Bridging the govt-NGO divide
Since last week, Mint has brought to light the strained relationship between the government and non-governmental organizations (NGO), especially in connection with foreign funding.
The relationship between the two is fraught with confusion and distrust right from the time a non-profit applies for registration to the ministry of home affairs (MHA), under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010, (FCRA) to receive these funds.
The foreigners’ division of the MHA that monitors this activity has no agency working directly on the ground. It relies entirely on local agencies and the police for verification of the credentials of NGOs that have applied for permission to accept foreign contributions.
Local administrations, at times, go on the overdrive, and instances of arbitrary cancellation of FCRA registration of NGOs have been reported. At other times, conflicting reports submitted by agencies have led to delays in NGOs getting permission to access foreign funds.
These facts were highlighted in a 2014 unpublished report prepared by HelpAge India and the Institute of Rural Management, Anand, titled Situational Analysis of the Voluntary Sector in India: Challenges, Opportunities and Voices from the Field.
Anupama Datta, co-author of the study and director of policy, research and development at HelpAge India, said there should be clarity in the procedures and rules followed by the government while monitoring the non-profit sector. “There is confusion even at the point of registration to get an FCRA licence. The lack of political will is reflected in the fact that there is no clarity in procedures, which allows the authorities to exercise their discretion.”
Like Datta, Venkatesh Nayak, programme coordinator at New Delhi-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, cited problems with FCRA rules, saying there was no parliamentary scrutiny of these till date.
“The Committee on Subordination Legislation in both houses of Parliament have not examined any of the FCRA rules notified by the central government (in 2011). Consequently, several anomalies created by the FCRA rules have escaped parliamentary scrutiny,” Nayak said.
He gave the example of “shifting office from Chennai to Bengaluru without prior approval”, which was cited as a reason for the revoking of Greenpeace India’s FCRA licence this year.
The regulatory steps taken by the government against NGOs in recent times have, in turn, provoked activists to question the government’s commitment to ensure “transparent, effective and accountable governance”.
Anjali Bhardwaj, co-convenor of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, said the emerging picture in the country was of “institutions of oversight going into benign neglect”.
She referred to the delay in appointment of the chief information commissioner, the competent authority under the Right to Information Act (RTI) to handle appeals against key ministries.
“The government seems to be saying that we are against corruption and will deliver on services, but we are above questioning. It does not appear serious about providing a transparent framework,” said Bhardwaj, adding, “We have no problems if NGOs are hauled up, but we do find institutions of oversight getting weakened.”
One way of ensuring transparency is to bring NGOs under the ambit of RTI, said former Union power secretary E.A.S. Sarma.
“The feeling among people is that NGOs splurge money, function in a five-star environment and are not accountable. A way to be transparent is to have an accountability concept so that they are answerable to people they serve,” he said.
There is a need for dialogue between the two sides, Datta said, adding that there is no forum in place at the moment for any interaction between the government and NGOs. “There should be a national forum or even state or district-level forums, where NGOs can air their grievances and a lot of issues can be clarified,” she said.
Bain Capital Advisors managing director Amit Chandra believes the government and NGOs can do more to reach out to each other. “I think NGOs often take an overly adversarial stance in criticizing the government and not offering constructive and evidence-based scalable solutions to social problems. There are a lot of examples of active collaboration leading to good outcomes,” he said.
Sarma, firmly opposed to foreign funding for the not-for-profit sector, acknowledges that while state funding is a good alternative, in the absence of ring fencing, it could expose NGOs to the state’s influence and control.
The IRMA-HelpAge India study states that the “government acts as if voluntary organizations are competitors, while being suspicious of them and invariably tries to control and, at times, curb them”. Further, “the government does not recognize and acknowledge the advantage the voluntary organizations have vis-a-vis ground realities...”
The absence of a body to represent the NGO sector in government meetings led Voluntary Action Network India (VANI), the apex body of voluntary organizations in India, to appeal to the then United Progressive Alliance government in 2007 for forming a ministry of voluntary affairs. But no steps have been taken to take this forward.
“There is an absence of a regulatory framework for the NGO sector. For instance, the ministry of corporate affairs has a list of companies on its website with details of financial records. There is no such transparent system for NGOs,” said VANI CEO Harsh Jaitli.
Both Datta and Sarma are of the view that the solution to the problem of miscommunication between the government and non-profits lies in setting up an independent body that will act as a facilitator.
“One could consider an independent body of eminent persons with a known track record to administer state funding to NGOs on the basis of a well-defined ‘rating’ system so as to make sure that funds go to genuine NGOs for authentic, socially relevant purposes,” said Sarma.
He also added that the effectiveness of any arrangement will depend on the sincerity and the willingness of the government to create an environment conducive to the smooth functioning of NGOs. “Any responsible government will realize that such an environment is necessary for our democratic processes to get strengthened.”