In its by-now-most-read 21-page “classified” report titled ‘Impact of NGOs on Development’ that was sent to a host of government offices including the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Power, Ministry of Coal, National Security Council Secretariat and the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) on June 3, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) named a long list of organizations and activists under its watch, from well-known environmental and anti-nuclear groups to little-known localized outfits.
Significant anti-development activities were undertaken in 2011-13, the report claims ominously, against nuclear power plants, uranium mines, coal-fired power plants, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the POSCO and Vedanta projects in Odisha, the Omkareshwar and Indira Sagar projects in Madhya Pradesh and hydel projects and extractive industries in northeast India. The cumulative negative impact of these activities on GDP growth is assessed to be 2-3 percent.
Surprisingly, in its first attempt at cleaning up NGOs, the government has not looked into the rampant corruption and glaring malpractices plaguing the voluntary sector. The focus is solely on their perceived damaging effect on development or on the government’s growth-oriented policies. The simple message seems to be that as long as NGOs don’t raise a dissenting voice, there’s much they can get away with. But more on that later.
How Modi and the UPA feel about NGOs
Even in its stated mission, the IB report gives way to stupefying paranoia and outlandish assumptions. But it has been long coming. More than five years before the second UPA government singled out foreign-funded NGOs for blocking nuclear power plants and GMOs in 2012, it was then-Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi who slammed the “wealthy” and “influential” class of NGOs that “hire PR firms to continually build their image” with “money coming from abroad”.
Modi’s speech in Delhi in September 2006 at the release of the first edition of NGOs, Activists & Foreign Funds: Anti-Nation Industry edited by Radha Rajan and Krishen Kak – a collection of articles on the anti-Hindu agenda and corrupt practices of NGOs and certain activists – came to be included in the second edition of the book.
“Funds are obtained from abroad; an NGO is set up; a few articles are commissioned; a PR firm is recruited and, slowly, with the help of the media, an image is created. And then awards are procured from foreign countries to enhance this image. Such a vicious cycle, a network of finance-activity-award is set up and, once they have secured an award, no one in Hindustan dares raise a finger, no matter how many the failings of the awardee,” Modi said, slamming the “five-star activists” and their NGOs.
There is nothing to suggest that Modi changed his opinion in all these years. And if nothing else, intelligence agencies, like the rest of the bureaucracy, are efficient weather cocks. So the IB found it fit to lift and dress up the part of Modi’s 2006 speech quoted above in their June 3 report to explain how certain foreign-funded NGOs gain prominence in India.
But to be fair to Modi, it was not his influence alone that made the IB go into overdrive. By the then-Home Minister P Chidambaram’s admission, a few NGOs were under scrutiny for misusing foreign funds in mobilizing resistance to the Kudankulam nuclear plant in early 2012. By the end of February, even Manmohan Singh was vocal in his criticism of NGOs. A year later, in January 2013, Singh went a step further to blame NGOs for stalling GMO trials.
“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.
Yet, for all its chagrin, the UPA government was not too comfortable being seen as cracking down on civil society resistance. So even after both Chidambaram and Singh publicly identified NGOs as roadblocks to growth, the PMO and the Home ministry were not in agreement on whether to link the cancellation of licences of three NGOs to anti-nuclear protests. Nevertheless, by 2013, more than 4,000 NGOs had had their permission to receive foreign funds revoked for “prejudicially affecting [unspecified] public interest” and inadequate compliance with norms.
Some attribute this approach to the compulsion that the government itself was “guided by an NGO”, a euphemism for the National Advisory Council appointed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. But pulled back from a hot trail, the hounds were straining at the leash.
As chief minister, Modi primarily grudged rights activists who never let up on his alleged complicity in the Gujarat riots. After cruising into South Block on an expensive campaign and promises of instant economic growth, he now has reasons to resent civil society resistance to speedy clearance of big-ticket development projects and replication of his Gujarat model of growth. The IB simply made perfect timing.
Why was it leaked?
Different sources in the new government, however, vary on what led to the “deliberate leak” of the IB report. While those in the PMO indicate that the leak was to gauge the public mood and the scope of a potential crackdown on organized dissent, Home ministry sources say that there was no instruction from the top and certain officials might have been on auto pilot mode.
Either way, the leak happened in bits and pieces. Long before The Indian Express quoted the June 3 IB report on June 7 and Rediff.com reported the IB alert on mischievous NGOs on June 9, The New Indian Express wrote about ‘mysterious’ NGOs on the Home ministry’s radar on 25 May. Interestingly, the intelligence brass failed to protect a classified report that was being reported by the media while it was still in the making.
Subsequently, The Indian Express published two reports specifically naming Greenpeace as a threat to national economic security on June 11 and a bunch of Gujarat NGOs critical of the Gujarat model on June 12. Meanwhile, Times Now also claimed to have scooped the report on June 11 and read out a few charges, without naming names, ostensibly because Home Minister Rajnath Singh had already denied knowledge of any such report earlier in the day.
For those with an appetite for laundry lists, here’s IB’s spectrum of suspicion.
NGOs on the government’s radar include Greenpeace, Catholic Organization for Relief and Development Aid (Cordaid), Action Aid, Amnesty International, Survival International, National Alliance of Anti-Nuclear Movements, People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, Coalition For Nuclear Disarmament And Peace (CNDP), International South Asia Forum (INSAF), National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), Popular Education & Action Centre (PEACE), Urban Emissions and Conservation Action Trust, Navdanya, Gene Campaign, Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), India for Safe Food (IFSF), Jan Sangharsh Samanvaya Samiti (JSSS), Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), Centre for the Sustainable use of Social and Natural Resources (CSNR), Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), Manipur Coalition on Extractives, Chindu, Swadhikar, Parthi Purna Adivasi Sanghathan, Sarvodaya Parivar Trust, Gujarat Vidyapith, Deevalaya Fulwadi, Rajpipla Social Service Society, Lok Samiti, Adivasi Ekta Parishad, Jai Adivasi Mahasangh, PTNRIP, Parthi Purna Adivasi Sangathan (PPAS), Maldhari Rural Action Group (MARAG), Movement For Secular Democracy, Gujarat Sarvodaya Mandal, Gujarat Vikas Manch Lokadhikar Andolan, Aazad Vikas Sangthan, Bhal Khedut Sangathan, Jamin Adhikar Andolan Gujarat (JAAG), Khedut Hit Rakshak Samiti (KHRS), Corridor Virodhi Shetkari Sangharsh Samiti and Ekta Gramin Praja Vichar Manch Samiti.
“Eminent people” and activists under the scanner include Praful Bidwai, Achin Vinaik, Admiral Ramdass, Lalitha Ramdass, Medha Patkar, Neeraj Jain, Banwarilal Sharma, Karuna Raina, Father Thomas Kochery, Arti Choksey, MG Devasahayam, SP Udayakumar, Father Ambroise, Pushparayan, Y David, Mari Rajan, Gilbert Rodrigo, Father Jayakumar, Surendra Gadekar, Vandana Shiva, Suman Sahai, Aruna Rodrigues, Kavitha Kuruganti, Prashant Paikray, Justice (Retd) PK Mishra, Bichitra Senapati, KP Sasi, Babloo Loitongbam, Prof Appa Rao, Swami Agnivesh, Sujata P Shah, Father Vincent Mukan and Lalji Desai.
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While those working on human rights and the environment have particularly drawn the IB’s suspicion, there is nothing wrong in putting all NGOs, including Khap panchayats, if one goes by Haryana Chief Minister BS Hooda, under the scanner. There is no clarity on the legal nature of many of these organizations. Most of them do not disclose income and expenditure in adequate detail. And there is no reason why the beneficiaries of income tax exemption should not be answerable to people under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
The Delhi high court put it bluntly this March, seeking tougher licensing norms and legislation for the sector. “Most private-run so-called philanthropic organizations do not understand their social responsibilities. Ninety-nine percent of the existing NGOs are fraud and simply moneymaking devices. Only one out of every hundred NGOs serve the purpose they are set up for [sic],” a bench headed by Justice Pradeep Nandrajog said.
“Earlier, the joke was that whenever seven jobless Bengalis come together, they form a puja committee. Now, across the country, such people register NGOs to fish for funds,” concedes the head of a Kolkata-based NGO that operates in seven districts in two states. “No one is looking unless you get into certain sensitive fields of work.”
According to the IB report, nearly 50 percent of the 43,527 NGOs registered under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) flouted its norms and did not file their annual returns for 2011-12. If politicians were made to declare assets to clean up politics, wondered Modi in his 2006 speech, why should the government “not make accountable NGOs that in the name of social service are increasingly…spreading as thriving businesses?”
Many NGOs are inexplicably top-heavy — packed with experts who have little or no connect to the grassroots — and as a result channel only a fraction of their budget to actual ground work. Modi targeted these “limousine liberals” of the “NGO industry”, challenging them to spend “at least three days and nights in a year in a village where there was no electricity and where they would have to go to the jungle to relieve themselves.”
If this sounds harsh, several NGOs are guilty of sensationalizing their campaigns. Much like sarkari schemes, many NGO projects are designed so that there is no way to evaluate success or fix accountability. Nearly a decade ago, I reported from Ranthambhore in 2005 how they could show you the money, if not a tiger. Funds worth Rs 1 crore per tiger released by the government, international donors and the World Bank could not save India’s showcase tiger reserve from going steadily downhill.
Worse, most big NGOs spread their resources thin in too many projects that go on for years and stay alive as overheads in their accounts merely to justify fresh funding. “Ideally, NGOs should offer models of targeted solutions in quick time so that others, including government agencies, can replicate those models. But most play it safe and justify their existence and funding by the quantity rather than quality of their work,” says a Bangalore-based activist, with a rider that policy campaigns are “meant to be protracted affairs and must be sustained” till the goals are achieved.
Ironically, as mentioned earlier, the government does not seem to be keen to fix financial accountability or evaluate performance in projects that should be target-oriented. Instead, its scrutiny is limited to advocacies and campaigns that question its policies. That is why scores of dubious NGOs, small and big, funded by the government get away with squandering funds.
A 2013 report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) – India’s funds to NGOs squandered – found that over Rs 1,000 crore of government funding to the voluntary sector is largely decided by bribes and political influence. The NGOs interviewed alleged that bribes worth 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. This is literally stealing the money of the India’s poorest,” said the report.
For example, the Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology (CAPART) under the Ministry of Rural Development sanctioned 24,760 projects worth over Rs 25 crore from September 1, 1986 to February 28, 2007. Subsequently, out of 511 of these NGOs blacklisted for irregularities, only 10 were subject to CBI investigation. By August 3, 2009, the number of blacklisted NGOs increased to 830 but FIRs were lodged against only 129. Around 4,000 files related to unaccounted funds disbursed to NGOs were feared missing from CAPART, which even released Rs 46,83,142 to five NGOs after they were blacklisted.
The ACHR report singles out the Ministry of Environment & Forests as one of the prime offenders in this regard. The federal auditor (CAG) in its report tabled in Parliament on November 26, 2010 indicated an organized scam in allotting grants by the green ministry to NGOs and said that no accounts had been maintained for more than 20 years against grants worth Rs 597 crores.
So what made the government wake up?
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Evidently, the urgency since 2011 has been to muffle dissent. What became necessary under UPA-2 to facilitate statutory environmental and forest rights clearances for mega projects gained additional momentum under the new government that has also the Gujarat model of growth to defend. Add to this the third flashpoint of human rights violations (in riots, displacement in development projects and under oppressive laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act) and the IB report does not seem so inexplicable.
And what better way to justify a crackdown than by raising the specter of a “foreign hand”? Again, Modi is only a successor to a totalitarian legacy here — Indira Gandhi got the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act legislated in 1976 while the UPA-2 amended it in 2010, making it more difficult for the NGOs.
But can a liberal economy really question foreign funding in a globalized world? While inviting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in almost all sectors from defence to retail, how does the government justify singling out the voluntary sector? There are laws to tackle financial crime or unlawful activities such as spying. But forcing policy consensus cannot be a reason or excuse for choking funds that fuel anti-establishment points of view. By that logic, India should also be wary of FDI in education or even films because these shape how our young and not-so-young ones think.
One argument repeated thoughtlessly in this recent debate is that foreign investment in development is legitimate, while external funding to NGOs for auditing those models of growth or advocating alternatives is not. “We cannot leave it solely to the official agencies that promote projects and policies to scrutinize the same. NGOs, particularly those not funded by the government, bring the much-needed independence in project evaluation and policy inputs,” asserts a Mumbai-based environmentalist who runs an NGO.
Besides, it is not that foreign-funded NGOs are trying to undermine Indian companies to make room for multinational corporations (MNCs). “In specific cases, there can be conflicting MNC interests and we are aware of such traps. A POSCO or a Vedanta is not Indian. How can fighting their dangerous plans in the interest of India’s tribal population be anti-national?” asks a rights activist in Odisha.
The other argument is that charity begins at home. Many feel that the West should put its house in order before helping the developing world save its nature or cut emissions. “Unfortunately, it is not an ideal world. But it is a connected world. Forests, ocean or carbon are not local issues. Everybody has stakes everywhere. Besides, all western donors are not necessarily the actual offenders in their homeland,” counters a Delhi-based climate activist.
Ultimately, it is impossible to create a perception of absolute neutrality. Each has her own agenda and all interest groups have the right to lobby and campaign. This is also necessary because government agencies and officials are often riddled with conflict of interest. In 2009, for example, allaying Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss’s apprehensions about the potential health impact of GM food, Minister of State in the PMO Prithviraj Chavan wrote to him quoting verbatim from promotional material by the GM industry, including the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, a quasi-scientific body funded by Monsanto.
So it is barely scandalous if NGOs such as Greenpeace should also fund studies that, more often than not, throw up alarming results. In this biased world, what really matters is the merit of one’s contention and a balance in public debate and policies. If merely accepting foreign funds compromises national economic security, India’s two principal political parties indebted to Vedanta should be flagged as the biggest threats to the country.
Jay Mazoomdaar is an independent journalist. He writes on environment, development, politics and life. He is currently working on a book of essays. He tweets @mazoomdaar.