The government is continuing its spree of targeting charities. Here I refer to the latest notification on the Lokpal and Lokayukta Act 2013, by which the government wants to regulate and control corruption in public institutions. This Act now includes NGOs and charitable institutions within its fold. This means executive committee and board members and chief functionaries of development organizations, CSOs and NGOs are under this Act, required to declare their wealth for the last three years (retrospectively since 2014 when the Act was passed) in the public domain by the end of July 2016.
As someone who has been a development professional for more than four decades in India and South East Asia, I fully appreciate the overarching focus of the above Act. I strongly support the aim to remove corruption from public office. But to include functionaries of charitable institutions within its purview is absurd, particularly since their office is not an elected one.
The absurdity of this is best exemplified by the requirement to even list items of jewelry on a site that is open to all.
There are many serious development professionals who voluntarily give their time and effort to further the cause of development for little or no remuneration, remaining fully committed and dedicated to the work they do. Such a shotgun approach to a sector, which largely has worked shoulder to shoulder with the government to bring about transformation in the lives of poor and disadvantaged communities, is not really justified.
It is a case, I think, of throwing out the baby with the bath water!
The Act targets all NGOs who receive ₹1 crore or more in government funds in a year and/or ₹10 lakh (approximately US $14000) or more in foreign contributions, and asks them to declare all kinds of moveable and immovable properties and earnings in a matter of one and a half months in the public domain. The absurdity of this is best exemplified by the requirement to even list items of jewelry on a site that is open to all. Besides being impractical, such legislation seriously impinges on the privacy of a group of "non-elected" professionals.
Many dedicated professionals in the development space will step down from boards and organizations in the aftermath of this amendment. These professionals include high net-worth individuals (HNIs), heads of corporate organizations and large foundations and NGOs, who work in this sector because of their commitment to the cause of the poor and the dispossessed in India. They work mostly in purely honorary capacities, but through this Act and what it seeks to put in the public domain, run the risk of being open to extortionists and other anti-social elements, who will now have unfettered access to this private information.
Many dedicated professionals in the development space will step down from boards and organizations in the aftermath of this amendment.
Most of these charitable institutions, organizations and NGOs fill a major gap in the government's development agenda by implementing good, solid, sustainable programs in areas of health, education, empowerment, livelihood enhancement, conservation, use of alternative energy, to name a few. They have not only supplemented government efforts, but have significantly contributed to the growth and development of children and families, who would otherwise be deprived of the benefits of such initiatives which aim to foster and strengthen their well being.
In our view it is time to raise our voices and put things in their proper perspective. And as a distinguished colleague has written -- to arise, awake, and advocate for abolishing the applicability of this law on voluntary and charitable institutions that remain committed to providing much needed-development services to the poor, disadvantaged and underprivileged sections of society in our country.
It is also relevant to state here that the following points have not been resolved in the Act:
1. The uncertainty of who has to file the annual returns. The Act says, director, manager, secretary or other officer. Will this cover trustees or executive committee members who hold honorary positions and are not paid? Will this cover a secretary even if s/he is not full-time, or all office bearers? Will this mean even an administrative officer has to file such a return. Not clear at all.
2. The Act seems to cover even persons who may not be holding the above position/s at present but have held them in the past.
3. Government officers were supposed to submit these returns within 30 days of the Act becoming effective (i.e. 15 Feb 2014), but have not done so yet, as the last dates have been postponed several times.
It is indeed a sad day for the NGO sector in India, when in a UN Human Rights Council vote, India was one of only two countries who argued for larger state control of funds being channeled towards significant civil society initiatives.
I write this with the hope that you, readers, will in whichever way you determine, help our collective reach those who have penned and implemented this ill-conceived (in part) legislation.