Licence Raj redux: MHA's new proposal is draconian and arbitrary, say NGOs

New Delhi: After cancelling the license of 4,470 non-government organisations (NGOs) for alleged violation of Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), the government is set to come up with “Licence Raj” or “Inspector Raj” to regulate such set-ups. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has proposed a new declaration asking NGOs to pledge at the time of registration and renewal of registration that they won’t use foreign funds for any activity “detrimental to national interest, likely to affect public interest or likely to prejudicially affect the security, scientific, strategic or economic interest of the state”.

But the draft of the proposed amendment to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Rules, 2011, has not defined the above mentioned phrases and explained who will decide what is in the interest of nation and what is not.

As per the draft rule, the not-for-profit sector will have to give details of their social media accounts, if any.

The proposed rules states that if an NGO is granted a certificate of registration or prior permission, it “shall place the audited statement of accounts on receipts and utilisation of the foreign contribution, including income and expenditure statement, receipt and payment account and balance sheet for every financial year beginning on the first day of April within nine months of the closure of the financial year on its website...”.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

NGOs receiving foreign contribution will place details of foreign contribution received within seven days of the receipt on its website, but banks will have to send a report to the Central government within 48 hours of any transaction.

While the government says asking the NGOs to give such undertakings “has a background”, rights activists have described it “draconian”, “arbitrary” and designed to “suppress civic dissent of any kind”.

“It is worrying that civil society organizations are being labelled and targeted. Intelligence reports are being selectively leaked to paint NGOs in poor light, disbursal of funds are being subjected to case-by-case clearance, funds are being frozen and their activities are reportedly being placed on watch lists. All these are being done to suppress civic dissent of any kind,” Harsh Mander, director of the Centre for Equity Studies, told Firstpost.

He asks how it is against the interest of the nation to talk about malnutrition, pollution, green energy, forceful eviction of people in the name of development and other issues of public concerns.

The Intelligence Bureau has recently said in its report on the economic impact of foreign funded-NGOs that foreign interests are working to sabotage the country’s economy through a handful of NGOs.

Activist Venkatesh Nayak, coordinator of Access to Information programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), feels mentioning undefined phrases like “national interest” or “public interest” in the declaration and not the proposed rules are not only “unlawful” and “arbitrary” but aimed at promoting “Licence Raj” or “Inspector Raj”.

“What is in the interest of the country and people are constitutional matters and can be decided by the court. But in this case the decision will be made by a secretary or under secretary rank officer, which is dangerous. If the Centre wants us to give the declaration, it should provide the definitions and mention it in the rules,” he told Firstpost.

The proposed declaration, he says, in absence of definition can be used as a tool to harass organisations that question government moves and policies.

Talking about provisions of filing details of funding and expenditure, he added, “All NGO are expected to file details of their funding and expenditure online, which is not a bad idea. But how many NGOs have access to Internet. All NGOs do not operate in urban centres” and said, “this kind of regulations are not expected from a government, which talks about Sabka Saath (together with all).”

“Why us only? Why the firms that bring in foreign direct investment also not asked to give a similar undertaking,” asked Harsh Jaitli, chief executive officer of Voluntary Action Network India (VANI), a body that works to promote volunteering.

“Accusing the NGOs of working against the interest of the nation and stalling its growth and development, a threat perception from NGOs is being created to develop fear psychosis in civil society organisations and donors,” he alleged.

Supreme Court lawyer Kabir Dixit, who has challenged the validity of FCRA before the apex court on behalf of the Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), says most of the terms of the undertaking are not defined by law. “If an NGO is working for legitimate cause with legitimate resources cannot be brought under scrutiny,” he said adding that NGOs are “not are parts of the civil society and regulating them through a draconian laws like FCRA is in fact an attempt to curb or criminalize the right to dissent”.

Asked why he feels that FCRA is a “draconian”, he explained, “Organisation or individuals who do not take part in electoral politics are also ‘political’ - as per Rule 3 of FCRA Rules 2011 - if they take part in protests such as strikes, dharnas, bands, jail bharo or rasta roko. And hence, no grant can be made to them. All civil rights organisations have to organise or participate in such protests in support of public causes, therefore their objectives are ‘political’ and in ‘violation’ of the FCRA. Hence, they can be booked under the law.”

As per the existing Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Rules, 2011, NGOs have to declare that they have not been blacklisted, do not publish newspapers or broadcast it and are not a political outfit.

“In nut shell, the sole aim of the FCRA is to curtail the activities of NGOs and silence legitimate questioning of government policies,” he alleged. The concerned organizations have claimed that the report is not only baseless, but also motivated by a desire to.

Academic-activist Madhu Kishwar, who is the founder of Manushi Sangathan, which works for democratic reforms, describes the declaration “arbitrary” and “irrational”. “I, not the third-grade babu, should have the right to decide what is in the interest of my country and its economy. NGOs should have all the freedoms,” she told Firstpost.

But at the same time, she opposes not-for-profits accepting foreign funds. “Many NGOs influence government policies at the behest of their foreign funders. Such organisations cannot be allowed to divide the society in the guise of democratic rights. Criticise the government, oppose its anti-people policies and raise voice against all kinds of injustice, but do it strictly with the help of domestic resources,” she added.

Defending the government for coming with the draft rule, BJP spokesperson GVL Narsimha Rao says there is a background to declaration. “FCRA has been massively violated by NGOs. Foreign funds have been diverted for illegal purposes,” he said stating that “making a commitment and giving details of income, expenditure and returns will give a clear picture where the money is coming and what purposes it is being used for. There is no need to raise a hue and cry over the proposed amendment in the FCRA and declarations sought at the time of registration and its renewal”.

He said the sole intention of asking an organisation to give the undertakings is to ensure that their activities are in compliance of the law of the land.


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Updated Date: Jun 23, 2015 08:59:18 IST

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