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Weaponizing FCRA

Jacob Peenikaparambil Jacob Peenikaparambil
08 May 2023
Civil Society Organizations and NGOs, by their very nature of being non-profitable, depend on government grants and contributions from the general public.

The latest victim of weaponization of Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) is environmental lawyer Rtiwick Dutta and the NGO promoted by him, Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), as the Ministry of Home Affairs has initiated a CBI enquiry against it. The case against Dutta, according to an article published in The Wire, is that an overseas-based organization has funded LIFE’s legal activism to “take down India’s existing and proposed coal projects”. It appears that the CBI is not aware that it is civil society’s right to question the executive decisions in a democracy and to seek judicial intervention with the help of legal counsel.

The government doesn’t seem to be happy with Dutta’s legal support to the people affected by the projects that cause environmental damage and loss of livelihood to the affected people. He had supported the Dongria Kondh tribals who sought a ban on bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills in south-west Odisha. Displacing Dongria Kondh Adivasis, recognized as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), was a blatant violation of the provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) {PESA} and the Forest Rights Act (FRA). Dutta took the case of the Dongria Kondh tribals to the Supreme Court and the court stopped the Vedanta Group from carrying out bauxite mining on Niyamgiri hills, as the Adivasi Gram Sabhas consistently expressed their opposition to it.

The second case that could have displeased the government is his legal intervention on behalf of the fisher-folk against a private company that planned to set up a highly polluting thermal power plant in a unique wetland in Srikakulam district with the support of the state and the central government. Dutta helped the fisher-folk to put forward their case at different judicial forums, including the National Green Tribunal (NGT) which pronounced its judgement upholding the local communities’ case and protecting the wetland.

It was also reported in the media a few days ago that the Ministry of Home Affairs had recommended a CBI inquiry against Aman Biradari, an NGO, established by writer and human rights activist Harsh Mander, for alleged violation of FCRA. Aman Biradari Trust has been doing excellent work, according to reports, towards promoting fraternity and a secular attitude among people.

The other organizations harassed and haunted by the government on the allegations of FCRA violations in recent years are Centre for Promotion of Social Concerns (CPSC) Sabrang, Lawyers’ Collective, Green Peace, Amnesty International India and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).

Ever since the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014, the government has adopted a policy of punishing NGOs through various means. One of the means is to squeeze funds to them, and the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act has been liberally used for this purpose. The amendments to the FCRA in 2018 and 2020 made receiving and using foreign contributions an uphill task for the NGOs.

In December 2016, the government announced that it had cancelled the FCRA licence of close to 20,000 of the 33,000 NGOs operating in India after they were found to be flouting certain norms laid out in the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, 2010. On January 1, 2022, the government cancelled FCRA licenses of 6000 organizations which included Oxfam India, Azim Premji Foundation, Common Cause and Jamia Millia Islamia.

Along with the four pillars of democracy --  Legislature, Executive, Judiciary and the Media -- Civil Society Organizations are also deemed as an important pillar. Like the media, the Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) educate people about their rights and duties and the responsibilities of the government in safeguarding human and fundamental rights of each individual. 

Another term used to describe the organizations working in the development sector mainly through awareness generation, self-help and organizing them as people’s movements is called Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). There are many organizations involved mainly in charitable and welfare activities like running orphanages, old age homes, homes of the disabled, homes for the children of people infected with HIV, AIDS etc. They are generally known as welfare organizations. All three categories come under the nomenclature of Non-Profit Organizations (NPOs).

The governments, except the BJP, tolerate and often support the third category i.e., welfare and charitable organizations; but all governments are suspicious of the CSOs and NGOs because they critically assess the policies of the government from the perspective of people’s rights and needs. They create awareness among people about various issues related to human rights, mega developmental projects, the environment and the failure of the government in meeting the basic needs of people. When the policies and actions of the government go against the interests of the people and violate their rights, CSOs/NGOs motivate people to protest. These activities of CSOs or NGOs are often interpreted by the governments as political actions and they are targeted. 

According to the latest amendment to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, the NPO sector can undertake only welfare activities. As per the FCRA rules promulgated by the government in November 2020, the NGOs which may not be directly linked to a political party but engage in any action like bandhs, strike or road blockades will be considered of political nature and they may lose their FCRA registration.  

The BJP governments both at the centre and in the states are harassing and even cancelling registration of all types of Non-Profit Organizations managed by the Muslims and Christians because the Sangh Parivar organizations are propagating the view that the aim of all these NPOs is religious conversion. That is why the FCRA registration of the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s Congregation) was cancelled on December 27, 2021. Because of widespread backlash from within India and outside, their FCRA registration was later restored.  

There are various ways a government can harass and paralyze NGOs. An NGO needs certain legal requirements like renewal of registration under Societies or Trust Act, renewal of registration under 12 A of the Income Tax Act, registration and renewal under Foreign Contribution Registration Act (FCRA) if it has to receive foreign aid etc. The government can harass or kill the NGOs by denying the renewal of any one of the above-mentioned registrations or even cancelling them.

Civil Society Organizations and NGOs, by their very nature of being non-profitable, depend on government grants and contributions from the general public. They have a very limited source of their own income, as they are not expected to be involved in any business activities. Donations from funding agencies from abroad have been a significant source of income for many NGOs. It is a fact that some of them misuse funds and the government has put in place systems and processes from time to time to check misuse of funds and punish the deviant organizations. But what is being done today by the BJP government is to make the NGOs starve of funds and gradually kill them.

From the time of Indira Gandhi onwards, restrictions have been imposed on the Non-Profit Organizations and one of them has been trying to control the receipt and use of foreign contributions by the Non-Profit Organizations. The governments, in order to divert the attention of people from their failures in various areas of governance, have a tendency to make allegations of “foreign hand” i.e., involvement of foreign countries in the internal affairs of India through the NPOs working in India.

Since the BJP came to power at the centre under the leadership of Narendra Modi, CSOs and NGOs, especially those related to human rights and the environmental issues, began to be targeted. Why are they targeted by the government? First of all, as the CSOs/NGOs have a role in creating awareness among people about human rights, democracy and secularism, they are obstacles in the implementation of Hindutva ideology of the BJP and therefore, the government cannot tolerate their existence and activities.  

Secondly, the economic policies of the BJP government are in favour of the rich and the corporate sector, and these policies often come into conflict with the interests of the workers and farmers, tribals etc. who are often supported by the NGOs. The three controversial farm laws passed by the BJP without any consultation with the farmer-organizations were not in the interest of the farmers, but in the interest of the corporate sector. Large number of CSOs and NGOs supported the struggle by the farmers against the three laws.

Thirdly, the BJP government under the guise of development wants to give away the natural resources liberally to its favoured companies. Hence the government wants to paralyze or even eliminate the NGOs that work for the protection and promotion of the environment.

Fourthly, the BJP has an agenda of handing over the whole Non-Profit sector to RSS-affiliated organizations in view of implementing its agenda of Hindutva. Therefore, weakening and eliminating the NGO sector is a need and stringent FCRA rules are used to annihilate the NGO sector. The RSS has a huge umbrella organization called Rashtriya Seva Bharati (RSB) with more than 1000 organizations affiliated to it. These NGOs largely work in the fields of health, education, and livelihood. The RSB also provides them support and guidance in social activities and disaster and relief works.

It is a contradiction that on one hand the government is putting severe restrictions on the NGOs on receiving foreign funds, and on the other hand it invites foreign investment in arms and ammunition, bombs and guns, alcohol and tobacco, etc. When the FCRA was first introduced in 1976, it was primarily aimed at political parties and journalists, whereas the amendments to the FCRA in 2010 and 2020 shifted its focus squarely to NGOs. Now the political parties are allowed to receive foreign funds in the form of electoral bonds. The electoral bonds are purchased by both Indian and foreign companies that become subsidiaries of Indian companies.  

The NGOs/CSOs have to accept the weaponization of FCRA as a challenge and find out ways and means to raise funds from the public, especially the people with whom and for whom they are working. 

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