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For Sehrish Saba, this year’s Ramzan has meant a lot more than prayer and the dawn-to-dusk fasting that are an essential feature of the Islamic holy month that comes to an end this week.

In between observing the tenets of her faith and mourning the loss of a cousin to covid-19 earlier this month, the 28-year-old social activist has been spending most of her time on her mobile phone and laptop, responding to calls and messages from people in distress.

“Due to limited resources, we are primarily processing leads (for medicines, oxygen cylinders and beds) in real-time," said Saba, who works with a network of volunteer groups and non-government organisations (NGOs), such as Purani Dilli Walo Ki Baatein, Let India Breathe, Hamari Saba Trust, and Yellow Street, which are active in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bengaluru and Mumbai.

In the relentless ongoing fight against covid-19, social activists like Saba are battling more than the deadly second wave of the pandemic. They have had to contend with shady characters seeking to profit from people’s distress and also an establishment that is all too suspicious of the motives of even the NGOs that genuinely work for the public good. “While there are people who are selling medicines and providing ambulances at shamelessly inflated rates, police on 3 May confiscated all the 25 cylinders from our team of volunteers in Delhi," Saba said. “We had raised money through contributions via friends and were providing oxygen free of cost."

Volunteers in other parts of the country have flagged similar issues. In Jammu and Kashmir, for example, lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha on 6 May issued an order directing all oxygen manufacturing units in the union territory to stop the supply to “any private society and NGOs" with immediate effect.

There is also a larger systemic handicap. Key changes to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) in recent months have ensured very few NGOs can directly accept cash donations from abroad at a time when even the central government has been forced to look outside the country for critical supplies. Out of the over 22,400 NGOs in the country with an active FCRA license, only about 3,600 (or 16%) have managed to comply with onerous new regulations and can now continue to receive funds post 1 April 2021, according to an analysis by DevlopAid Foundation.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a meeting held on 30 April with the Centre’s high-level Empowered Groups that have been set up to tackle covid-19, asked officials to explore “how volunteers from civil society can be utilised to lessen the pressure on the healthcare sector, by involving them in non-specialised tasks".

“The words should be backed by real action," said Amitabh Behar, chief executive officer of Oxfam India, adding that, in the past year, the government has actually made life more difficult for NGOs.

“The NGOs are struggling to work with the new regulatory framework and budgetary provisions. At this moment, a lot of entities are in the middle of a crisis. They are not being able to open their FCRA account with the State Bank of India. So, they can’t even receive money from whatever sources they could have (previously) gotten money for covid relief."

Shunning social media

On 25 April, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath met senior civil servants and police officers and instructed them to take strict action under the Gangsters Act and the National Security Act against “misleading" social media posts that spread “panic and fear".

Although the Supreme Court on 30 April warned state administrations and the police that contempt proceedings would be initiated in case of a clamp down on citizens seeking medical help via social media, many civil society volunteers like Saba have already started to shun the use of online platforms.

“It’s not safe for me to work on social media. Both victims and volunteers are getting persecuted in my home state," said Saba, who belongs to Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh. Saba, a postgraduate in social work, who has previously worked in a Delhi NGO but quit the organisation and took up a government job after the Narendra Modi government squeezed the funding avenues and tightened the compliance requirements for non-profits last year.

NGOs have been demoralised, demonised and weakened, said Behar of Oxfam. While this is of course a problem for those who work in the NGO sector, there is a larger social cost too. In an average pre-pandemic year, Indian NGOs used to receive about 16,800 crore in foreign donations, accounting for roughly a fourth of the overall philanthropic spending in India. A sizeable chunk of this money has now been taken out of the system, particularly at a time when it is perhaps most needed.

Apart from the funding squeeze, the other big area of concern is new regulations on what can be done with the money once the donations actually come in. “The (legal) changes prevent larger NGOs from giving their foreign contribution money to smaller ones, which are actually the ones that work on the ground. This has hit several sectors, including health," said Aakar Patel, a former executive director of Amnesty International India.

Biraj Patnaik, executive director of the National Foundation for India (NFI), said, “Just before the amendment to the FCRA laws was made, NFI was re-granting funds to about 50 organisations, amounting to 15 crore, which is not possible anymore."

“This is debilitating the covid response, as we have had to turn away most of the support offered by donor organisations abroad since we will not be able to redirect the funds to where it is needed the most. The amendments are hugely impacting the ability of civil society to reach out to the poorest and most vulnerable sections of our society."

Staffing and space crunch

In Chhattisgarh, the Chaupal Gramin Vikas Prashikshan Evam Shodh Sansthan, which works with tribal communities, has been hit hard by the resource crunch. “I had to reduce the staff strength from 200 to 70 and relocate to a smaller office space last year. Our organisation had applied for an FCRA compliant (bank) account online in the last week of March and since then our application is still pending," said the president of the organisation, Gangaram Paikra.

As part of its covid-19 response, the group is assisting the state government with the help of another NGO called Sangwari People’s Association for Equity and Health, which is run by doctors who are mainly recent medical school graduates.

“A lot of myths related to corona and the vaccine are making the rounds on WhatsApp. Our team of volunteers has been busting such myths and running awareness campaigns. But due to financial constraints, we have confined our work to 25 panchayats only," Paikra said.

Sangwari is running a clinic out of Biniya village in Surguja district for non-covid-19 patients, said Dhiraj Deshmukh, one of the founding members of the group.

“In the wake of the pandemic, there is an acute shortage of medical and paramedical staff in tribal areas," Deshmukh added. “We have been asked to run one of the two ICU units at the Government Medical College, Ambikapur, in Surguja from 15 May onwards. Doctors For You, another NGO, has encouraged us to engage medical practitioners. To begin with, it has agreed to pay the salaries of 12 graduate and three postgraduate doctors along with 24 nurses for three months. We are looking for additional funds to cater to the needs of first referral units. The medical college is overburdened at present."

The organisation is finding it tough to arrange personnel, funds and equipment for rural healthcare. “Our organisation is 10 years old, but we got it registered just last year. We will become eligible for FCRA funds after three years. Earlier, we were dependent on sub-grants from funding agencies like Oxfam," said Deshmukh.

NGOs have to confront other problems as well. Under the new laws, donations by a non-resident Indian who’s an Indian passport holder are deemed to be non-FCRA funds, said Sachin Jain, who works with 15-year-old Vikas Samvad Samiti in Bhopal. “But when the money is paid through an online gateway, the banking system treats it as FCRA fund just because it is coming from abroad," Jain said. “The bank officials ask for the passport and Aadhaar of the donor. Why would a donor share his personal details with us? There is a lot of confusion over official policies and attitude towards foreign funding. We are losing confidence and ultimately have stopped seeking funds online."

Jain’s organisation would previously receive sub-grants from the NFI and Child Rights and You. “We are not seeing collaborative efforts against the pandemic on the ground despite efforts by the state government and NITI Aayog," Jain said.

Many organisations that would previously receive sub-grants have now been paralysed, said Ingrid Srinath, director of the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy at Ashoka University.

“These organisations work at the local community level and have a better understanding of the local needs of the area. But they cannot respond to the current crisis in their local communities for want of funds," said Srinath.

According to the last available data, at least 4,107 organisations in India received a collective 1,768 crore in the form of subgrants in 2018-19, she added.

“At present, when the country is reeling under a crisis, there are thousands of international donors who are dying to send money and medical equipment to India, but they are stuck," Srinath said. “Many NGOs are not able to receive that money. Every organisation is now required to open a bank account with the SBI main branch for receiving the funds under FCRA. That process is so long and so complicated. Even if an NGO becomes successful, it has to be verified by the Union home ministry—that again takes a lot of time."

The only vehicle that can receive foreign funds without complying with the new clause on sub-grants is the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM Cares) fund, Ashoka University’s Srinath said.

“But by the time the PM Cares fund decides where the money should go, who is in the best position to respond, the crisis will be over. We are facing bottlenecks and delays at every level of the system," she added.

Both hands tied

This government stopped the work of even those organisations that did not necessarily raise their voice against the establishment," said Nikhil Dey, a founder-member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, which has been playing a key role in building a network of NGOs in order to assist Rajasthan in its fight against covid.

“The government has shot itself in the foot after weakening the NGOs. The Centre had one year to prepare. I will blame the state governments also. Barring the exception of Kerala, there was no contingency planning for the second wave."

Ingrid Srinath contrasted the present government’s attitude toward NGOs with that of its predecessors in times of other calamities—like the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, during which local donors received 100% tax exemption and FCRA clearance was automatically granted to overseas contributors of relief funds.

“This time, neither are we getting a waiver on FCRA conditions, nor are we getting domestic tax exemptions," Srinath said. “If we can’t receive foreign money, then the least that the government can do is to encourage Indians to give more money to the Indian NGOs. For covid-19 relief work specifically, the government can offer 100% tax exempt status."

Given all these limitations and operational difficulties, Srinath wondered if the government was actually serious about wanting NGOs as a partner in the fightback against covid over the next few crucial months. “How can this expectation (be placed on NGOs) when the government has tied both their hands behind their back," she asked.

Oxfam’s Behar wants the government to suspend the implementation of the restrictive changes in the FCRA and tax laws for at least two years. “This is a moment of crisis," he said. “Nobody can respond on their own to the magnitude of this crisis. Every possible source of help is needed; every individual, every organisation, every government agency is needed. We are losing lives every day, every minute."

Ashutosh Sharma is a freelance journalist based in Jammu and New Delhi.

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