PolicyBuff: NGOs are not criminals

Tags: Knowledge

We have to be more reasonable in dealing with civil society organisations

Should non-government organisations (NGOs) be viewed as traitors and criminals? Do they need to be cracked down upon like black marketeers, underworld gangs and criminals? Or, do we need to be more reasonable in dealing with civil society organisations that have played a vital role in complementing government efforts in the country’s rural and urban development?

Is it Narendra Modi government’s case to muzzle organisations that differ with the centre on policy issues?

It’s not the latest intelligence bureau (IB) report that’s disturbing. A string of events in the last five years have put civil society groups and development sector organisations on the back foot, given that they have faced the wrath of different agencies like central bureau of investigation (CBI), income tax department and other government agencies.

In 2009, the UPA government had charged a number of civil society organisations with serious crimes like money laundering across borders. They were even accused of front-ending the Maoist naxalite violence in ten states described by the People’s War Group guerillas as ‘red corridor’ or ‘liberated zones’.

Some civil society groups working on education, healthcare and basic amenities in Kashmir valley were seen by security agencies as part of the jihadi network constantly at war with the Indian military.

Some NGOs have been charged with having close links with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and of helping in the supply of arms till the group’s top leader Velupalli Prabhakaran was killed by Sri Lankan troops on May 18, 2009.

While there’s no official word on NGOs indulging in activities being regarded ‘anti-national’, in 2011 a home ministry report had put 70 NGOs under the scanner for ‘misuse’ of foreign funds. Not just this, the then PM Manmohan Singh’s statement on the anti-nuclear movements led to freezing of bank accounts held by NGOs in Tamil Nadu.

In 2012, several NGOs were subjected to income tax scrutiny after they lent support to the movement against corruption led by septuagenarian Anna Hazare. Some NGOs were directly linked to Arvind Kejriwal’s political debut as well as of the Aam Admi Party (AAP).

The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act of 2010 that was also amended last year stipulates completing an investigation against NGOs in 90 days. But, till date no single investigation has reached a logical conclusion after the hype and buzz created initially against some civil society groups.

There’s hardly any reason why these organisations need to be treated with suspicion unless proved otherwise. Pending completion of probe by security agencies, the NGOs cannot even approach the courts for redress or get their bank accounts de-frozen.

A latest IB report that has made life miserable for NGOs, trusts, self-help groups, youth clubs, village councils and resident welfare organisations active in development projects across sectors at different levels.

The security establishment has branded several NGOs like Greenpeace, Amnesty International and Action Aid as a ‘threat to economic security’ and ordered RBI to stop foreign contributions to all charities in India.

The establishment has justified the action against NGOs with the contention that these organisations were grossly responsible for India losing at least 2-3 percent GDP annually, especially in sectors like environment, forests and pollution. The Modi government is yet to offer any proof of these organisations resorting to wrongdoing either directly or indirectly.

Unlike India, globally NGOs have much more freedom and space to operate in the political processes, lobbying or to even push corporate agenda. For instance, the US federal government provides enough freedom for the 1.5 million civil society organisations to operate across its 50 states. The only requirement for these organisations is to make full ‘disclosure’ of all their activities, funding and their outreach with the respective states as well as federal authorities.

The key issue here is this: do we have any mechanism whereby Indian NGOs can make full disclosures like source of funds, their utilisation and activities with a nodal central government agency?

Like the companies who make their disclosures regulated by market watchdog, Securities Exchange Board of India (Sebi) or the corporate affairs ministry, should the central government and states not put in place a similar mechanism for NGOs? Can we have a professional regulatory body in corporate affairs ministry as ‘oversight body’ to monitor and regulate the activities of over 3.5 lakh NGOs in this country?

For instance, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) administered by the justice ministry is the central place where foreign funding of NGOs is dealt with in US. As a principle, US laws do not put a limit on foreign funds that flow into the country through NGOs. The only restriction that is religiously followed is that NGOs cannot have linkages with foreign governments or organisations that have been subject to sanctions by US. The internal revenue department takes a call on tax exemptions given to non-government organisations.

Across Europe, expert councils on NGO law carries out thematic analysis and focus on specific aspects of NGO laws to ensure smooth functioning of NGOs in member-countries. This expert council also ensures that NGOs laws and their implementation are on par with international standards.

Both, US and European laws as well as mechanisms should guide Indian authorities in offering a ‘sustainable’ taxation regime for lakhs of NGOs operating in India. Perhaps, the Parthasharathi Shome committee must put in place a framework for taxation or exemptions allowed for NGOs as well.

Both, US and European laws as well as mechanisms should guide Indian authorities in offering a ‘sustainable’ taxation regime for lakhs of NGOs operating in India. Perhaps, the Shome committee must put in place a framework for taxation or exemptions allowed for NGOs as well.

While a framework for civil society organisations as partners in development has to be put in place, there’s no reason for security organisations to fight shy for taking action on wrongdoers. Government will have to come clean on its actions.






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