02/06/2015 8:24 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Why Modi's NGO Clampdown Is Bad For India

MANJUNATH KIRAN via Getty Images
Activists of GreenPeace rappell down their office building where they are head quartered to unfurl banners 'democracy' and 'freespeech' in Bangalore on May 15, 2015. Greenpeace India, which is on the verge of closing down after the Indian government blocked its domestic accounts, is planning to appeal to the judiciary for relief. The NGO recently told its employees that the threat of an imminent shutdown is looming large as it has been left with cash reserves for salaries and office costs for just about a month. AFP PHOTO/ Manjunath KIRAN (Photo credit should read Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images)

The first year of Modi Sarkar has been disastrous for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the country. Including Greenpeace, about 9000 have had their licences cancelled or suspended for violation of FCRA, the Act that regulates receipt of foreign contributions to ensure these are not utilised against national interests by Indian entities or individuals.

The NGOs, meanwhile, are protestingthat the action taken by the government has been highly selective and intended to promote development in a particular way. They allege that NGOs close to the ruling party (which also receive foreign contributions) have been left untouched. They claim that the government's actions are tantamount to coercion , leaving many of them on the verge of closing due to lack of funding.

"NGOs have been crucial in the success of government programmes in areas such as polio eradication, HIV mitigation, and democratic decentralisation."

Within weeks of the BJP government assuming power in Delhi, a leaked report of the Intelligence Bureau gave an insight into how the government looked at the work of some of the NGOs. This report elaborated on the functioning of foreign-funded NGOs active in the area of people-centric issues like anti-nuclear activism, anti-coal activism, anti-genetically modified organism activism and anti-mega project initiatives like POSCO and Vedanta. The report claims that the "negative" work of such NGOs resulted in a 2-3% decline in the GDP growth of the nation. Close on the heels of the report, the government initiated action against some NGOs, tightened regulations and increased monitoring of non-profits accepting foreign assistance.

NGOs broadly include associations of people, citizens' initiatives, civil society organisations, charities and trusts created for activities of a varied nature without a motive for profit. India perhaps has the largest number of NGOs in the world, one for every 400 people. These NGOs take up welfare activities such as rural development, health, education and also activism in areas such as human rights, nuclear projects, environment, climate change, women's rights and so on.

NGOs invariably depend on external funding for their existence. Contributions from central and state governments, corporates, individuals and foreign funding form the financial resources for these entities. While many NGOs work with dedication, issues persist with respect to transparency related to their funding.

The Constitution of India has allowed citizens to form associations. They also have the freedom to follow any trade, profession or occupation. And, above all, people have been guaranteed the right to free speech and expression. In other words, NGOs have the same rights that individuals do in the country to propagate their views.

While there could be some NGOs that act as extensions of states inimical to India or take up causes of an extremist nature, most of them are merely pursuing work in areas of public service, activism, education or health. On quashing the government's travel ban on Greenpeace India activist Priya Pillai, the Delhi High Court recently noted that individuals were free to have views contrary to government policies: "The state may not accept the views of the civil rights activists, but that by itself, cannot be a good enough reason to do away with dissent."

"[T]he message to NGOs seems clear: Keep out of people-centric issues, keep away from impediments to corporate growth."

Great movements and mobilisations in the interests of farmers, fisher folk, the environment, human rights, right to information, right to employment and education have all been led by civil society. Apart from this NGOs have been crucial in the success of government programmes in areas such as polio eradication, HIV mitigation, and democratic decentralisation. Recognising the crucial role of NGOs both in setting the nation's agenda and supporting development, the government itself has been a major source of funds. In addition, support and funding for NGOs have been forthcoming from a wide cross section that includes ordinary people in the country.

From the IB report and subsequent actions of the government, the message to NGOs seems clear: Keep out of people-centric issues, keep away from impediments to corporate growth. The question here is -- does the government have the monopoly to determine what is best for the nation and the people? The government view seems to be that nuclear power is the future of the country, that GMO foods are the best thing that could happen for farmers, that big coal-based industries are vital for the nation. No doubt the government is entitled to have their policies and programmes. However, in a true democracy people are free to have their own views, lobby and raise their voices for or against such policies. This is where NGOs play a key role. Instead of thinking of this as a threat, the government ought to be encouraging it.

No one says that regulations should be done away with. Laws formulated to control misconduct by NGOs should be strictly enforced. However, the control should not be tyrannical or intended to gag voices. Alternate and opposing voices are needed for the progress of the nation. Tolerance and respect for diverse views, and protection and magnanimity from the government towards NGOs is what is needed in a liberal democracy like ours.

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