Non-profits closing doors as India government cuts access to funds
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New Delhi: A non-profit running schools for children from India’s lowest caste may run out of money to pay teachers in just months. A health institute in Bangalore is taking the government to court so it can continue its work, including anti-tobacco campaigns. A lawyers’ group wanted to know why it lost its license to receive foreign donations, only to be told the government was not obliged to explain why.
The government has cancelled such licenses for more than 200 non-profits, accusing them of engaging in “anti-national” activities. But the non-profits see the removal of their funding mainstay, as well intimidation and harassment by government agencies, as attempts to suppress dissenting voices.
“All our work in the social sector has come to an abrupt halt,” said Martin Makwan, founder of Navsarjan, which has been fighting caste prejudice and inequality in the poorest parts of Gujarat state for nearly three decades.
Makwan opened the first of the three schools for Dalit children in 2005. The lowest caste in the hierarchy, Dalits face discrimination and violence from higher-caste children and teachers in regular schools.
In August, Navsarjan’s license under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act received its regular renewal. But four months later, the non-profit received a letter from India’s home ministry saying the license was being withdrawn for “activities detrimental to national interest.”
Eighty staff members, mostly social workers and legal assistants, were laid off immediately. Appeals for local donations are falling short. “We hope to keep the schools running till the end of March, but after that we won’t be able to pay teachers’ salaries,” Makwan said by phone from Ahmadabad, Gujarat’s main city.
In the southern city of Bangalore, a health non-profit has taken the federal home ministry to court after it received a one-line email saying its FCRA renewal had been denied.
The Institute of Public Health has worked closely with the federal and Karnataka state government on several health-related and anti-tobacco campaigns. It will have to halt its programs without donations from foreign groups like the World Health Organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Bloomberg Philanthropies.
The law regulating foreign donations passed in 2010, but activists say the pressure on non-profits increased under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who took office in 2014. An Intelligence Bureau report that year said economic growth was damaged when non-profits rallied communities against polluting industries or infrastructure projects that would damage the environment.
Activists see a connection between the crackdown and the work done by such non-governmental organizations. Many infrastructure and industrial projects pushed by Modi’s government are mired in problems over acquiring land from farmers, and many NGOs have stepped in to ensure the farmers are adequately compensated.
The Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF) has opposed government plans to build new nuclear power plants and promote genetically modified crops. When INSAF coordinator Anil Chaudhary challenged the license cancellation in court, he was told the government was not “obliged to reveal the reasons for its actions.”
The law does not explain on what basis a group’s activities could be deemed harmful to the nation’s interests. And it allows for no arbiter or appellate authority to hear challenges of the government’s licensing decisions.
The court allowed INSAF to use funds it already has, but it can’t receive fresh funds from abroad till the case is resolved. “We won a brief reprieve in court,” Chaudhary said, but the months lost gathering evidence and in court appearances could have been spent doing “more constructive work.”
The government denies there is any political motivation in the FCRA decisions. “All non-government organizations are supposed to follow FCRA rules. Any violation is being dealt with under the law. There’s nothing beyond that,” said K.S. Dhatwalia, a home ministry spokesman.
The US, Britain and Germany are the biggest donors to Indian non-government organizations. In 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available, Indian non-profits received more than $2 billion from foreign countries, including $650 million from the United States.
Most activists also see the crackdown as part of a global wave of conservative governments acting to decrease the scope for civil society.
Other activists say the freedom historically enjoyed by civil society groups in India has greatly contributed to the country’s image as a vibrant democracy and role model on the world stage.
non-profits also flag issues for the government to prioritise, said Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch. “The role of civil society is to be the bearer of bad news.”
But, if the state wants to be effective, she said, “these checks and balances create opportunities for governments to make corrections and ensure the welfare of people. Why take that away?”