NEW DELHI — The U.S. ambassador to India on Wednesday criticized the government’s clampdown on nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding, saying it could have a “chilling effect” on civil society in the world’s largest democracy.
In recent months, the government has blocked the bank accounts of the environmental group Greenpeace India, stopped an activist from flying abroad to lobby against coal mining in the country and put the Ford Foundation’s donations here under new scrutiny.
“I read with some concern the recent press reports on challenges faced by NGOs operating in India,” Richard Verma, the U.S. envoy, said in a speech in the Indian capital. “Because a vibrant civil society is so important to both of our democratic traditions, I do worry about the potentially chilling effects of these regulatory steps focused on NGOs.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nearly year-old government is determined to boost economic growth and build infrastructure by removing common hurdles in the way of doing business in India, such as land-acquisition and environmental issues. Analysts say the government considers the activities of many environmental groups, including Greenpeace, detrimental to India’s aspirations to be a global economic powerhouse.
In January, the government began scrutinizing fund transfers by several U.S.-based NGOs operating in India, including the Sierra Club and 350.org. In April, it added to the list all Ford Foundation donations to local projects, alleging that the group did not file annual reports and balance sheets in time and was working against the “national interest and security.”
The Reserve Bank of India ordered banks to ensure that flows of funds from the Ford Foundation were cleared by the Ministry of Home Affairs. This prompted Marie Harf, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, to say, “We remain concerned about the difficulties caused to civil society organizations.”
Last month, Greenpeace India’s ability to receive foreign funds was blocked and its domestic bank accounts frozen. On Tuesday, the organization said it has one month left to fight for its survival.
“The government is choking us. They are sending a clear message to all the NGOs that says: ‘If you have a point of view which is different from the government’s, this is what could happen to you,’ ” said Samit Aich, executive director of Greenpeace India. “The government wants us all to be environmental lapdogs, not environmental watchdogs.”
In January, Greenpeace campaigner Priya Pillai was prevented from boarding a flight to London to speak to British lawmakers against a coal mining project that she said would destroy forests and displace tribal people in central India.
Many in India called Pillai and her group anti-national, saying they were dragging a foreign country into a local battle over natural resources. Pillai said the mining company was registered in Britain.
Greenpeace India went to court, and in March, the Delhi High Court ordered the removal of Pillai’s name from a no-fly list and said the government cannot “do away with dissent.”
“The government is saying that these NGOs are working against India’s national interest,” said Wilfred Dcosta, convenor of the Indian Social Action Forum, an umbrella group of more than 700 NGOs. “But who defines national interest?”
Last week, several groups met in New Delhi to protest what they called the government’s “frontal attack on the right to expression, association and dissension” and vowed to fight the crackdown in India’s courts.
The maligning of NGOs did not begin with Modi’s government. His predecessor, Manmohan Singh, tightened rules governing foreign funding to Indian nongovernmental groups, including anti-nuclear organizations, and revoked permissions granted to several to receive funds from abroad.