NGO licence in limbo? Move court

If a non-profit loses its FCRA registration, the only recourse it has is the judiciary


Henri Tiphagne, founder, People’s Watch. His NGO has had its FCRA licence suspended three consecutive times and in the last few years has had to downsize all operations. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Henri Tiphagne, founder, People’s Watch. His NGO has had its FCRA licence suspended three consecutive times and in the last few years has had to downsize all operations. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

New Delhi: When a non-profit organization, receiving funds as per provisions of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010, (FCRA) gets a 31-point questionnaire asking for exhaustive details on its bank accounts, assets and investments, it is a sure-fire sign that trouble is brewing.

The information has to be compiled and sent to the ministry of home affairs (MHA) in 15 days. For a 10-year-old non-governmental organization, it could run into 1,000 pages. But that’s just the beginning of a long haul. Then comes a notice from MHA’s FCRA wing that a team from New Delhi will come for “physical inspection”.

In late 2011, two “Hindi-speaking clerks” showed up at Good Vision, a not-for-profit based in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, says Mano Thangaraj, founder of the NGO. Barely anyone spoke Hindi in that region.

Months later, in February 2012, Good Vision was accused of “misappropriating funds” and its licence under FCRA was suspended for 180 days by the MHA.

Subsequently, its bank accounts were frozen without notice.

Thangaraj was told by the MHA that Good Vision was “acting against public interest” and was dragged into a year-long ordeal, including a lack of funds, after which he gave up his efforts to renew the NGO’s FCRA registration.

When Thangaraj met the inspection team in late 2011, Tamil Nadu was witnessing protests against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant. A political activist, he too took part in the protests. “I was part of the Kudankulam agitations in my personal capacity. But my organization had nothing to do with it,” says Thangaraj over phone from Kanyakumari.

Good Vision, he says, was then working on issues related to women, children and sanitation and the foreign funds it had received were specifically for tsunami relief work—such as building houses—that had wrapped up back in 2009.

The cancellation list on the FCRA section of the MHA website shows that licences of 750 non-profits in Tamil Nadu seeking permission to accept foreign funds were cancelled in 2012 when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government was in power.

In August 2013, a list of NGOs that had been banned from receiving foreign funds was submitted to the Lok Sabha in response to a question. Good Vision was on that list. Just above it was another Kanyakumari-based non-profit, the Rural Uplift Centre (RUC).

The 31 questions landed at RUC’s doorstep in October 2011. Subsequently, its bank accounts were frozen for over a year, bringing its projects to a complete standstill. Staffers found work elsewhere and the organisation shrank overnight.

Both Good Vision and RUC, in response to the initial questionnaire from the MHA, had furnished piles of documents on income tax returns, vouchers and bank accounts. Representatives had even travelled nearly 2,800km to Delhi to seek out MHA officials and hand over specific documents that could not be submitted earlier due to extensive power outages in Kanyakumari.

After their FCRA registrations were cancelled, revision petitions were filed, queries submitted under the Right to Information Act and letters were written to secretaries and directors in the FCRA wing. Much of this went unanswered.

The two non-profits then moved the Madras high court. In late 2012, the Madurai bench of Madras high court set aside the ban on Good Vision and RUC receiving foreign contributions. The cases were heard together, says a lawyer who represented one of them but did not want to be named. The court provided relief on the grounds that the non-profits had not been given a proper hearing and had not been served with crucial documents that formed the basis of the ban. “We won the case on the grounds that the NGOs had not been given a proper opportunity of hearing,” says the lawyer over phone from Tamil Nadu.

“There was no offence committed under the provisions of the FCRA and there was no notice given before bank accounts were frozen,” he says.

The court, however, granted the MHA the opportunity to initiate fresh action against the two non-profits, provided the ministry gave them a reasonable opportunity of hearing and furnished the enquiry reports. But soon after, both NGOs lost their FCRA registration once again.

RUC later dropped off the government’s radar as abruptly as it was put on it, while Thangaraj decided to stick to domestic fund-raising.

Running almost in tandem with the struggles of the Kanyakumari-based outfits was the saga of a Madurai-based human rights NGO which saw a five-member MHA team come down for an inspection in mid-2012. The Centre for Promotion of Social Concerns (CPSC), which is popularly known by the name of its programme unit People’s Watch, had never in its three-decade-long run received a letter from MHA.

In July 2012, CPSC was informed that its FCRA registration had been suspended for 180 days and its bank accounts frozen. “Our advisors told us to petition the government, the ministry and officials, but unfortunately none of this resulted in anything concrete,” says CPSC’s founder and executive director Henri Tiphagne, speaking to Mint in Delhi.

The NGO received no further communication from the MHA for six months but on the 180th day was presented with a letter of observation with 21 remarks. “We were given a fortnight to substantiate each of these observations with documentation that was voluminous and we were told our suspension had been extended for another 180 days,” he says.

Among the ‘observations’ was Tiphagne’s visit to the Kudankulam plant site. “Of course, I visited Kudankulam—on 15 September 2011 to verify the news that 250 people were on a fast unto death. As a human rights person, I felt they should be persuaded to withdraw their fast if they were not prepared for it,” he says.

Reeling under back-to-back suspensions, the last one in October 2013, CPSC had to let go of 100 staffers and its programmes across the country came to a halt.

With foreign funds making up 90% of the NGO’s outlay, Tiphagne says he had no choice but to wrap up all projects. “Human rights education programmes that targeted five lakh schoolchildren in 24 states covering 4,500 schools had to be suspended. Most of these were run with state government orders,” he adds.

The NGO sought judicial recourse with a small team travelling to Delhi to file a case in the high court. Tiphagne says he believes his organization came under the scanner for its work with the UN human rights system.

“We waited till March 2014 before we went to court, by which time our organization had broken down. The court ruled in our favour and our bank accounts (were) unfrozen,” he says.

Freezing of bank accounts, Tiphangne says, seems to be the government’s way of bringing non-profits to their knees. CPSC has since looked for funds locally, having spent most of its funds on clearing the salary arrears of employees. “Many of us paid the price so others do not have to suffer. For several months after our suspension was revoked, suspensions across the country were halted until Greenpeace India’s suspension happened this year,” he says.

In January, Greenpeace India activist Priya Pillai was prevented from boarding a flight out of New Delhi to London. In April, the MHA froze Greenpeace India’s bank accounts and asked the environmental activist organization to explain within 30 days why its permission to receive overseas funds should not be revoked. The NGO got temporary relief from the Delhi high court in May and was allowed to use its funds.

Venkatesh Nayak, programme coordinator of Access to Information at New Delhi-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, says the FCRA itself is structured in such a way that the only recourse for NGOs is the judicial route. “There is no empirical evidence on how many NGOs had to wrap up operations owing to their inability to seek judicial recourse,” he says.

“Even getting routine information is proving to be hard and the aggrieved party has no provision for appeal. How do you clarify the position when you are only issued an order?” Nayak asks.

In addition, a March 2013 directive by the MHA prohibits NGOs from visiting the FCRA wing on Mondays and Wednesdays to ensure “smooth functioning in the FCRA” and instead encourages NGOs to use the online messaging facilities set up for their queries.

Mint’s request for a meeting with the joint secretary (foreigners) at the MHA’s foreigners division and an email to his office with questions on the procedures followed by the ministry and provisions for appeals went unanswered.

More From Livemint