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.