Pushing Against the Wave, Progress in India

Katmandu       Having not been able to meet with the ACORN India team for over three years given my inability to have my 10-year visa renewed, I was curious about what I would hear from their reports after my long absence on the ground.  Would we have made progress or just run in place?  The rightwing, communalist and hyper-nationalist government of India under Prime Minister Modi was a wave of resistance against the progress of our work in mega-slums like Dharavi in Mumbai and lower waged workers in Bengaluru, Chennai, and Delhi.  It was exciting to hear where we had jumped by leaps and bounds once the reports began in our first full day and a half of meetings, and where we still faced huge obstacles at every turn.

briefing on nepal political and economic situation from editor of Himalya Magazine with Vinod Shetty and Dharmendra Kumar

Perhaps the most significant victory was less than a week old in Delhi, where ACORN’s Dharmendra Kumar and our members had been fiercely lobbying the Chief Minister, who has become a sometime ally in our work there.  The campaign and victory are reminiscent of the Lifeline utility fights ACORN waged in Arkansas, South Dakota, and other states in the 1970s.  The Delhi government offers electricity subsidies for low income residences using between zero and 200 units of electricity where they pay less than 50% of the bill and between 200 and 400 units where they only pay 25% of the bill.  Over 400 units or kilowatts, the rates accelerate quickly.  ACORN noted that these breaks only benefit the meter holders, often landlords, and not the low-income tenants.  Since the landlord had multiple units, the single residential meter would show considerable use of electricity, meaning that lower income tenants were therefore paying the highest possible rates for usage.  We finally won a victory here when the government capitulated and ordered the sub-meters to be put in the names of the tenants, providing them the full subsidy that others were receiving.  Realizing that landlords will still drag their feet and resist these changes, Kumar and ACORN believe this could be a huge opportunity for ACORN to extend out work of building community organizations throughout the city.  The general progress in Delhi on many fronts filled many pages in my notebook, as I scribbled to keep up with all the news.

current political poster…how often do you see Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao on an election poster?

In Bengaluru, Suresh Kashidan reported that he had failed to push the membership in our hawkers and street vendors union to 50,000 as he had hoped, but we had boosted it by 10,000 members to 45,000 now.  Bengaluru was largely holding its own, but Chennai in neighboring Tamil Nadu has added three thousand to 8000, and Mysore in southern Karnataka was a breakthrough with 8000 members.  The Hawkers Livelihood law has been implemented in backwards fashion with the town committee still not elected and the zones not totally sorted, but the process of licensure has been implemented with almost 15,000 hawkers licensed out of the 24,000 applications.  Suresh has identified and documented 130,000 hawkers, so it’s a slow road.  We are enabled to enroll people for the ID and into the social security scheme in Karnataka which is helping us grow the operation as well.

In Mumbai our Dharavi Project has managed to make inroads with its program into various corporate responsibility programs and can count a coup in now doing all the recycling in the Bloomberg building as well as adding other companies.  ACORN is also running zero-waste programs at several big trade gatherings including ones organized for big recycling companies by a German firm.

Believe me, this isn’t the half of all I learned, forcing me to consider how we can double down in India to increase the scale.

Please enjoy Norah Jones’  I’ll Be Gone feat. Mavis Staples

Thanks to Kabf.

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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.

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

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