Invisible Strings

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The Hindu nationalist. The neo-liberal. The grassroots activist. The Leftist. Everybody, it seems, has a reason to hate NGOs.

Some, like political commentator Radha Rajan who edited a collection of essays titled NGOs, Activists and Foreign Funds: Anti-Nation Industry, have charged several NGOs with “de-Hinduising India” and sought to expose “the essentially anti-Hindu activism of some NGOs and activists… and their foreign sponsors, supporters and funders who have their own vested interests in keeping the Hindus in this state of powerlessness”.

The advocates of unfettered growth, including former prime minister Manmohan Singh, blamed foreign-funded NGOs for blocking development. “There are NGOs, often funded from the United States and the Scandinavian countries, which are not fully appreciative of the development challenges that our country faces… The atomic energy programme has got into difficulties because (of ) these NGOs, mostly I think based in the United States,” he alleged in February 2012.

Lingaraj Azad, one of the key leaders of the movement that fought off the bauxite mining plans of the Odisha government and Vedanta in Niyamgiri hills, has this to say about foreign funding, “We have understood the negative role played by NGOs in people’s movements. They try to keep the struggle under their own sphere of influence. It has been seen that they stop the funding of activists in movements at critical times. This sometimes led to a sudden end of struggles dependent on foreign funding or NGOs.”

Sociologist James Petras, among others, rued the absence of a systematic Left critique of the negative impact of NGOs due to the latter’s success in displacing and destroying organised Leftist movements by co-opting intellectual strategists and organisational leaders. NGOs mystify and deflect discontent, he wrote in an essay, “away from direct attacks on the corporate/banking power structure and profit towards local micro-projects and apolitical ‘grassroots’ self-exploitation and ‘popular education’ that avoids class analyses of imperialism and capitalist exploitation”.

So why blame the Intelligence Bureau (IB) for overstating the case in its classified report, ‘Impact of NGOs on Development’? Because the report exposes the IB’s lack of expertise in economics or ecology and its enthusiasm in spicing up the draft by lifting from a 2006 speech of Narendra Modi that was subsequently published as an essay. More importantly, the deliberate leak of the ‘secret’ report successfully put the NGOs on the back foot and a string of environmentally damaging decisions of the government went virtually uncontested last week.

The IB report offers a long list of organisations and activists under its watch, which with their anti-developmental activities shaved off 2-3 per cent of the GDP. These activities, undertaken in 2011-13 according to the report, include protests against nuclear power plants, uranium mines, coal-fired power plants, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), POSCO and Vedanta projects in Odisha, Omkareshwar and Indira Sagar projects in Madhya Pradesh and extractive industries in the Northeast.

The alarmist report on NGOs may have come just in time for the new NDA government in the saddle, but the groundwork had been done by previous Congress governments. After all, it was Indira Gandhi who overplayed the spectre of “foreign hand” to pass the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA). In 2010, Manmohan Singh added teeth to the Act with an amendment that made the witch hunt easier.

Before the amendment, the Act imposed restrictions only on NGOs’ involvement in electoral politics. The amended Act covers all “objectives of political nature” and even “common methods of political action” such as dharna, rallies and strikes. The amended law was invoked to freeze the bank accounts and suspend the licences of a number of NGOs, including the Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), for activities against national interest. The NGOs named in the IB report could face the same fate, no questions asked or answered.

In 2012, as protests raged against the nuclear plant in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu, the then home minister P Chidambaram admitted that a few NGOs were under scrutiny for misusing foreign funds in mobilising the resistance. By February end, an uncharacteristically aggressive Manmohan Singh joined the NGO bashing. A year later, in January 2013, Singh went a step further to blame NGOs also for blocking field trials of GMOs.

IMG“Complex issues, be they genetically modified food or nuclear energy or exploration of outer space, cannot be settled by faith, emotion and fear but by structured debate, analysis and enlightenment,” he said at the centenary session of the Indian Science Congress in Kolkata.

Even so, the government was loath to link the cancellation of the licences of three NGOs in Tamil Nadu to their involvement in the Kudankulam protests. By 2013, though, more than 4,000 NGOs had their permission to receive foreign funds revoked for “prejudicially affecting public interest” and inadequate compliance with norms.

Some attribute the UPA’s good-cop-bad-cop approach to NGOs to the presence of an “NGO” — euphemism for the Sonia Gandhi-appointed National Advisory Council (NAC) — in its midst, but there was no mistaking the trail it had set the IB on.

The NDA has no NAC to oblige. Modi’s impatience with NGOs — from rights activists he has failed to shake off since the 2002 riots to the Narmada displacement brigade — is well known. Having promised growth at all costs, he has no time to engage with naysayers as he rolls out his big-ticket projects. The IB report might have saved him much talking.

If the government of the day has been overzealous in targeting NGOs, the voluntary sector has not been above board either. Seeking tougher licensing norms and legislation for the sector, a Delhi High Court bench observed in a ruling in March, “Most private-run so-called philanthropic organisations do not understand their social responsibilities. 99 percent of the existing NGOs are fraud (sic) and simply moneymaking devices. Only one out of every hundred NGOs serve the purpose they are set up for.”

According to the IB report, more than 21,000 of 43,527 NGOs registered under the FCRA did not file their annual returns for 2011-12. NGOs have little by way of a mechanism to evaluate the success or failure of a campaign or to fix accountability or even a timeframe. Hundreds of projects are kept alive on balance sheets merely to justify fresh funding. Besides, Modi’s tirade against “limousine liberals” is not entirely unfounded. Most NGOs are top-heavy, with little connect to the cause or individuals they work with, resulting in very little of the budget actually finding its way to field work. Any NGO veteran will mournfully relate the tale of unending reports and presentations and seminars year after year that result in nothing.

A 2013 report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) — India’s funds to NGOs squandered — alleged that over Rs 1,000 crore of government funding to the voluntary sector was largely decided by bribes and political influence. Much like a sarkari posting, the NGOs interviewed for the report alleged that bribes amounting to 15 percent to 30 percent of the grant were mandatory to get their application approved.

“If a conservative estimate of 15 percent is used as a ‘bribe to process the applications’, during the Fiscal Years 2002- 2003 to 2008-2009 at least Rs 998,15,38,153 or Rs 142,59,34,022 per year were spent on ‘bribes’ to different layers of officials approving the projects,” the report said. “This is literally stealing the money of the India’s poorest. It will not be an understatement that funding to voluntary sector is largely decided by bribes and political influence. There is little accountability beyond blacklisting.”

Citing the example of projects under the rural development ministry, it said, “The (Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology) under the Ministry of Rural Development sanctioned 24,760 projects during 1 September 1986 to 28 February 2007 involving a total sanctioned grant of Rs 25,20,24,412.56. Out of these, 511 NGOs were placed under the blacklist category due to irregularities committed. However, out of 511 blacklisted agencies/NGOs, only 10 cases were referred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for investigation, while the First Information Reports (FIRs) were lodged against only 101 NGOs.”

By August 2009, the number of NGOs blacklisted by the CAPART increased to 830 and FIRs were lodged against 129 blacklisted NGOs. CAPART, however, released Rs 46,83,142 to five blacklisted NGOs. Unsurprisingly, around 4,000 files related to unaccounted funds disbursed to voluntary organisations were feared missing from CAPART.

The rural development ministry was not alone though. “The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) is a classic case of corruption related to grants made to NGOs,” the report went on to note. “The CAG in its report tabled in the Parliament on 26 November 2010 indicated the presence of an organised scam in the giving of grants by the MoEF… and stated that no accounts had been maintained by the ministry for more than 20 years against grants worth Rs 597 crore released to NGOs and expenditures incurred thereon.”

The ACHR filed an RTI application with the Planning Commission seeking information about grants given to NGOs for 2002-03 to 2009-10 and the procedure for allocation of grants. The Planning Commission in its reply dated 4 August 2009 said, “Voluntary Action Cell, Planning Commission is not financially assisting any VO/NGO under any scheme. Therefore, information on the subject is not available with the Cell. The procedure for allocation and disbursement of grants is not uniform and would depend upon the scheme under which grants are made available. The concerned Departments/ Ministries may be contacted for the required information.”

It is evident that nobody in the government has been watching the NGOs. And the government does not seem to be keen to fix financial accountability or evaluate performance in projects that should be target-oriented. Instead, the IB’s scrutiny is limited to those who dare question or disagree with the government’s policies.

While Rajnath Singh expressed ignorance of the IB report in the days following its leak, the home ministry has already sent questionnaires to some NGOs seeking details of their funding and activities. Meanwhile, the growth juggernaut has been rolling.

So, the height of the Narmada dam will be raised. Reversing the decision of UPA-2, the new MoEF has allowed the Navy to build a radar station in an Andaman island which is the only home of the endangered Narcondam hornbill. The government has decided to soften some rules in the Forest Rights Act and Forest Conservation Act to boost economic activities in Naxal-affected states, also home to some of the country’s best forests and the majority of our tribal population. The highly sensitive higher-Himalayan eco zones and their biodiversity in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh will suffer irreversible damage as defence projects get blanket clearance in border areas up to 100 km from the Actual Line of Control.

While many laud these moves as firm steps that will unshackle growth and help India’s strategic interests, others have been opposed to such undermining of the country’s livelihood and ecological security. But the very NGOs and activists who would have spurred debate and discussion on each of these decisions are busy defending themselves to the spooks.

“What the IB and its masters in government fail to realise is that there can be no economy without an intact ecology. A sound environment is a must for a sound economy. You don’t have to take it from one of us ‘environmentalists’ — the World Bank, which ironically has probably done more than any other agency to destroy India’s environment, recently said that environmental degradation costs India 5.7 percent of the GDP. The same report also said that strategies to reduce environmental degradation would cost less than 0.04 percent of the average annual GDP growth rate,” wrote conservationist Bittu Sehgal, defending the NGOs in a recent article in response to the IB report.

In another time, Sehgal and his likes would have written demanding a rethink or even a rollback of last week’s contentious decisions instead. As Prime Minister Modi returns from his highly successful Bhutan trip, there is no debate in the media on the merit of his decision to fast-track 12 hydel projects that will have serious downstream impact in Assam. The IB report has delivered. Suddenly, barring a few pleas in self-defence, it’s all rather quiet on the activism front.

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1 COMMENT

  1. A balanced article sir. I hope you publish it in a more widely read publication so that more people come across it.
    The fundamental problem with criticism of the current government is that it comes from people who hate Modi viscerally and these guys have been discredited by the election outcome. The only solution is that some of this old furniture is moved out by media houses. Sadly, there are no governor postings on offer for journos past their sell by date.
    In a bad-tempered discourse, the baby always gets thrown out with the bathwater. What has happened to the word ‘secularism’ in India is likely to be repeated in case of NGOs. and that’s tragic.

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