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Modi govt 'throttling' NGOs: Raids, arrests, license cancellations, stringent regulations

Counterview Desk

A new civil society report by top NGO network Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (WNTA), seeking to provide an assessment of one year of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government after it came to power, has regretted that the Government of India has continued its “blow-hot-blow-cold relationship” with civil society organizations (CSOs).
If the warm vibes were “more in the form of inclusion of key representatives of the sector into task forces, special groups and committees and, more recently, the pat on the back and collaborative initiatives in the times of Covid-19”, cold vibes have continued, as reflected through “throttling moves including raids, arrest, license cancellations and stringent regulations”.
Edited by Bijoy Patro, and backed up with a team of activists, including Annie Namala, Roshni Nuggehalli, AK Singh, Amitabh Behar, Lubna Sayed Qadri and Usma Chakma, the report's chapter on civil society organizations (CSOs) talks about how new rules for the registration of NGOs, requiring them for “revalidation” under different sections for exemption from income tax between October and December 2020 would adversely impact a whopping 2.20 lakh institutions.
Titled “Indian Civil Society: CSOs -- vacillating from being suspects to friends”, the chapter states that CSOs have been working “in their true spirit of volunteerism and social work” amidst lockdown, yet, there was the “bolt from the blue came from the setting up of PM Cares Fund”, which required corporates to contribute to it and get an offset against the CSR obligation.

Excerpts:

Ever since the NDA government returned to power in May 2019, with an even bigger mandate than 2014, the blow-hot-blow-cold relationship with between Government and the civil society organizations (CSOs) continued. The cold vibes reflecting through throttling moves including raids, arrest, license cancellations and stringent regulations.
The warm vibes were more in the form of inclusion of key representatives of the sector into task forces, special groups and committees and, more recently, the pat on the back and collaborative initiatives in the times of Covid-19.
In the latter part of 2019 and until recently, the Government continued to engage with civil society organisation through including its representatives as members in its various committees, including Advisory Committee of National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights, Advisory cum Technical Committee for development of CSR Exchange Portal.
In December 2019, Niti Aayog engaged the CSOs for a planning meeting on India’s Voluntary National Review (VNR) 2020. During the meeting, CSOs were urged to organise nation-wide thematic consultations for possible inputs into India’s VNR 2020 report.
Announcement of setting up of social stock exchange (Union Minister of Finance Nirmala Sitharaman budget speech in July 2019), to bring capital markets closer to meet social objective for inclusive growth and financial inclusion, reflects governments focus on the sector.
Ishaat Hussain, the Chairperson of the Working Group formed by Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), in his note in report on Social Stock Exchange, made a forceful articulation of the positive sentiment. The note says:
“India’s economic imperative is to feed, clothe, educate and empower more than a billion people, in ways that conserve and grow its natural, cultural and social heritages. It cannot expect to accomplish this lofty objective on the strength of conventional commercial capital alone. If that were possible, India would not be home to over three million non-profit organizations (NPOs) who are working tirelessly to close the capabilities gap for hundreds of millions of Indians.
“These NPOs must receive adequate financial assistance to continue and multiply their stalwart efforts. They represent the core of the Hon’ble Finance Minister’s vision for a new form of enterprise in India, one in which the entrepreneur is an agent of positive social impact more than anything else.”
The working group recommends creation of Zero Coupon Zero Principal Bonds for not for NPOs, setting up of a Self-Regulatory Organisation (SRO) to bring together existing Information Repositories (IRs) and creation of common minimum reporting standards on social impact by IRs including Guide Star India, Credibility Alliance and other similar organisations along with the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI).
It further recommends setting up of a capacity building fund to strengthen the reporting capacities of not for profit organisations. It also suggests certain tax concessions to NPOs listed on SSE; 100 per cent tax exemption under 80G, removal of 10 per cent cap on income eligible for deduction under 80G for donations to all NPOs that benefit from Social Stock Exchange, and, an increase in the limit of income from commercial or semi commercial activities of NPOs to 50 per cent from the current 20 per cent. It further recommends fast tracking of cases of 12A, 12AAand 80G for those NPOs complying with reporting requirements.
In March, with the spike in number of cases in coronavirus disease, Niti Aayog set up an empowered panel under the leadership of Amitabh Kanth that “galvanised a network of 92,000 CSOs to harness their strengths and resources, expertise in key social sectors and extensive reach in the community”.
The same press release issued by Niti Aayog, acknowledged the efforts of CSOs including Akshaya Patra, Rama Krishna Mission, Tata Trusts, Piramal Foundation, Piramal Swasthya, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Action Aid, International Committee of the Red Cross Centre (ICRC), Pradhan, Prayas, HelpAge India, Self-Employment Women’s Association (SEWA), Sulabh International, Charities Aid Foundation of India, Gaudia Math, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, the Salvation Army, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India and more, many of whom are Voluntary Action Network India (VANI) members.
The civil society sector has been working along with the central and local governments ever since the start of the pandemic directly as well as facilitating disbursal of meals, dry ration, PPE kits medicines and medical equipment, counselling etc. Civil society actors have been playing a key role in information spread through innovative ways and are also contributing towards arresting stigmatization of those affected as also the health professionals.
On the other hand, the government continued imposing stricter compliances, laws, cancelling Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) registration (FCRA of 1,808 NGOs were cancelled in 2019 for non-filing of annual returns in FY 2017-18 taking the total number of cancellations to 14,500 over five years), conducting raids on the premises of NGOs like Lawyers Collective (demanding subsequent arrest of its Senior Leadership on charges of alleged FCRA violation) and Amnesty India.
Th treatment meted out to the students and activists raising voice against amendments to the constitution on citizenship, change in the status of Jammu and Kashmir revealed the intention of the government to stifle dissenting voices with a heavy hand.
CSOs, in their true spirit of volunteerism and social work focussed their entire attention on providing relief to millions of migrant workers
NGOs in India have been under immense pressure due to challenges emanating from different quarters, beginning with the enactment of the Finance Bill 2020. Its amendments are likely to impact approximately 2.20 lakh institutions exempted under the Income Tax Law. NGOs are required to file for a revalidation of their registration (under Section 12A, 12AA, 10(23C) and 80G) within three months from October to December 2020 (initially the revalidation was to take place from June until August).
Thereafter, a renewal of registration is required to be repeated after every five years. The move has not just increased the administrative obligations on NGOs but put their very existence at stake. There are financial implications, by way of heavy penalties in case of non-renewal, that can be way beyond the paying capacities of NGOs working on meagre resources.
The next blow to the sector came in March with the proposed amendments under the CSR Act stipulating CSR activities by companies in India to be undertaken by companies themselves or through other Section 8 Companies or any entity established under an Act of Parliament or a State legislature (mainly autonomous bodies).
The implementation of this would mean excluding registered charitable Trusts and Societies. Most of the NGOs in India are registered either as Societies or Trusts. Information on furtherance on the proposed amendments and action on suggestions from stakeholders is awaited from the government.
While the so-called ‘third pillar’ of our society was struggling to deal with the above, it came face to face with its next challenge (and perhaps a bigger one) in the form of coronavirus and its allied affects in the form of hunger due to mass-exodus requiring its undivided attention.
The CSOs, in their true spirit of volunteerism and social work, focussed their entire attention on providing relief to millions of migrant workers on their homeward journey, mainly on foot, due to uncertainty, loss of job and fear of getting infected.
Another bolt from the blue came from the setting up of PM Cares Fund on March 28. The appeal from Corporate Affairs Secretary Injeti Srinivas to company’s chiefs, “Even if you have contributed the prescribed amount, which can later be offset against the CSR obligation arising in subsequent years, if you so desire”, illustrates the intention of the Government. It is estimated that (until May 2020), approximately INR 9,677.9 crore has already been contributed to the fund.
Moreover, with the expected slowdown in economy due to lockdown, many companies have started reducing their committed CSR budgets to the projects in the voluntary sector. With the economic downturn and poor becoming poorer and not much coming their way through direct cash transfers, the voluntary sector may find it difficult to raise the concerns of such people in an effective manner due to the prevailing environment of stifling open protests.
Given the extremely unpredictable nature of challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, it is pertinent that all sectors in the country work together and put their energies in communion with other sectors to bring the nation out of these changing times.
For the third sector to play a constructive role, it is vital that an enabling environment is provided to it by way of more funds, inclusive decision making and facilitating in service delivery. The sector expects the government to allow the ease of doing business in the coming times.

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