What future for India's environmental and rights groups?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. According to local NGOs, the Indian government is financially crippling them as part of a wider crackdown on critics of the Modi administration. Photo by: Al Jazeera English / CC BY-SA

As part of a wider crackdown on the administration’s critics, the Indian government is targeting foreign-funded nongovernmental organization’s financial lifeline.

That’s according to members of NGOs and civil society groups in India, some of which have started to tone down their campaigns or pull out from sectors deemed risky for their business.

“They’ve not only frozen the accounts of our trusts … but also our personal accounts,” said Javad Anand, a prominent critic of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and co-owner of beleaguered local NGOs Sabrang Trust and Citizens for Justice and Peace.

The two NGOs run conflict-resolution programs and fight court cases stemming from the 2002 riots in Gujarat that saw 1,000 people die, mostly Muslim, at a time when Modi was chief executive of the western Indian state. State authorities took Sabrang to court in January, accusing it of misusing funds. Last month, U.S.-based Ford Foundation, one of the largest grant-making foundations in the world, was dragged into the fray, when India’s Ministry of Home Affairs accused it of “abetting communal disharmony” in the country.

Ford is one of the main funders of Sabrang and CJP. Following the accusation from the home ministry, Ford was put on a security watch list and its funding to Sabrang is now under investigation.

“They’re trying to financially cripple us by targeting our foreign donors and spreading this negative media campaign to stop local donations,” Anand told Devex.

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Sabrang is just among the many nonprofits in India that have been scrutinized and questioned by authorities and have had their foreign funding blocked since June, when a report from India’s Intelligence Bureau was leaked. The report claimed that foreign-funded NGOs were damaging the economy by campaigning against mining, energy and genetically modified food.

The investigation India’s home ministry launched against Ford Foundation prompted the United States to seek “clarification,” expressing concern New Delhi was limiting “necessary and critical debate” and applying its Foreign Contribution Regulations Act of 2010 in a manner that causes “difficulties” for organizations. Among the requirements for nonprofits under the FCRA is for them to first register with the government before they can receive foreign donations.

Ford Foundation has been supporting projects in India since 1952, but its inclusion in the watch list means all activities it funded in India would be scrutinized. This also means any monetary transfer from the New York-based foundation to a local NGO needs to be checked by the government. In a statement, the foundation said it was “deeply respectful” of India’s laws, “confident” in its work, and would respond fully to official queries.

The case of Greenpeace

Accused of trying to “take down India’s coal-fired plants” in one of the leaked reports, Greenpeace India is also operating with frozen accounts, having twice had its FCRA registration suspended. The High Court of Delhi ordered the funds to be unblocked in January but they were frozen again in April, with authorities accusing the well-known environmental advocacy group of underreporting foreign funding, and prejudicially affecting the economic and public interest of the state.

This time, the government went even further, freezing not just Greenpeace India’s accounts that receive foreign funding but also its seven domestic accounts that receive local donations — which make up 70 percent of its funding.

“Their being blocked means 350 people don’t get salaries, we can’t make any payouts, so pretty much it grinds the organization to a halt,” Greenpeace India program director Divya Raghunandan told Devex.

Raghunandan now fears the government is considering revoking Greenpeace India’s domestic charity status and income tax exemption, as reported by local media.

“It leads us to believe that it’s a continuous targeted attack on Greenpeace, and not necessarily one of inspection to make sure funds coming into the country are clean,” she said.

But the government may not even have time to revoke the advocacy group’s charity status. On May 5, Greenpeace India Executive Director Samit Aich told staff there are only enough funds to support operations for a month. If it’s unable to raise enough money from public donations and frozen accounts aren’t unblocked soon, Greenpeace India would have to close all six of its offices in the country — leaving about 340 people without a job.

“Greenpeace is just symbolic of what’s happening to wider civil society [in India],” Priya Pillai, a Greenpeace activist prevented from leaving the country in January, told Devex. “The democratic space is being shrunk.”

Crackdown on NGOs comes ‘from the top’

India has long viewed foreign NGOs through a lens of suspicion; the intelligence report, for instance, was commissioned by Modi’s predecessor, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But unlike previous administrations, Modi’s is “aggressive,” NGOs Devex spoke to claimed, shutting channels of engagement that used to be open and taking action against them.

“I think the crackdown’s coming from the very top and so now even the bureaucracy’s not open to any form of engagement,” said Raghunandan, adding that before a few channels were always open “at least somewhere within the party.”

More concerning, Raghunandan stressed, are moves that suggest a further “clamp down on dissent” in other areas, with books, movies and social media censored or banned. It’s “really disturbing because this seems more systemic,” she said.

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NGOs have widely reacted with caution.

“We have not witnessed a perceptible campaign to counter the government,” said Harsh Jaitli, CEO of nonprofit association Voluntary Action Network India, blaming it on ”weak collectivization” in the sector.

Raghunandan believes the fact many NGOs rely on foreign funding for the bulk of their finances is seeing some changing portfolios and pulling money from risky areas.

“If their FCRA gets touched they’re pretty much shut down,” she said. “It’s understandable the kind of fears people have.”

Toned down messaging as worries abound

The worry is complying with laws and regulations may not be enough as “you still are in a spot of doubt,” said Chaitanya Kumar, South Asia campaigns coordinator for 350.org, one of four U.S.-based nonprofits that local media reported as having had foreign funding blocked in January; all campaigned on coal. Although 350.org is not registered in India and doesn’t have an FCRA account, authorities still questioned Kumar, who works as a consultant for the global activist group, after the news broke.

“We had to explain ourselves, like why the money is coming, what are the activities we do,” he told Devex.

Following this, 350.org decided to tone down campaign messaging from challenging India’s dependency on coal power to tackling the related issue of air pollution. The former is no longer viable, the campaigns coordinator said, because “it’s a very heated volatile environment in the country right now and anything we say on those lines will immediately be seen as anti-national.”

Kumar said civil society was waking up to the fact the FCRA rules can straightjacket organizations, especially those “asking tough questions of the Indian government and its development plans.” Those working on environmental and rights-based issues are most at risk of scrutiny, particularly anything seen as impacting infrastructure and energy projects.

It’s not known how many organizations have come under the government’s microscope. Home affairs minister Kiren Rijiju told Parliament in February that the government had initiated action against 26 NGOs in the current financial year and put 14 foreign donors on its watch list.

Since June, the home ministry has also canceled the FCRA registration of thousands of NGOs for not filing annual accounts, as required under the FCRA. The latest order dated April 6 blocked 8,975 associations from receiving foreign donations. Cancellation orders were made regularly under the previous government too.

Greenpeace India has launched a collective campaign on the issue of dissent, but Raghunandan said it’s “far easier” to bring small organizations and civil society on board than those connected to foreign funding.

It remains to be seen how much impact the campaign will have, but given funding concerns it’s unlikely there’ll be any widespread movement among NGOs any time soon. Meanwhile, the future of those working on environmental and rights issues in India — the world’s largest democracy — hangs in the balance.

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About the author

  • Alys Francis

    Alys Francis is a freelance journalist covering development and other news in South Asia for international media outlets. Based in India, she travels widely around the region and has covered major events, including national elections in India and Nepal. She is interested in how technology is aiding development and rapidly altering societies.

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