Civil Society Under Attack: FCRA hanging like a Damocles Sword

Jaswant Kaur Jaswant Kaur
10 Jan 2022
FCRA hanging like a Damocles Sword by Jaswant Kaur, Indian Currents

Last week when the entire world was waiting for the dawn of the New Year, praying for a better and healthier 2022, Indian NGOs (non-government organisations) were waiting with bated breath for a notification from the government. 

The heads of NGOs had been having sleepless nights ever since the Missionaries of Charity, the organisation set up by the Noble-laureate, Saint Teresa of Kolkata, faced the heat. Their FCRA registration was suddenly revoked. Not only this, a few cases were lodged against the sisters alleging their involvement in religious conversions.

We could hardly come to terms with the fact that an organisation that has been serving the needy selflessly was being given such a treatment that another news created havoc. Within a few days, close to 6,000 NGOs lost their FCRA status, some were purportedly violating the rules and some did not apply for renewal in time.

When the news broke out, people were searching the FCRA website as children would wait for their results after the exams. Even the search button was not user friendly. In fact, one had to scroll down the entire list to find the name.

Be that as it may, the much-awaited notification finally came. The validity of the FCRA registration (for those whose names were not in the rejection list) was extended for another three months, i.e., from January 1, 2022. This would have given a temporary sigh of relief to many organisations. But there is no guarantee that they will be able to enjoy this status after March 2022. Also, nobody knows how many more NGOs will be added to the rejection list.

Going by the past record, it seems there won’t be many FCRA-registered NGOs. If one looks at the data on the MHA website, it can be easily concluded that 80 per cent of the FCRA cancellations happened after 2014 when the Narendra Modi government took over. In fact, the data do not even take into account the recent cancellations. It says only three organisations lost their licence in 2021!

Ever since the renewal application was filed, almost everyone felt a distinct uneasiness. It was like a lull before the storm. The amendments in the FCRA Act during September 2020 had incapacitated many grassroots-level organisations. They were no longer allowed to sub-grant money raised through foreign sources. In fact, the amendment rang a death-knell for many small organisations. From mandatory opening of bank account with the State Bank of India to reducing the administrative cost from 50 per cent to 20 per cent, it all led to an existential crisis for them.

Many international organisations decided to close down their operations in India. And many silently acquired the smaller NGOs by hiring their staff. The organisations, which were hitherto called funding agencies, started implementing activities on the field. 

Normally, this would have looked weird. But in the situation of “do or die”, Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest came into play. Similar to the unprecedented pandemic, which took hundreds of thousands of lives. Only those who had healthier bodies or greater immunity could survive.

Ironically, after six months of the FCRA amendment, the same government through its think-tanks and thought leaders invited the same organisations to support the government during the second wave of the pandemic. When people were dying for want of oxygen, beds and medical support or food, these NGOs came forward and acted as a pillar of support.

Not only this, the government machinery also took their help for conducting vaccination drives. There are regions like Nuh, one of the most aspirational (read backward) districts of the country, with a very low turnout rate for vaccination. The district administration has been pleading with NGOs to adopt villages for achieving 100 per cent vaccination rate. There might be many such places in the country.

In fact, the recent FCRA amendments made it difficult for the NGOs to raise funds and collaborate with one another. Had the law supported them, the impact would have been much higher.

Studies suggest that the NGOs were able to contribute to a much larger extent in the pandemic than any government, be it at the Centre or at the state level. In such a scenario, do they not need a better treatment than what they are being subjected to? Why should the government use its power to punish them for doing something that the government could not do?

The current scenario is no different. We are sitting on a ticking bomb, which may burst any time in the coming few days. Omicron is spreading like wildfire. This time, the attack is more visible on the frontline workers. Several doctors have been caught unawares. At the time of writing, 100 doctors tested positive at major hospitals in Delhi alone. While the health infrastructure might be far better than during the first wave, how will the country manage in the absence of adequate numbers of frontline workers?

The Indian economy had just started picking up. Another round of lockdowns will only stop the wheel, which just started rolling. Despite the positive outlook the government has been presenting, the unemployment rate is at its highest during the last four months as per CMIE (Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy) data. In such a scenario, the government will again need the support of non-government organisations. But will the NGOs be able to jump in as quickly as they could do during the first wave of the pandemic?

The answer is no. They no longer will have the wings to approach people from every nook and cranny of the world for their contribution. The government must understand that it is akin to clipping its own wings. Yes, there have been many activists, who have been raising their voices against government policies. But is dissent not part of a vibrant democracy? It is an established fact that constructive criticism has always led to positive outcomes.

Now many would say that the NGOs were not complying with the law and hence this crackdown. Agreed, everyone in this country, be it an organisation or an individual is expected to comply with the law. However, in this particular case even the government is not clear about how many NGOs lost FCRA registration due to legal violation. Many could not apply on time due to the second wave.

In fact, around 80 NGOs had to approach the government with their documents claiming that their applications were sent on time. Now what kind of system is this? How can the officials not detect the time of application in a computerised system? Does it not reflect upon the intention of sarkari babus?

What should have been a routine matter for the MHA became a detailed investigative exercise in many cases. Trucks full of documents were loaded and sent to the babus just for revalidating the FCRA registration! The kind of information that was demanded was humongous.

One must read the book “Price of the Modi Years” written by Aakar Patel, the chairman of Amnesty International India, to understand the kind of harassment he went through in 2018. Ironically, the organisation did not have FCRA registration and it was being accused of violating FCRA! Of course, the case did not hold ground in the eyes of law. But the organisation certainly lost invaluable time and resources, which could have been used more effectively for the betterment of society.

Lamenting on the state of civil society, Aakar says, “It is not known how many Indians were affected because of this, not only the employees of the NGOs but those people who they were working with and for.”

It is a pity that the ruling dispensation is using the law for settling its scores with the civil society organisations. The executive, which is supposed to implement the law both in letter and spirit for upholding the constitutional values, is being used as a tool for stopping activism. It is certainly not what Mahatma Gandhi envisioned about this country which had a long freedom struggle to its credit. But for collective activism, India would not have been an independent nation.

The government has already done a lot of damage to civil society. We can only hope against hope that March 2022 will usher in a new era, where the government and the civil society will work hand-in-hand for achieving common good.

(The writer, a company secretary, can be reached at jassi.rai@gmail.com) 

 

 

Indian NGOs NGOs Missionaries of Charity Saint Teresa FCRA registration FCRA NGOs Narendra Modi FCRA Act Pandemic State Bank of India Omicron CMIE (Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy) Price of the Modi Years Amnesty International India Civil society organisations Issue 3 2022

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