Pro-Development Indian Government Cracking Down on NGOs

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credit: Greenpeace

Bengaluru       Arriving at my lodging in Bengaluru after 2 AM in the morning holds some surprises.  One is the emptiness and quiet of the streets, normally full of horns blaring and the constant jockeying of cars, motorcycles, carts, cows, and hapless pedestrians braving all.  The other is how much is going on in the relative quiet with stores selling, factories cranking, and workers on other time clocks pressing forward in the dark of the night.

In the light of the day with bleary eyes, one of the first pieces of news to hit me was the report of the US Ambassador’s speech chiding the Indian government on its crackdown on nonprofits and reminding the “world’s largest democracy,” as India constantly calls itself, perhaps protesting too much, that NGOs have a vital role in civil society.  Certainly crackdowns on NGOs are not uncommon in the world today in notoriously repressive governments.  For example the Organizers’ Forum delegations have seen Russia and Egypt on a tear in recent years to peel back the work of any nonprofits, usually claiming reporting violations as the excuse.  This repression of NGOs almost a year into the new government of the BJP’s Prime Minister Modi may finally answer the question of his true colors.

The Ambassadors’ remarks may be news, but the emerging campaign against nonprofits has been building for months now.  In October 2014, the Home Ministry had given more than 10000 NGOs that had licenses to receive contributions under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) a month to file financial reports with the government alleging that they had not done so for three consecutive years from 2009 to 2012. According to newspaper reports of the 10,344 NGOs so notified only 229 replied. The Outlook reported:

There was no reply from the remaining NGOs leading to cancellation of their registration issued under FCRA….   Among the registration’s cancelled 8,975 NGOs include 510 NGOs against whom notices were sent but returned undelivered.

At one level this might seem reasonable.  After all India will no doubt allege that the USA is the pot calling the kettle black since the IRS has similarly suspended the 501c3 classifications of thousands of nonprofits as well for failure to file annual 990 reports for three consecutive years.

The rationalization is punctured though by the revelation early in the Modi Government of a secret report.  As reported by the Centre for Civil Society, a respected Indian nonprofit:

The controversial leaked report on NGOs was prepared for the new government by the Intelligence Bureau, an internal security agency. It called out several international organizations, including Amnesty International, Action Aid, and the Netherlands’ CORDAID for harming developmental projects relating to coal plants, oil exploration, nuclear plants, steel, and mining.  The report singled out Greenpeace India, which was mentioned 15 times. It alleges that Greenpeace India is using foreign funds to hurt economic progress by campaigning against power projects, mining, and genetically modified food. The home ministry has asked India’s central bank to stop processing foreign contributions to Greenpeace.

The report claimed that activism by foreign funded and Indian licensed NGOs who were blocking development projects was contributing to a “2 to 3 percent drop in the Indian economy.”  For Modi, that was probably more than enough given his long record of economic boosterism from Gujarat that led to his sweeping election victory.

Greenpeace India has announced that it may have to close operations within the month.  Though they claim they are now bringing in 60% of their revenue from donations inside of India, they believe their inability to fully pay staff could force them to shutdown.  Not only advocacy groups, but even the US-office of the Ford Foundation in India has been told it cannot issue any grants in India without governmental approval.  This crackdown is hardly trivial.  The Centre for Civil Society also reports that…

In the year ending in March 2011, the most recent period for which data is available, about 22,000 Indian NGOs received a total of more than $2 billion from abroad, of which $650 million came from the US.

In New York, in a conference of environmentalists listening to glowing reports of the Modi government’s claim to be decreasing India’s dependence on coal, people were excited about Modi.  When asked my opinion of the prospects for the new government, I would only say, “We’re skeptical, so we’ll wait and see.”

What we’re seeing of the government’s attack on nonprofits augurs very poorly for the future under Modi.


Please enjoy Jeff Beck’s Going Down, Thanks to Kabf.


Building a Union of Street Vendors in Bengaluru

1149163_743188589067481_1407106341_oBengaluru   I had a long list of things I needed to get done on this trip to India, catch up with Dharmendra Kumar in Delhi on our progress at blocking multi-brand retail in Delhi and stopping foreign direct investment, state by state, and evaluate our growing, alliance with hawkers, and my coming visit with Vinod Shetty in Mumbai will focus on our progress in Dharavi and see the developments in the sorting system for our wastepickers were vital.  But, none ranked higher than visiting with Suresh Kadashan and seeing if we had finally succeeded in forming official, registered unions for the informal workers we were organizing in Bengaluru.

            The organizing was certainly not new.  We had been plugging away at it for about five years with wastepickers, hawkers, domestic workers, and others, but eighteen months ago our decision had been to bite the bullet and register formally as an independent trade union under the laws of the state of Karnataka, where Bengaluru with about 5 million people is the capital and largest city.  The rest of the world may know Bangalore by its old name and its reputation as India’s tech center or as “silicon” city, as some of the boosters are saying now, but that’s another world from our organizing with slum dwellers and informal workers.  1614525_743188425734164_1782074469_o

            But every month we would try to register and could get no decision, and this went on, frustratingly, for over a year until this last December, when finally a deputy labor commissioner agreed to a path forward.  Winning the registration was a matter of signatures from members and producing a minimum number (150) at a meeting of the street vendors.  We now have organized the vendors in 25 different street markets throughout the city and once the process is finalized in coming months Suresh expects we will find ourselves with 6000 new dues-paying members.  I was with Suresh yesterday as we bussed and auto-rickshawed to various street markets to meet with the officers of local branches of our new union in several places.  1782537_743188469067493_1394852361_o

I also got to watch him have an impromptu noon meeting with 35 vendors on a side street market that needed to come into the union in order to fight for space under the Metro since a bridge was about to displace them once construction began.  It was exciting to watch a small plastic tarp spread over nearby dirt transformed into an organizing meeting!  Already our fledgling union has successfully filed cases against police harassment of vendors based on protections for sellers that are included in the state constitution, giving hard pressed hawkers some spring in their step.  In the meeting as well, Suresh dramatically pulled out the application papers for a national pension scheme that could provide small retirements for our members after 60 based on a 2:1 match annually that, importantly, has to be certified by the official seal of our union.1956692_743188309067509_1196393137_o

Registrations for a wastepickers union floundered, when the city privatized wet and dry garbage pickup, but we’re watching that situation closely.  We’ve also now filed for a local union of street food preparers which could yield another 2000 members, once approved, and, yes, India is the home of the craft union, more than the industrial model, as you can see. 

Opportunity within the informal sector abounds.  Leaders estimated 130000 street vendors ply their wares in Bengaluru and perhaps a million-and-a-half are vendors among all of Karnataka 61 million people, but in this huge state, that’s still a bridge too far perhaps since 10 of the 15 districts would have to organize in order to win a statewide union charter.

            Big dreams and hard work, yield big dividends, and finally our new union is alive and growing in Bengaluru, but that also means even bigger dreams and harder work lie ahead of us in the future.  It was thrilling to be a part of it all!



Stiglitz Opposes India FDI Modifications, Walmart Admits Knowledge of Bribes

Professor Joseph Stiglitz

New Orleans    Talking to ACORN India’s Mumbai Director Vinod Shetty via Skype on Tuesday, he could hardly wait to tell me about the news headlines all over the country as Nobel prize winning, former World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz added his voice to our longstanding opposition to Prime Minister Singh’s unilateral actions to modify foreign direct investments in multi-brand retail that would allow Walmart and others to come into the country and work their will.  ACORN International’s India FDI Watch Campaign has been an active organizer and voice in this effort for the last 8 years.  Stiglitz, now a Columbia University professor, is the highest profile economist to line up against these new, desperate political moves by the Prime Minister and the ruling Congress Party in advance of coming elections in 2014.

Stiglitz speaking at a media interaction on this week in Bangalore, organized by the Azim Premji Foundation, Joseph Stiglitz, a professor at the Columbia University, said that the consequences of foreign direct investment in retail would be that it drives down prices received by Indian suppliers to compete with foreign firms, thereby increasing inequality.  Stiglitz was clear about Walmart as well, as is obvious from this excerpt from of his comments:

Citing that foreign investment would bring in more corruption, Stiglitz said that “Don’t focus on FDI in the belief that it will solve all problems.” He also warned the Indian government saying, “Walmart certainly brings greater capacity in bribery, it was their source of success in Mexico. You don’t need to bring that in, you already have enough of that.”  Apprehending that the investment inflow would shift the production bases to outside countries, the Nobel Laureate said, “There is concern in this area that some MNCs (multinational companies) might use their monopsony power, their ability to access cheap goods from China, and use that monopsony power to give them a competitive advantage. That’s not a good basis for growth,” quoted Livemint, a financial newspaper.  [from]

These were not slapdash, off-the-cuff comments made by Stiglitz.  In an interview with Pranay Sharma published as “Unpopular Opinion” on a blogsite,  he was even clearer on October 21, 2012:

PM Manmohan Singh announced a clutch of economic reforms recently, particularly in regard to allowing FDI in multi-brand retail. Do you think India needs to open up its market?

India is an unusual country and different from many other developing and emerging markets. It has a large entrepreneurial class and has lots of savings, wealth. And this entrepreneurial class is very talented. So that raises the question as to why India needs foreign entrepreneurs in any sector, particularly the retail or the financial sectors.

And what’s your answer to that?

I have not seen a good explanation yet. To me, as most economists say, a little competition is good. On the other hand, the worry is that a company like Walmart may owe some of their success to its power and ability to drive down prices. Because they can buy things out and if that’s the case then they will use that power to have Chinese goods displace Indian goods. The real harm will not be to the retail sector. That is not the real problem. The harm will be to the Indian supply chain going into the retail sector. The other concern is that Walmart has succeeded in expanding its business by adopting abusive labour relations.

Is that the experience of other countries where it has a presence?

That is the experience of other countries. It is a business practice that you don’t want to import to your country. Bribery in Mexico, free-riding on healthcare, a policy against unionisation, discrimination against women—a whole range of accusations, some of which have been proved and others that remain accusations but are hard to win in courts. Why would you want to import such business practices into India? Many economists see the breakdown in social contract as one of the reasons for inequality. There is also a worry that Walmart will break down the social contract in India that is already frail.

So how does one go about it?

The other reply to these concerns is for India to have legislations to ensure these problems don’t happen. You should have good protection from large multinationals.

Stiglitz in yet elsewhere has also committed the heresy of questioning the impact on Indian farmers and their sourcing, which has been the one fig leaf the government has been hiding behind.

Meanwhile in the United States two Congressman yesterday released emails from Walmart CEO Duke from 2005 while he was head of Walmart’s international operations (and frequently in India promoting the FDI changes!) proving he and the top officials had knowledge of the Mexico bribes from their legal counsels there and elsewhere.  NPR reported this morning that Walmart has said that it had already admitted having knowledge of the bribes in 2005, just as ACORN International’s India FDI Watch Campaign was gaining steam and our work organizing Walmart workers and Florida alliances was underway in the US.  They continue to be silent on why they did nothing to stop the bribes or modify their corrupt corporate culture or report the violations to any authorities in the United States or Mexico.

Thanks to Professor Stiglitz, who is also credited in many circles for promoting the 99% percent argument about inequality among academics, we may have found a friend that will be harder to ignore in India and the United States, if it is not too late.


Fight Over Foreign Retail (Walmart!) Entry into India Enters a New Stage

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

New Orleans      Desperate to hold onto power with national elections coming in 2013 and beset by crises over coal, telecom, and slowing growth, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, announced modifications in foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail, potentially paving the way for Walmart, Carrefour, Tesco, Metro, and other multi-national companies to enter the growing Indian market directly with 51% control rather than as secondary partners.  Singh was quoted in the Times saying “The time for big-bang reforms has come and if we go down, we will go down fighting.”  ACORN International’s affiliate ACORN India and the Indian FDI Watch Campaign, which have been fighting for accountability before modifications for the last half-dozen years, believe Singh’s remarks could be prophetic, if in fact these changes are now implemented.

Make no mistake, we and others have issued a press release yesterday in Delhi and have joined the call for nationwide protests on Monday (see below), so the fight is on, but as we enter this next stage of this long campaign the skepticism in the financial press about whether this will all now come to pass is not only passed on the political difficulties which led to a parliamentary crisis last fall, but also about the significant concessions we won over time and during the “suspension” of the government’s earlier action.  Reviewing briefly, they include the following:

  • 30% of products have to be Indian sourced.  We have argued that without such a provision, India was going to be flooded by Walmart’s Chinese sourcing.
  • 50% of investment has to be infrastructure within 3-years that supports better sourcing from Indian farmers and others.  We have argued that community benefits were essential.
  • None of this applies to anything other than cities over 1 million people and their suburban rings within 6.2 miles of the town center.  We have argued that the character of the Indian economy and its existing employment had to be protected.

There’s more including the trump card that none of this can happen without being approved by the state governments and the individual localities.   In a number of major states, like West Bengal with its mega-city, Kolkata (Calcutta), the governor has already rejected these modifications.  In some of the most populated states, there have also been indications of rejection.  In short, were this to emerge from Parliament, this is the beginning of the new fight, just moving to another stage, a more local stage where we are stronger frankly and one that will play out over coming years.  Even the Times and the Wall Street Journal, both of which were quick to embrace the government’s proposed actions last fall as fait accompli were restrained this time and noted that this might still not come to pass even at the national level.

In a country of small shopkeepers, traders, hawkers, street vendors and others employing more than 10 million as workers, this change has significant impact.  This campaign has long legs and continues to move quickly.

Below is the press statement of Dharmendra Kumar and the India FDI Watch Campaign:

New Delhi 14th Sept. 2012

PRESS STATEMENT                         

Immediately Stop the removal of the suspension on FDI in Retail

Leaders of mass organizations of street vendors, workers, small shopkeepers, small manufacturers, joined by civil society organizations, consumer activists, environmentalists strongly condemned the Govt. of India decision to remove the suspension on FDI in multi-brand retail.

In a press statement issued here today, Mr. Shaktiman Ghosh, General Secretary, National Hawker Federation, said that the decision has nullified the Govt. approval to Street Vendors (protection of livelihood and regulating street vending) Bill 2012. He said that livelihood of hawkers cannot be protected merely by creating vending zones if corporations are allowed to out-compete them in streets. He demanded a complete ban all corporations selling fruits, vegetables, groceries, and daily use goods. He also demanded that no corporate store should be allowed within a 2 km radius of areas with a density of hawkers. He informed that National Hawker Federation would organize protests on Monday and Tuesday in all over India.

Dharmendra Kumar, Director, India FDI Watch said that the Govt. decision is a blow to parliamentary democracy and alleged that Govt. has backstabbed the nation after promising in the parliament to not to take the decision unless a consensus is reached. Mr. Kumar further alleged that India is kneeling down under pressure from US and European governments and their industry lobbyists as it still has no binding commitment on multi-brand retail services in multilateral, regional or bilateral agreements. He termed the cabinet decision for 51% in multibrand retail as letting off wild bulls of giant retailers without checks and balances such as regulations on number, size, location and provision of an economic needs test for opening a store as is the case in many countries around the world.

Kishan bir choudhary, Chairman, Bhartiya Krishak Samaj (Indian Farmers Forum) stated that FDI in retail would lead to monopoly of agricultural market and farmers would be taken for a ride by corporations. FDI backed retailers would dictate terms to farmers under contract farming and would turn independent farming families as bonded labour.

Vijay Prakash Jain, General Secretary, Bhartiya Udyog Vyapar Mandal (All India Federation of Traders and Manufacturers) termed the cabinet committee on political affairs decision as disaster for small traders and micro, small and medium industries.

Mr. Mohan Gurnani, President, Federation of Associations of Maharashtra said that our Govt. is refusing to learn from the experiences around the world and even failing to learn from its own experience of not being able to stop foreign cash and carry wholesalers from circumventing rules. He said that the infamous retail giant of the world Wal-Mart has entered from the back door using Bharti-Airtel as its fig leaf circumventing the wholesale cash & Carry permission. This is a gross transgression of the intention behind Wholesale Cash and Carry Permission. He accused that Bharti is only a thin cover for Wal-Mart’s profit making proclivities as it will only function as a fixed margin operator. The warning bells are dire for our small manufacturers, suppliers, shopkeepers and street vendors.”

street vendors in New Delhi


Dharavi Rocks

Our most popular project of ACORN Foundation (India) is Dharavi Rocks.   Dharavi Rocks works with children who work as ragpickers (waste collectors) and live in the slums to teach them music.  The kids make drums from plastic boxes and tins.   This is footage of Dharavi Rocks’ rehearsals captured by ACORN India in Mumbai in June 2012.


India for my Father in Pictures

Mumbai    In our continuing quest to communicate here is something of a photographic essay on some of the things I’m taking away from my last 11 days in India as I head back to the states, that I thought I would share, and that I hope you enjoy and feel like you were with me:

  • Every dawn walking on Juhu Beach there is a group of men, sometimes a half-dozen and sometimes twenty having their own “tea party” before they are gone at 630 AM.

  • “I Love India” on one of the colorful trucks in front of Dharavi.

  • A special way of pouring coffee in order to cool the tin cups for drinking at the Hotel Ram Ashray Coffeehouse.

  • One of our young Dharavi Rocks recyclers rapping in front of our office for a camera crew from Tele-metro – Panamanian TV.

  • Time for a nap on the street in Dharavi.

  • Finding Vinod’s office across from the MIG Cricket Club in Bandra East.

  • Finding files in Vinod’s office might be harder!

  • A condo high rise is being built to replace the great Sea View Hotel Restaurant & Beer Bar overlooking Juhu Beach, which had been my favorite spot in all of Mumbai!

  • The view from Vinod’s living room window of the Bay where the Portuguese landed hundreds of years ago when settling the great Mumbai as a fishing village on seven islands in what is now Bandra West.