Five years after it started to measure the economic contribution of India’s mushrooming non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the Planning Commission is yet to create a database.
Now, amid attempts by the government to tighten the source of their funding, citing “security risks”, especially from outside India, NGOs are pressing the commission to speed up its efforts. The commission is the coordinating agency between the government and NGOs.
No single database exists on the number of NGOs operating in India.The commission lists 16,000 on its website. The home ministry, which monitors overseas donations, says 30,000 NGOs currently receive foreign donations.
A 2003 sample study across five states by one advocacy group, Participatory Research in Asia (Pria), suggested that around 1.2 million such organizations were active, but more than half of them were not even registered with the government.
Even networks that represent NGOs and voluntary organizations are stymied by the lack of data.
The Voluntary Action Network India (VANI), a network of 2,400 NGOs, has little or no data on the government’s spending on social welfare programmes, typically the ones that end up relying on these grass-roots groups.
Spending in such programmes is estimated at thousands of crores of rupees and spread over 285 government departments.
“To make any serious policy to support a sector, you need to know its size and growth,” Rajesh Tandon, Pria’s president, said.
Several NGOs, including Pria, have been asking the commission to modernize information systems and implement changes in registration rules framed more than 80 years ago.
For its part, the commission has been in talks with the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, a think tank, to prepare a database.
Commission officials said they are keen to measure the NGO contribution to India’s gross domestic product, a standard measure for the goods and services within a nation’s borders.
“We have not done it mainly for logistical reasons. It’s a huge task to make the list,” Syeda S. Hameed, a member of the commission, said in an interview. “We made bids to complete the listing, but other events overtook what we planned.”
Meanwhile, despite the absence of basic data, the government has moved forward with efforts to regulate the activities of these groups more tightly.
A new bill in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament, seeks to amend the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, the 1976 law which governs most NGOs.
The legislation proposes tighter regulations for NGOs by asking them to cap their administrative expenses at 50% or less of their budgets, and to renew their licence every five years. All NGOs in India must register with the government to receive foreign funding. However, large numbers of them ignore the rule.
NGOs, generally voicing opposition to the proposal introduced in December 2006, say it is unfair because the government is relying increasingly on them to deliver much-needed public services, even as it tries to tighten control over these groups.
According to VANI, which is spearheading the campaign against the bill in the Rajya Sabha, the sector spent Rs15,000 crore last year.
Meanwhile, a coalition of NGOs held a press conference to step up the campaign against the bill.
“If other sectors don’t have any restrictions in foreign investment, why do we have a regime?” Pooran C. Pandey, chief executive of VANI, asked.
“The sector’s contribution is huge and it must not overlook this as it is climbing 10-15% every year,” he said.