By Karthik Shankar:
These days, Ingrid Srinath has more to worry about than just coming up with CSR initiatives. The CEO of Hivos India Advisory Services is as flabbergasted as anyone else about the government taking the warpath against NGOs.
What is going on? The government cancelled the licenses of over 9000 NGOs. This happened just days after the addition of the Ford Foundation on a ‘prior permission list’ (which for all intents and purposes freezes its funding) for supposedly aiding ‘communal activities’. This is just another in a long line of asinine decisions by the Modi government. The criteria for getting on the list is simple; anyone who takes on big business, or the government. Let me state unequivocally that there is a conversation to be had with regards to foreign NGOs being involved in revolutionary movements, given that the street demonstrations in Ukraine and Occupy Hong Kong were funded by foreign money. However, this is not the way to carry forward this discourse. Rule of law must still prevail and the Modi government has clearly shown that this is a power consolidation move.
In my conversation with Ingrid, she pointed out that there was no official intimation about anything being amiss despite the NGOs being in touch with the government. “All this information has been leaked through the media through an unnamed home ministry bureaucrat. An actual law can be challenged in court. Such a covert move allows the government plausible deniability.”
It’s an utterly hypocritical stance by the government. Let’s not forget the fact that the Delhi High Court just last year issued an order that BJP and Congress were prohibited from receiving foreign funding, which they were, to the tune of crores during the elections (BJP’s official spending was Rs 714 crores but as with all political parties, a bulk of the spending must have been in black, mostly from foreign sources). The HC used the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 1976. Now ironically, just over a year later, the very same act has been invoked by the BJP to monitor and freeze all funds to the Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation is deeply involved with liberal causes including propagating justice, democratic values and environmentalism. So, it clearly stands in the way of our government’s conservative agenda.
It is also clear why the government has a personal vendetta against Sabrang Trust. The organisation has been one of the most vociferous campaigners against communal politics, has published articles detailing the atrocities in the Gujarat riots and also published a detailed report which identified foreign organisations that were funding Hindutva groups in India.
It is important to note that Sabrang Trust is no paragon of virtue. Teesta Setalvad has been implicated in financial irregularities in the past. If this was simply part of a government ploy to exorcise funds from NGOs that went into the hands of wrong people, it is more than welcome. But that’s not the case. The government’s problem is with the Ford Foundation and its very nature itself. This selective culling of organisations that enjoy foreign patrons is ideologically motivated and that is something all of us should be wary about. Ingrid points out that mega corporations like Vedanta are permitted to bring in funds from abroad. “Dont’t people who are opposed to them have access to funds as well? It’s an uneven playing field.”
The move also propagates our society’s misguided belief that NGOs stand in the way of development. What NGOs do is fill gaps and serve people that governments cannot reach. They are also another extremely important layer of accountability in a democracy. It was an NGO that called out Nike’s slave labour like practices in Indonesia in the early 90s. Occupy Wall Street itself was triggered by a campaign from an NGO called Adbusters, but the U.S government didn’t ban it. Ingrid says that there’s a demonization of NGOs taking place. “At no point have any of the allegations been substantiated.”
This government’s stance is one of its most insidious attacks on democratic values and that’s saying something. But the Modi government seems to have a clear idea of what it is doing. The recent Land Bill ordinance, the suspension of an environmental NGO like Greenpeace, is all part of our increasing submission to corporate interests. If the government is so intent on preserving our country’s sovereignty, why didn’t that come up when we made all the concessions regarding the civilian nuclear deal with the U.S? Modi seems to have taken a literal leaf out of China’s book and applied it to the world’s largest democracy. Ingrid rightfully questions this uneven application of laws. “The media keeps saying that NGOs should be more accountable. More accountable than who? We already report to more government bodies than businesses.”
There’s no denying that philanthropy in the country will take a hit. Ingrid is troubled about the effect on altruistic endeavours. “Local charities still haven’t evolved to the extent required. It’s still approached as a technocratic function. Taking slum kids to cricket matches is considered philanthropy in India.”
The disenfranchised will have far fewer representatives to stand up for their rights now. It’s the stifling of discourse that’s most troubling for all involved. “A million emails were sent to TRAI for net neutrality. Yet, only child rights activists were speaking against the changes in the Juvenile Justice Act. Who speaks up for the people who don’t have voices now?” laments Ingrid.