Published on Economic and Political Weekly (http://www.epw.in)
Is the Narendra Modi government cherry-picking which non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to target and destroy or at least paralyse? Or is it raising legitimate questions about the accountability of foreign-funded NGOs? If it is the latter, then the way it is going about it is decidedly odd. Few will question the need to set up structures of accountability and transparency in organisations handling large funds, including those that come from outside India. But the government appears less concerned about transparency and more about the issues these organisations have chosen to raise. It has focused on two categories of NGOs: those raising uncomfortable questions about the environmental fallout of some of India’s energy choices, particularly nuclear and coal, and groups highlighting human rights concerns, especially around the Gujarat 2002 violence. If these NGOs happen to be partly funded from foreign sources, then inevitably the government spots a conspiracy threatening “national security.”
Within a month of the Modi government taking office, an Intelligence Bureau (IB) report was leaked to the press. It identified 188 NGOs receiving foreign funds that were involved in agitations against nuclear plants and uranium mines, coal-based thermal plants, genetically modified crops, industrial projects such as POSCO and Vedanta in Odisha, the dams in Arunachal Pradesh and extractive industries. Oddly, the list included the Nobel Prize winning Médecins Sans Frontiéres (MSF), accusing it of “links with Maoists and their sympathisers.” More predictable was Amnesty International, singled out for questioning India’s human rights record. But most of the report’s ire was reserved for Greenpeace India, an affiliate of Greenpeace International. Greenpeace has spearheaded the opposition to the $3.2 billion Mahan Coal Limited, a joint enterprise of Essar Energy and Hindalco, in Singrauli District, Madhya Pradesh. The project will destroy 1,000 sq km of sal forests and displace a large number of families. In January, Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai was offloaded from a flight to London where she was to testify before British parliamentarians on the Mahan project (Essar Energy is incorporated in the United Kingdom). Although Greenpeace has won a reprieve through the courts, the government has cancelled its Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) clearance that permits it to receive foreign funds.
Apart from Greenpeace, the other organisation being specifically targeted is the Sabrang Trust headed by Teesta Setalvad, who is known for her unrelenting pursuit of the court cases of victims of the 2002 Gujarat violence. She has been charged with misusing funds; a warrant of arrest has been issued against her and her husband, Javed Anand. Although the Supreme Court has granted them anticipatory bail, they continue to face daily harassment. The latest is the Gujarat government’s report by the state Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to the centre asking for funding from the well-known international funder Ford Foundation to be stopped to groups like Sabrang. The report accuses Ford Foundation of funding the litigation in the 2002 riot case and states that these funds have been used for “highly questionable activities…all bordering on, if not outright, political.” The strategy appears to be to squeeze sources of funds to groups like Sabrang while also embroiling them in court cases of various kinds.
If the government was only concerned about the accountability of organisations that receive foreign funds, it could have adopted a different route. This issue has been raised earlier and in fact, in 2007 the previous government had prepared a National Policy on the Voluntary Sector. It envisaged a system of accreditation for all NGOs through a National Accreditation Council of India (NACI), comprising representatives of government and NGOs. The concept went through various levels of consultation but the NACI was never constituted. The Modi government has not yet made any mention of setting up something similar.
The more important question is whether this government accepts that there is a legitimate space for NGOs in a democratic society, irrespective of how they are funded. It is here that we can legitimately question the government’s agenda. While the previous government also displayed some amount of paranoia about NGOs working on tribal rights and environment, and saw them as obstructionist, they were not targeted in this way. In the last decade, through institutions like the National Advisory Council and the Planning Commission, several civil society groups had avenues through which to offer their perspectives to policymakers. Today, all such mechanisms have been set aside. Thus, barring agitation, resistance and other forms of advocacy, there is no other way for people with a different perspective to be heard. The space for dissent and questioning, particularly in an atmosphere when all this is deemed “anti-national” and suspect, is rapidly shrinking.
So while NGOs are not faultless and could do with greater accountability and transparency, there can be no justification for the kind of hounding that we are witnessing today. Whether these organisations survive this battering or not, the message that is being sent out to civil society is clear: this government will not tolerate NGOs that come in its way and will use multiple strategies, including shutting off sources of funding, to squash them. None of this bodes well for the health of a democracy.