Civil society’s NGO conundrum


The crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs by the current government has raised many brows in India. Gajanan Khergamker quotes examples from Russia and China to prove why foreign NGOs must work under strict limitations.

“DOING good work does not give civil society groups immunity from the law”, said Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, while defending the Indian government’s crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs (Non-Government Organisations). This, simply put, summed up the mood of the moment: That India, under the present-day Narendra Modi government, was no longer going to put up with illegality.
Oddly, the very critics of India’s laid back, chalta hai attitude towards law-breakers and life in general, were up in arms over the government’s attempts to curb illegality in funding and other activities perpetrated by a section of the civil society.
Foreign contributions have been coming to India for a range of activities. Disclosure of the nature of activities and the quantum, and source of funding are also mandatory by law, and failure to comply can lead to cancellation of the NGO’s Foreign Contribution Regulation license.
The Foreign Contribution Regulations Act (FCRA) has legal requirements that an organisation receiving funds, for a ‘particular’ purpose, has to use it for that alone and file annual returns. It was found that many groups did not follow the procedures, and action was being taken against them, Jaitley said.

The funding factor
India came under tremendous pressure from the US government over restrictions placed on multi-million dollar remittances by a Christian missionary organisation, Compassion International, that claimed on its website, that for strategic reasons it works with local churches to provide Christian teaching to children that it aids.
So, on 15 March 2017, the Colorado-based Chris- tian charity closed its operations here after 48 years, “informing tens of thousands of children that they will no longer receive meals, medical care or tuition payments”.
Incidentally, with Compassion International engaging in religious activities, the Ministry of External Affairs had offered that the entity could re-register as a religious organisation on the lines of its activities, but the offer was declined. That way, Compassion International could have been allowed to continue its work in India.
Incidentally, thousands of NGOs lost their licenses to accept foreign funds since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014. George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, and the National Endowment for Democracy, too were barred from transferring funds without permission from Indian security officials.
The law regulating the use of foreign aid has been in existence in India since long, but Modi government applied it for the first time, canceling the registrations of more than 10,000 NGOs, mostly small ones, in 2015.
The group’s 500 Indian partners also had to shut down their operations, including the Bethesda Charitable Endeavours, which funds a community centre in a town called Haldwani, in the Himalayan foothills. And the projected ‘stakeholder’ again being children ‘deprived of education’, which were predictably projected as ‘hit the worst’ by the Modi government.
But, the current government’s take on the funding West isn’t exactly unique.

Ditto, Putin

After Putin’s return to presidency in 2012, in a second term, after months of large-scaled anti-government protests, the Russian government began tightening its regulatory control over civil society. Foreign-funded groups undermining Russia’s national sovereignty and, concurrently affecting the collective good, were now being systematically discredited.
Russia, under Putin, embarked on efforts to fund and promote apolitical and pro-government organisations as socially useful, while maintaining a strict state control over the entire sector. Putin also extended executive control and promoted a corporatist vision of the civil society, thereby quashing its pseudo-altruistic demeanour.

In the 1990s, it was primarily a group of Western donors who would support a small group of reform oriented organisations who formed Russia’s civil society. These organisations would usually hold the state accountable to global norms of governance, yet would regularly and consis- tently reject any close collaboration with the government.
And then, Putin came to power in 2000. He stressed on the need to build a strong civil society, but his vision was at direct conflict with the interest of independent groups which mushroomed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These independent groups were mostly funded by foreign entities, and were directly alien to Russian society and culture.
It was after the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis that Putin created the Public Chamber of the Russian Feder- ation, an advisory body of 126 individuals appointed from various social and professional domains, and entrusted with providing expert inputs on legislative proposals.
In mid-2000s, in response to the ‘Colour revolu- tions’ in Georgia and Ukraine, Russian officials stepped up verbal attacks on foreign-funded groups, and initiated imposing legal constraints on civil society. In 2006, an NGO law gave authorities the power to deny registration to any organisation whose goals and objectives “create a threat to the sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity, national unity, unique character, cultural heritage, and national interests of the Russian Federation.”
For groups receiving foreign support, the Russian Federation implemented a host of reporting requirements and expanded the power of government authorities to interfere in the creation and operation of NGOs. The law was justified as Russia now found it necessary to foster greater transparency in the sector and encourage the development of domestic funding sources.
In order to strategically restrict foreign funding flows, Putin in 2008 issued a decree that reduced the number of foreign and international organisations allowed to give tax-free grants in Russia from 101 to 12.
Russian officials used a 2002 law on countering extremist activity — defined broadly to include charges such as “inciting racial hatred” and “accusing a public official of acts of terrorism”— to inspect NGOs and investigate their activities. A lot of pro-government media outlets upped their campaign against foreign-funded NGOs, portraying them as tools of Western intelligence services working to overwhelm the Russian government. The ‘independent civil society’ particularly with an agenda ‘perceived’ to ‘de-stabilise’, was being checkmated by Putin, and successfully too.
In 2012, a new NGO law was fast-tracked through the Federal Assembly (the Russian Parliament), and came into force. The so-called Foreign Agents law required all organisations engaged in ‘political activities’ and receiving or planning to receive foreign funding to register with the Ministry of Justice as “carrying functions of a foreign agent.”
The designated foreign agents were obliged to follow a new set of burdensome administrative requirements and could be subjected to surprise audits. They were required to identify themselves in all public
communications, presentations, and publications.
And now, like in India, according to the law, organ- isations that fail to voluntarily register as foreign agents risk suspension for up to six months, while failure to comply with registration, auditing, and reporting rules can be punished with fines of up to 500,000 roubles. Predictably too, the law’s original definition of political activities was perceived by the West as extremely vague, raising concerns that “the provision could be selectively used against any organisation critical of the government”. The West conveniently overlooks the fact that failure to register and comply with legal norms was, finally, a felony in Russia.
In response to widespread complaints, the Ministry of Justice produced a more precise definition of the term political activities, supposedly to reduce the scope for arbitrary enforcement. The amendment defined the political activities of NGOs so broadly encompassing any advocacy, public outreach, or research activity. A further amendment has ensured even funding received from a domestic NGO can be considered foreign funding if the donor organisation in question has previously received external support—a measure that has dramatically broadened the circle of potential foreign agents.
China’s tryst with foreign NGOs
China has been accused of criminally detaining hundreds involved in defending human rights since time immemorial, not that it matters. The 2016 annual report by Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy coalition of non-governmental organisations maintains that security laws and rules for overseas NGOs give the Chinese state “draconian” new powers to “expand already strict control over independent organisations, including their funding sources, staffing, and activities”.
China has been targeting groups apparently “seek- ing to combat corruption, uphold Chinese law and improve the treatment of women”. A public campaign has been waged by the Chinese authorities against what they have called foreign and hostile forces, accusing the West, and the US in particular, of pumping money into China to foment unrest and destabilise society in the name of undermining the Communist Party.
The Chinese Constitution says, citizens “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” Contrary to Western allegations, authorities maintain they treated human-rights lawyers according to the law, in an effort to prevent conspiracies that could drag China into chaos.
On the website of the Chinese Supreme People’s Court was posted a militaristic video featuring images of war and dead refugee children. “If one day China turned into what it looks like in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Turkey, what will our children suffer?” says the video, which has been watched more than 17 million times. The video is said to have listed dissident leaders and human-rights lawyers as “agents of Western powers.”

CSR in India

Coming back to the Indian scenario, it may be mentioned here that just before India went to the polls in 2014, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was made mandatory for businesses. From 1 April 2014, it became legally binding for companies in India to be ‘socially responsible.’Corporates here, have to match the efforts of the State and Non- Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in initiating activities for the economic growth of the underprivileged and similarly marginalised groups as well as social causes such as animal welfare and environment. Every company with a net worth of at least ₹500 crore, or a minimum turnover of ₹1,000 crore, or a minimum net profit of ₹5 crore, has to constitute a CSR committee dedicated to undertake initiatives such as promoting women’s empowerment, improving maternal health, education, gender equality or ensuring environmental sustainability.
Soon after, the Modi government enforced Foreign Contribution Regulations Act 2010 (FCRA). Now, many members of the Civil Society and a section of NGOs did not follow the procedure and desisted from acting even when given a notice period and requisite time. This led to the government cancelling the FCRA licence of all those NGOs found to be flouting certain norms laid out in the Foreign Contributions Registrations Act, 2010.
And, the Indian government isn’t in any mood to relent.

Gajanan Khergamker

Gajanan Khergamker is an independent Editor, Solicitor and Film-maker. He is the founder of the International Think Tank DraftCraft.