Activists bristle as India cracks down on foreign funding of NGOs

Amid an intensifying crackdown on nongovernmental groups that receive foreign funding, Indian activists are accusing the government of stifling their right to dissent in the world’s largest democracy.

India has tightened the rules on nongovernmental organizations over the past two years, following protests that delayed several important industrial projects. About a dozen NGOs that the government said engaged in activities that harm the public interest have seen their permission to receive foreign donations revoked, as have nearly 4,000 small NGOs for what officials said was inadequate compliance with reporting requirements.

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The government stepped up its campaign this month, suspending the permission that Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), a network of more than 700 NGOs across India, had to receive foreign funds. Groups in the network campaign for indigenous peoples’ rights over their mineral-rich land and against nuclear energy, human rights violations and religious fundamentalism; nearly 90 percent of the network’s funding comes from overseas.

“The government’s action is aimed at curbing our democratic right to dissent and disagree,” Anil Chaudhary, who heads an NGO that trains activists and is part of the INSAF network, said Tuesday. “We dared to challenge the government’s new foreign donation rules in the court. We opposed nuclear energy, we campaigned against genetically modified food. We have spoiled the sleep of our prime minister.”

In its letter to INSAF, the Home Ministry said the group’s bank accounts were frozen and foreign funding approval suspended because it was likely to “prejudicially affect the public interest.”

A government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the government is not against criticism. But when an NGO uses foreign donations to criticize Indian policies, “things get complicated, and you never know what the plot is,” the official said, adding that NGOs should use foreign donations to do development work instead.

The United States is the top donor nation to Indian NGOs, followed by Britain and Germany, according to figures compiled by the Indian government, with Indian NGOs receiving funds from both the U.S. government and private U.S. institutions. In the year ending in March 2011, the most recent period for which data are available, about 22,000 NGOs received a total of more than $2 billion from abroad, of which $650 million came from the United States.

Asked last week about the Indian government’s moves against foreign-funded NGOs, a U.S. State Department spokesman said the department was not aware of any U.S. government involvement in the cases. The spokesman said such civil society groups around the world “are among the essential building blocks of any healthy democracy.”

The situation in India is not unlike the problems that similar groups face in Russia, where a law passed last year requires foreign-funded NGOs that engage in loosely defined political activities to register as “foreign agents.”

Action after nuclear protests

Trouble for many nonprofit activist groups here began more than a year ago when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blamed groups from the United States for fomenting ­anti-nuclear protests that have stalled the commissioning of India’s biggest reactor, a Russian-backed project in Koodankulam in power-starved Tamil Nadu state.

U.S. officials, including Peter Burleigh, the American ambassador at the time, quickly moved to assure Indian officials that the U.S. government supports India’s civil nuclear power program. And Victoria Nuland, then the State Department spokeswoman, said the United States does not provide support for nonprofit groups to protest nuclear power plants. “Our NGO support goes for development, and it goes for democracy programs,” Nuland said.

Although Singh was widely criticized for his fears, the government froze the accounts of several NGOs in southern India within weeks.

“All our work has come to a stop,” said Henri Tiphagne, head of a human rights group called People’s Watch. “I had visited [the] Koodankulam protest site once. Is that a banned territory?”

But the government’s action appears to have had its desired effect. “NGOs are too scared to visit Koodankulam or associate with us now,” said anti-nuclear activist S. P. Udayakumar.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said many NGOs are afraid to speak up about the suspension of their foreign funding approval, which is “being used to intimidate organizations and activists.”

Analysts say the government’s way of dealing with dissent is a throwback to an earlier era. But Indian authorities have been particularly squeamish about criticism of late. As citizens have protested corruption and sexual assaults on women and demanded greater accountability from public officials, authorities have often reacted clumsily — including beating up peaceful protesters and cracking down on satirical cartoons, Facebook posts and Twitter accounts.

Donors look elsewhere

Officials say NGOs are free to use Indian money for their protests. But activists say Indian money is hard to find, with many Indians preferring to donate to charities.

A recent report by Bain & Co. said that about two-thirds of Indian donors surveyed said that NGOs have room to improve the impact they are making in the lives of beneficiaries. It said that a quarter of donors are holding back on increased donations until they perceive evidence that their donations are having an effect.

“They give blankets to the homeless, sponsor poor children or support cow shelters,” said Wilfred Dcosta, coordinator of INSAF. “They do not want to support causes where you question the state, demand environmental justice or fight for the land rights of tribal people pitted against mighty mining companies.”

INSAF, whose acronym means “justice” in Urdu, has seen its portion of foreign funding increase significantly during the past 15 years. Now it receives funds from many international groups, including the American Jewish World Service and Global Greengrants Fund in the United States, and groups in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

The top American donors to Indian NGOs include Colorado-based Compassion International, District-based Population Services International and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“It is not a question about money, it is a fight for our right to dissent,” said Chaudhary. “I don’t need dollars to block a road.”

 
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