It is a theme on which both the naysayers and proponents of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are guilty of overstating their case; not all NGOs are neo-liberal Trojan horses furthering a subversive agenda, while the number of actual good samaritans working for change is also not particularly very high. Objectively speaking, the issue is far too sensitive to be treated in the cavalier fashion as the Intelligence Bureau (IB) has done: Terming foreign-funded NGOs “anti-national” per se reinforces the Indian penchant of trying to detect a foreign conspiracy to manipulate domestic politics when the actual guilt primarily lies with the policy planners and the government itself.
There indeed is a huge element of hypocrisy on the part of the Indian State to freeze the accounts of the anti-Kudankulam groups when actual facts suggest that nothing is done about some other favoured ones who are thriving on the largesse of their donors — and the government is simply doing nothing about them! Such indeed is the preponderance of mythmakers and alarmists that arriving at a balanced perspective on the issue is not very easy. There is a thin dividing line between the projection of the vested interests of private companies and those who are peddling influence on behalf of an NGO. More pertinently, the stakes either way are huge, as the volume of foreign money entering India in the name of “advocacy” or “development” is by no means small change.
The government’s track record on the issue has ensured that there is no reliable estimate of the money flowing into the NGOs and what is done with the funds. According to a recent estimate, India has about 3.5 million NGOs, which roughly translates into an NGO for every 400 people. The amount of money flowing into the NGO sector is also the subject of widespread speculation, ranging as it does from Rs 40,000 crore on the lower side to double that amount on the higher side. The money involved is huge enough to compare with a state government’s debt! Delhi-based NGOs, according to a report compiled three years ago, received Rs 5,800 crore, the highest in the country, followed by NGOs in Tamil Nadu, which received Rs 4,800 crore.
There are a plethora of organisations that are managing to hoodwink the authorities by floating different organisations under the same primary recipient, which remain on paper alone. The number of such ‘benami’ beneficiaries is not inconsiderable. The IB and other agencies in their hurry to appease a vociferous Right-wing lobby have obviously not done their homework properly.
There is a specific wing of the Union Home Ministry that monitors foreign contributions, and every year, the ministry’s annual report puts out the number of organisations banned from receiving foreign funds due to the “questionable nature” of their activities — the number, from the time that the then minister of state for internal security P Chidambaram told Parliament 25 years ago until now, has consistently been in three figures. It has been more than once admitted by the government that many organisations on the banned list continue to receive the benefits of largesse in spite of the ban.
Among the various generously favoured ones, according to reports, is the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), which between 2007 and 2012 received over Rs 11.5 crore in foreign donations from a range of international institutions such as the Asian Development Bank, World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Sasakawa Peace Foundation. Various influential think-tanks are bankrolled by a range of foreign donors; the think-tanks may differ in their ideological orientation, but one thing is certain: the current establishment for all its apparent zeal is unlikely to touch the RSS and its affiliates, who are big-time beneficiaries.
Some of the donors include the high-profile Ford Foundation, Google Foundation, the International Development Research Centre, Economic and Social Research Council, Hewlett Foundation and Ikea Social Initiative. Foreign funding is a big-time activity today, unlike say three decades ago, when it was dominated by relatively small-time anti-poverty projects in slums and coastal villages. Now the centre of gravity has shifted to big systemic campaigns relating to national facilities like dams and nuclear parks. Think-tanks and fashionable recipients, which never tire of demanding transparency from the government, are themselves cagey about their own opaqueness!
The indefatigable James Petras has systematically exposed the manner in which several of the NGOs proliferating in the Third World are actually treading on popular socio-political movements and consciously preventing them from spreading at the grassroots. The concerns of the NGOs are seldom at the macro-level and they invariably seek to intervene in those areas where radical movements are active. Hundreds of controversial outfits handsomely aided from abroad are trying to prevent people-oriented projects from gaining ground and in trying to do this, they are covertly or overtly aided by the host governments keen on preserving the status quo. The manner in which all organisations distinct from the traditional Left are glibly termed Maoist or Left-Wing Extremists by an uncaring and irresponsible political establishment and a more-or-less somnolent media effectively negates the growth of real people-oriented movements at the grassroots.
Hark back to that hugely instructive example from neighbouring Bangladesh, where two-and-a-half decades ago an intrepid activist-doctor Zafrullah Chaudhury authored a bold anti-transnational drug policy for his poor country and won encomiums for doing so, only to be subsequently hounded by a plethora of personalised cases and inspired calumny to an extent where not only was he put in the dock but the drug policy he had pioneered was also put on the backburner. The ubiquitous MNCs were soon back, as were foreign-supported NGOs who proliferated at the grassroots. Ironically, some of those who were active along with Chaudhury also turned against him. Examples are legion across the globe of countries that have experienced pro-people movements at the grassroots being upturned by a marauding foreign hand, aided by ‘helpful’ governments that look the other way!
It will be downright unfair and empirically wrong to club together NGOs and tar them with the same negative brush as the IB and the Modi government seems to be now doing. There have been some important social change initiatives in various areas that are not all bad. Extreme caution is recommended in dealing with the issue, for blanket bans and sweeping generalisations will be hugely counter-productive. One cannot overlook the unpleasant fact that the Indian corporate sector and the government have not exactly been role models in genuine pro-people intervention at the grassroots. The tale of Indian philanthropy makes for dismal reading and the conscientious Ratan Tatas and Azim Premjis are ever so rare.
Any unilateral ban on all foreign funding of NGOs is going to be extremely hazardous, and definitely the country will not be overwhelmed by swadeshi donors to make up the gap that will ensue if indeed that kind of unilateral ban comes to pass. As far as the NGOs go, if they — foreign-funded or otherwise — want to have a voice in shaping the national debate, then the people should decide the terms of the discourse. The establishment may be over-exerting itself to hijack the mojo of the well-meaning NGOs, but it is for the latter to fight their case.