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Use of FCRA against NGOs 'ill behoves' a govt professing adherence to democratic ideals

Counterview Desk 

In an open letter to the Union home minister alleging harassment of voluntary organisations under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), as many as 86 ex-civil servants have said that while civil society organisations are sought to be barred from seeking funding from foreign sources, the “access to foreign funds, through other legally sanctioned means, is freely available to the private sector, digital and print media and political parties.”
All of them former civil servants of the All India and Central Services who have worked with the Central and State Governments in the course of their careers, with “no affiliation” with any political party, and believing in “impartiality, neutrality and commitment to the Constitution”, they insist, civil society leaders’ “expression of difference of opinion or dissent cannot be construed as violating the integrity and sovereignty of the country…”

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We write today to express our concern over what appears to us to be the very negative approach of the Government of India in renewal of FCRA licences of nonprofits engaged in different sectors in India. Newspaper reports indicate that the FCRA registrations of nearly 5,933 NGOs lapsed as of 1 January 2022. While there are undoubtedly cases where NGOs have not applied in time for renewal, the denial of renewal to a number of internationally reputed NGOs occasions cause for concern.
In the recent past, FCRA licences of four well-known nonprofits – Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), Oxfam India, Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and Centre for Equity Studies (CES) – have been cancelled or suspended. These are all institutions whose activities are aimed at addressing the problems of the most marginalised sections of Indian society. Rights to food, work, wages, health and shelter and the right to lead a dignified life based on the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India feature prominently in the work of these organisations. Oxfam has been working in India since 1951 and has been involved in a number of humanitarian and development activities over the past seventy years in various parts of India. CHRI activities range from advocacy of the right to information of citizens to prison and police reforms and promoting media freedom and the right to free expression. CPR is a prominent public policy think tank, with distinguished former civil servants and corporate professionals on its Governing Board. CES, set up in 2001, aims to influence public policy and law for sustainable long term solutions towards the rights and care of underprivileged sections of society.
The cancellation/suspension of the FCRA licences of these organisations and the initiation of punitive action by various law enforcement agencies of the Government of India is an outcome of the highly flawed provisions of the FCRA. It seems as though, using the FCRA, the Government of India seeks to deter civil society organisations from seeking funding from foreign sources, although such access to foreign funds, through other legally sanctioned means, is freely available to the private sector, digital and print media and political parties. Section 3 of the FCRA virtually prohibits the free expression of opinion by anyone associated with an NGO obtaining foreign contributions. Section 5 gives sweeping powers to the Government of India to declare any organisation as “of a political nature”, thereby rendering it ineligible to receive foreign contributions. The scope of Section 7 of the FCRA has been narrowed down, by its 2020 amendment, to prohibit transfer of foreign contributions from one FCRA-registered party to another. Section 12 uses broad terms like “sovereignty and integrity of India” and “public interest” to give the government full discretion to decide whether to permit foreign contributions to any organisation/person.
All these restrictive and vaguely worded clauses in the FCRA have been used to act against organisations that take an independent view on economic, social and political issues, which may not be to the liking of the government. Thus, columns by persons like Harsh Mander and his associates, relating to their professional areas of competence, have been deemed to be violative of Section 3. The provisions of Section 7 have been broadly interpreted to exclude even collaboration between CES and other non-FCRA organisations in the joint publication of reports. Payments received by Harsh Mander and his associates for specified outputs (and not for articles written by them) have been deemed to violate Sections 3, 8 and 12(4)(vi) of the FCRA. 
The Central Bureau of investigation has reportedly alleged violation of Sections 8 and 12(4) of the FCRA in payments made by Oxfam India to CPR. Detailed clarifications from all four organisations to queries by the Ministry of Home Affairs have elicited no meaningful response from your Ministry.
Columns by Harsh Mander and others, relating to their professional areas of competence, have been deemed to be violative of FCRA
The Government of India should clarify how nonprofit organisations can access foreign contributions if every moment is spent in complying with restrictive legislative provisions. Every expression of difference of opinion or dissent cannot be construed as violating the integrity and sovereignty of the country or as being against public interest. The actions of your Ministry and the various law enforcement agencies give rise to a strong suspicion that independent assessments of or perspectives about socio-economic indicators of the country are not welcome. It ill behoves a government professing adherence to democratic ideals to be intolerant of criticism of its policies and encourage its agencies to adopt intimidatory practices, such as searches, seizures, inquisitorial questioning and information leaks to the media aimed at damaging the reputation of these organisations in the minds of the public. These organisations are helmed by persons with an impeccable and rich record in public life.
Rather than facilitating socio-economic initiatives by civil society organisations, the hobbling of the operations of major nonprofits and entangling them in tortuous, long-drawn legal battles will lead to a drastic reduction in the involvement of such organisations in catalysing community involvement in socio-economic development. The Government of India stands to lose valuable inputs it can obtain in planning policy initiatives if it fails to develop a healthy interaction with field-level and public policy nonprofit institutions.
The relentless harassment of voluntary organisations amounts to cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. For what these organisations are doing is to supplement the government's efforts in crucial areas of health, education, employment, human rights, conservation of nature etc. They work in areas where the government's own reach is limited or ineffective. The government should view them as partners and not as adversaries. Most importantly, these organisations work at the lowest levels of our society, with mostly marginalised groups who have fallen through the cracks in the government's own welfare schemes, and have no safety net to take care of them. Deliberate denial of even this modicum of assistance or advocacy to them does not do credit to a government whose rallying cry is "sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas".
As former civil servants closely associated during our careers with development processes at different levels of government, we would urge you to adopt a cooperative rather than an adversarial relationship with these essential components of any civilized society. The FCRA needs to be drastically overhauled to make it a facilitating rather than restrictive piece of legislation. We hope your government will take steps in this direction and direct agencies under your control to cease needless harassment of organisations serving the people of India, especially its most marginalised and disadvantaged sections.
Satyameva Jayate
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