Govt agrees to meet NGOs for their access to foreign funds
New Delhi: A government circular saying that a top bureaucrat will meet representatives of agencies over their permission to receive foreign funds has raised hopes for non-profits, some of which have faced crackdown, even as the wording of the circular has left many in doubt.
A circular dated 18 June on the website of the home ministry’s FCRA division, which deals with the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), said the official will meet their representatives for a total of three hours every month by appointment.
“In order to redress grievances of the associations who have submitted their applications for the grant of registration/prior permission, etc., it has been decided that a monthly meeting will be held by director (FCRA) with genuine representatives of these associations...”, the circular said.
In June alone, the ministry cancelled the FCRA registrations of over 6,800 organizations in two separate instances, including the Banaras Hindu University, the Annamalai University and a Unesco learning centre.
The ministry has justified the crackdown based on a June 2014 Intelligence Bureau (IB) report that said that NGOs, such as Greenpeace India, were working against the national interest.
Organizations which have lost their FCRA licence—mandatory to receive foreign funds—have often complained that they were not given a hearing, and that they wanted to discuss licences with the ministry.
To be sure, the circular does not specifically say if appeals against suspension of registration will be entertained.
According to the circular, the aggrieved organizations must email the home ministry seeking an appointment with the name of the organization, and the person attending the meeting, address, application number and issues for discussion.
The FCRA director will meet representatives on the fifth of every month from 10am to 1pm.
If the fifth is a holiday, the meeting will be held on the next working day.
Willy D’Costa, member and former general secretary, Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), a human rights advocacy group, is unsure how the latest measure will play out. The government had in 2013 cancelled INSAF’s FCRA registration.
“As required by law, we had been filling returns and submitting responses to queries with the ministry, before our licence was suspended in 2013. It was through the bank we got to know and then, we made several attempts to contact the ministry to get a hearing and to show them that all our paperwork was in order. However, it never happened,” said D’Costa.
The organization then moved the Delhi high court, which restored its registration saying the ministry had not followed the due procedure of informing the organization nor had it given it a due hearing mandated in the course of “natural justice”.
INSAF continues to receive foreign funding. D’Costa says he is glad “at least a platform is being made available for interaction”.
According to Biraj Patnaik, principal advisor to the commissioners of the Supreme Court on Right to Food Campaign, “This structured time being provided is a very good thing, because earlier it was very difficult for us to approach anyone at the ministry... There are many organizations which can benefit from this.” Patnaik was unaware of the circular till two days ago.
Amit Behrar, executive director of National Foundation of India, which supports grassroots organizations working on development issues, is upbeat.
“Right from the start, all non-profit agencies cutting across sectors have been demanding a platform for putting forward their case. And this monthly meeting does just that,” he said.
Henri Tiphagne, the executive director of People’s Watch that works for human rights of the underprivileged, said: “I only learnt of this development a week after the circular was put out because I happened to be browsing through the ministry of home affairs’ FCRA website.”
Tiphagne, who unsuccessfully tried to meet the ministry’s officials when his organization’s registration was suspended from July 2012 to March 2014, said: “It is a great opportunity. Previously, we’ve written, called and even approached the ministry at least half a dozen times with no response—no denial or acceptance of our applications seeking appointments.”
Tiphagne, at present, sees no need for People’s Watch to meet with the ministry, but is hoping that if the need arises, he would be able to gain the appointment unlike the “wall of silence” he has faced in the past.
Not everyone is as optimistic.
Voluntary Action Network of India (Vani), an umbrella organization which promotes voluntarism, is one of them.
“We are trying to organize a meeting with FCRA’s director, to gain greater clarity on what this meeting slot will entail—will appeals against cancellations also be heard, or is it to be limited to the ‘associations who have submitted their applications for the grant of registration/prior permission’—as the circular states,” said Vani’s communications manager Arjun Phillips. He said that Vani hopes these meetings will be the first step towards the longstanding demand of the NGOs to have engagement with the authorities.
FCRA director Deba Prasad Tripathy could not be contacted on his office phone. An email sent to him also remained unanswered. His personal assistant, however, informed that applications are pouring in, and the names and time slots for the associations will be announced in a few days.