If the 1950s were a decade of hope and nation-building in popular narratives of our country, the 1960s stood for disillusionment, and the 1970s for anger against the established political set-up.

Among the institutions that played a defining role in channelizing this anger against the powers that be were non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It is no surprise, then, that the infamous Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act—which lays down the rules for NGOs, among others, receiving foreign funding—has its roots in the then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s Emergency (1975-77).

In the early 1980s, just as the voluntary development sector was gaining respectability, organizations involved in the anti-Emergency mobilization of Jayaprakash Narayan felt the heat in the aftermath of the Kudal Commission, headed by retired Rajasthan high court judge Purshottam Das Kudal, submitting its report.

Later, in 1996-98, the then home minister Indrajit Gupta of the Communist Party of India (CPI) championed the demand for stronger governmental control and regulation of non-profits as far as foreign funding was concerned.

Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat of the CPI(Marxist) have consistently voiced their concern over the activities and funding of non-profits. “As early as the 1980s, the party had analysed the diabolical agenda of many of these NGOs/voluntary organizations funded by foreign governments and agencies," wrote Yechury in the party organ, People’s Democracy, in 2005.

More recently, Karat wrote about the “non-political and even anti-political origins of the Aam Aadmi Party with its middle class/NGO antecedents". In fact, even the otherwise reticent former prime minister Manmohan Singh was famously enraged by Greenpeace India’s involvement in the protests against the nuclear power project at Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu, in 2012.

Even as the showdown between the not-for-profit sector and the current government hots up, it would do well to remember two things: it might be difficult for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to emulate Gandhi or Gupta.

Lest we forget, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a product of what is often called the world’s largest NGO: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The latter has a far greater control and influence over the BJP than the National Advisory Council could ever have had over the United Progressive Alliance government.

Second, India desperately needs the dissenting voice that non-profits provide.

Agriculture is actually a striking example of why this is a necessary role. For all the work that it did in the past, the Indian Council of Agriculture Research is stuck in the Green Revolution mindset.

The choices farmers (and the government) face now in agriculture are all difficult, because the low-hanging fruits are all gone. The cost of cultivation has been spiralling, even as yields have plateaued or declined.

It took a small non-profit in Hyderabad, the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), to prove to an entire village how plant protection does not necessarily depend on expensive pesticides sold in the market. In 2003-04, Punukula (in Khamman district’s Palvoncha mandal) village did not use commercial pesticides for plant protection, with help from CSA.

The state’s agriculture department consistently refused to acknowledge this effort. However, later, the same state government’s department of rural development upscaled this NGO’s proof-of-concept to about 3.5 million acres over a decade in unified Andhra Pradesh—with help from several non-profits.

This is a case of one arm of the administration pooh-poohing an NGO, while another embraces it, and scales the effort to a level only a government department can attain. This is the elastic strength of a democracy. If one arm does not respond to a problem, another can.

There are several NGOs that have dissented against the government when they saw the need to oppose, and supported and worked along with the administration when it was a matter of public interest.

The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has long played this dual role. From advising the environment minister on international environmental negotiations during the Rio Summit of 1992, CSE has worked closely with several arms of the government and the judiciary, as a think tank. The same organization has led perhaps the longest (and the most vocal) campaigns against the lack of government effort to curb vehicular air pollution, or the absence of sensible policies on water management.

Gene Campaign of Delhi has been a strident critic of government policy on several issues that have to do with farmers, especially on intellectual property rights and agricultural biodiversity. The non-profit, however, was closely involved in the drafting of the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001, providing vital technical support to the government.

Non-profits come from the same society that produces political and corporate leaders. Some do good work, others not so much. Of course, they need to function within regulations that promote accountability and transparency. But that need is much smaller than the need to regulate the nebulous finances of political parties.

The issue of foreign funding for non-profits is an old one, and there is a complex critique of it within the NGO world. If the government has concerns, it will do well to engage with representatives of this section of society in a candid way.

A healthy democracy relies on a contest of opposing voices. No one ideology or institution can provide all the answers for a country as complex and diverse as India. To counter the opposing voice of NGOs with intolerance and authoritarianism shows a lack of political maturity.

Sopan Joshi is a freelance journalist based in Delhi. He is a research fellow at the Gandhi Peace Foundation.

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