, it could trace only 695,000 of them.
These figures did not include non-profit organisations registered under the Charitable and Religious Trusts Act and non-profit companies under the Indian Companies Act, 1956, and other laws that also help set up trusts. In some states, a study by PRIA and Johns Hopkins University suggested nearly 50 per cent of the total voluntary organisations in India were not registered under any law.
The current mechanism for scrutiny of their foreign funding is the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, enforced by home ministry with inputs from domain ministries. One implication of the IB report is that it does not adequately filter out NGOs whose raison d’être is causes-for-hire.
Proper registration, genuine board composition, compliance with procedures, and well laid-out policies relating to activities and resource mobilisation are the basic attributes of well-governed organisations. Broadening and deepening the regulatory process, as well as enhancing the capacity of the department to carry it out, would be the best government response to this controversy.
The writer is associate professor at Barkatullah University