Less than a month after the Modi government took office, civil society organisations can be said to be feeling the heat. An Intelligence Bureau report to the prime minister’s office has warned against a range of NGOs, suggesting they pose a threat to the economy, and that they have collectively cost India 2-3 per cent of its GDP. The IB’s list includes not just international organisations like Greenpeace that have drawn attention to the environmental damage of coal-based and nuclear energy, or those with extensive foreign funding, but also many Gujarat-based NGOs that have campaigned for the victims of the 2002 riots, among other issues, including the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.
This is not the first time a government has had occasion to complain about motivated civil society organisations — the UPA often deployed the FCRA to delay or revoke licences, and former PM Manmohan Singh has complained about the “foreign hand” instigating campaigns against nuclear energy. This charge is not entirely baseless. Many NGOs do have agendas that further the interests of their funders, while others are driven by the particular causes they speak for. They are not meant to take the large view and harmonise interests. By their very nature, advocacy groups take the narrow, intense position. The logic of the voluntary sector and private capital often work in concert, and try to supplant the legitimate functions of the state. They are often irritants to the government, but they also often aid governments in informal ways, fill gaps on the ground, bring a useful view to policy and legislation. In other words, there is no single theory of civil society organisations or one ideal approach to them. NGOs cannot be red-flagged and harassed — the government’s test is in how it reacts to their interventions.
The UPA erred on the other side too, on occasion, treating NGO orthodoxy on GM crops as equivalent to the scientific consensus, for instance, or inviting civil society to take on an outsized role in drafting policy through the NAC. But the Modi government must be wary of taking a repressive attitude to NGOs, merely because they articulate alternative priorities. It will be challenged, like all governments are, and its task is to accommodate diverse perspectives where possible, to shoulder past the ones that it judges irrelevant, and know that some criticism is inevitable given the trade offs of any decision-making. It must realise that scapegoating NGOs is not going to strengthen the government.
Six non-governmental organisations, which figure in an Intelligence Bureau report on NGOs stalling development projects, operate out of a single building in Katwaria Sarai in South Delhi.
The IB report on the ‘Impact of NGOs on Development’ said inquiries into “pattern, design and funding of protests at nuclear plants and uranium mines” revealed a “superior network” of pan-India organisations closely linked to territorial outfits that were also indulging in agitation against GM foods and the POSCO steel plant in Orissa.
“The manner of free-funding for these NGOs is observed from the fact that ASHA and its IFSF campaign are headquartered with four prominent anti-nuclear NGOs at a single address — A-124/6, Katwaria Sarai, New Delhi — which is an unmarked, small, two-room flat,” the report stated.
“These four NGOs are Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament & Peace (CNDP), Popular Education & Action Centre (PEACE) and Jan Sangharsh Samanvaya Samiti, the latter being the focal point for anti-Fatehabad nuclear power plant,” it added.
Its section on anti-nuclear activism said CNDP, INSAF and PEACE were at the forefront of protests against building of nuclear energy plants in India and accused them of coordinating radiation leak studies and instigating protests to stall construction work at nuclear sites.
ASHA (Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture) and IFSF (India For Safe Food) have been identified in the IB report as among the four NGOs — the other two being Navdanya and Gene Campaign — which have been leading anti-GM food activism in India.
“The above NGOs were active facilitators of news articles, liaison with other activists and social media activism which contributed to the four-year old moratorium on Bt Brinjal and the ban regimes recommended by parliamentary standing committee (August 2012), Technical Expert Committee appointed by the Supreme Court in October 2012,” the IB said.
INSAF, involved in the anti-Jaitapur nuclear plant activism, was accused of organising and paying for anti-POSCO events “with active participation of most NGOs headquartered with it at Katwaria Sarai”. The IB cautioned that INSAF was now opposing the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, asking activists to warn farmers that they would become landless owing to government acquisition of land for the project. The document claimed INSAF used foreign funds during 2009-12 to pay “at least 15 non-FCRA and 26 FCRA organisations”, including an individual to protest against the extra-judicial executions in Manipur. Its FCRA registration was frozen in 2013 as transfers by an FCRA NGO to non-FCRA NGOs violated Section 7 of FCRA 2010.
When The Indian Express visited the Katwaria Sarai building on Thursday, it found that two of the three floors there are occupied by the four NGOs mentioned in the report — INSAF, CNDP, PEACE and Jan Sangharsh Samanvaya Samiti.
Anil Chaudhary, convenor of PEACE, said there was nothing wrong if they were all operating out of the same address since “we are all like-minded organisations and there is no harm in allowing cost-cuts for infrastructure, especially when we are fighting for a common cause”. He said a monthly rental of Rs 15,000 was being paid for each floor.
Chaudhary, who is also a member of INSAF, said the CNDP was not a registered NGO but “a campaign by individuals with no foreign funding, no membership record… the primary focus of the campaign is nuclear disarmament and its financial repercussions”.
“CNDP was formed in 2000 after Pokhran and became part of PEACE which was formed in 1995. My only question is how has a document of national security been leaked? And if there is a ban on NGOs going against government policy, why aren’t such rules specified in the FCRA?”
“PEACE and INSAF are registered under FCRA. The IB report has not been formulated overnight. It has involved years of investigation. IB personnel have visited us every time there has been a campaign or an awareness programme. During President Clinton’s visit to India in 2000, the IB personnel visited our office to inquire what we were up to,” he said.
PEACE has 16 members and five trainers who deal with various issues relating to displacement, water, NREGA. They also train field workers of smaller NGOs. Nuclear disarmament, Chaudhary said, is only one of the many issues they raise.
The INSAF, he said, is an umbrella body comprising 750 organisations, including PEACE. “INSAF cannot have individuals as its members. Only organisations can be part of it. Elections are held to top posts every two years. INSAF and PEACE each receive funding of Rs one crore a year, the main foreign contributor being Germany. All this has been submitted in our annual report to the FCRA. Why are they creating a problem now,” Chaudhary said.
Last year, the registration of INSAF was suspended for 180 days in “public interest” and its bank accounts frozen. This order was challenged in the Delhi High Court and the suspension order was subsequently withdrawn.
“We learnt of the IB report only through the newspaper, we never received any official correspondence from the department. We entertain the personnel the same way we entertain any and every visitor who comes here. We are very clear on what we are fighting for. The IB may say what they want. But as a small organisation, we can’t be behind a mass movement. Our only way to spread awareness is through small competitions in schools and workshops. If there are rules, we are following them. In fact, we are glad the IB has named us. At least now our voices will be heard,” Chaudhary said.
NGO Reporter Note: The all four NGO mentioned above either don’t have a proper website & if they have then that website neither have proper contact me & sitemap pages.
Very strange indeed. NGOs calling for transparency etc are not transparent themselves. This Reporter have marked this tendency in most of NGOs. They hide themselves where as they should be open to general public so that more & more people may approach them to get their problem solved.