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Conversion Phobia

Conversion Phobia

Last week, the Home Ministry notified a crucial amendment in the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) applicable to non-government organisations (NGOs). No, they have not simplified the procedure of receiving foreign funds. Hence no respite is in sight for the development sector. Some may even think why they would act contrary to what they have been doing for a little over five years’ period now?  

What came as a shock to many was the thought behind the amendment – religious conversions! You would all ask why it should be shocking. After all, a majority of the government machinery is worried more about the supposedly shrinking “Hindu” population or the imaginary threat to the holy cow than even the GDP!  

At least the recent announcement made by the Uttar Pradesh government says so. It announced a scheme called Nirashit/Besahara Govansh Sahbhagita Yojana, whereby a person, who takes care of a cow shall be given Rs. 3720 a month, according to a report in Business Today. Cows are valued more by the government than even human beings. The same government gives only Rs. 300 a month as widow pension!

Be that as it may, one would wonder why a bunch of people (at least seven in the case of a society, two in the case of a Trust, or a Section-8 company) float an organisation, if religious conversion was the only motive. Yes, there are organisations that are registered for the purpose of propagating a particular religion. Incidentally, they are also incorporated in the same form as other NGOs are.

But how does their existence violate the provisions of any law when our Constitution itself provides for religious freedom? Also, is it that easy to convert people in a country like India, where people from diverse religions and backgrounds, work together for the growth of the country?

Before going further, let us see in detail the trajectory of FCRA ever since the Modi government took reins. One of the first amendments came in the form of changing the validity of FCRA registration. The NGOs now have to get its FCRA renewed every five years. Clearly, it is a tool to decide whether a particular NGO should be given permission or not. Earlier, it was a permanent registration.

Towards the end of NDA-I, around 20,000 NGOs had lost their FCRA registration. This clampdown against the NGOs came when a leaked Intelligence Bureau report alleged that some of the NGOs were responsible for a reduction of 2-3 per cent in the GDP.

The new law puts a restriction of 50 per cent on the proportion of foreign funds that could be used for administrative purposes, thereby controlling the way an NGO spends its money. According to a report on India’s philanthropic landscape by Bain and Company, foreign funding to the NGO sector has reduced to the extent of 40 per cent under NDA-I. And many had to shut down or minimise their operations.

Now, what does the recent amendment say? It says that every board member must submit a sworn and notarised affidavit that the NGO is complying with the provisions of Section 12 (4) of the FCRA. Not only this, they must inform about any violations. One must know that ignorance of law is no excuse. Earlier, this affidavit was required to be given by only office-bearers/key functionaries.

The recent additions in this affidavit is a declaration that the NGO members had never been linked with religious conversions or booked for communal disharmony or had never been involved in diverting foreign funds or propagating sedition or advocating violent means. The amended rules also mandate that in case of medical emergency during a visit abroad, the government has to be informed within a month about the foreign hospitality received by the NGO member.

The Ministry of Home Affairs also needs to be informed about the approximate value of such services, purpose and the manner in which it was utilised. However, it has increased the value of gift that a person can receive from Rs. 25,000 to Rs. 1 lakh.

The recent amendments may sound like any other amendment in the recent past. And some may be of the view that it is a mere compliance, why so much of hue and cry about this. And if things can be solved by submitting an affidavit, then why not do it? Of course, there is no other option left for NGOs. Does not this violate our constitutional rights?

The same government has a different view when it comes to foreign funding for political parties. Let us go back to 2014 when both the BJP and the Congress were pulled by the Delhi High Court for violating the same Act for which around 20,000 NGOs lost their license for receiving foreign funds. The political parties were receiving contributions from the Indian subsidiaries of a London-based multinational company Vedanta.

Did the government take any action against the erring parties? No. Instead, the government quietly introduced an amendment with retrospective effect in the Act. So what was called a foreign company until 2015, became an Indian company. The amendment opened avenues for all political parties for accepting contributions from foreign companies, as long as they are channelised from their Indian subsidiaries.

A leading national daily recently published an analysis of NGOs, which lost their FCRA. The report shows that a large majority of NGOs were registered for religious purposes. And 78 per cent of the religious NGOs are Christian. Many received notices mentioning that their activities were detrimental to public interest! This can be too vague a term for the NGOs to even understand. Simply put, the government does not want such NGOs to even come back or appeal against such decision.

It is unfortunate that the contribution of the development sector has always been underestimated or ignored (if that is the correct word) in the overall growth of the country.

If one organisation can impact tens of thousands of lives with a small budget of, say, a few million bucks, or helps a country in marching towards achieving sustainable development goals (SDGs), should a set of such organisations be harassed, simply because a few people in the government, think that NGOs promote forced religious conversions!

This writer has closely seen how the NGO sector struggles for raising funds for bringing a change in the lives of the downtrodden. At times, NGOs yearn for hiring a highly-skilled resource, which can do wonders. But no one would sponsor the cost of hiring him/her, simply because there is a capping on administrative costs. An NGO with high administrative costs, irrespective of the reason, is not considered a credible one.

If at all they are able to hire such people, retention becomes difficult, because an average regional/national-level NGO struggles to pay salaries to their staff, forget a reasonable increment. They hardly can think of hiring a lawyer or a legal consultant, who can help them in complying with the stringent regulations imposed by the government.

Yet, they are able to produce better results than a full-fledged government department with ample resources! It is not a new thing to see government officials collaborating with NGO partners, from running schools to hospitals to juvenile homes to mid-day meal schemes. The list is endless. In fact, government schemes would be more effectively implemented if the government supports the NGO sector.

A UN special Rapporteur on the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and association presented an analysis of FCRA, 2010 recently. In fact, without using any ambiguous or vague words, the report mentions that FCRA provisions and rules are “not in conformity with international law, principles and standards.”

India is a party to the International Covenant on civil and political rights, which provides for right to freedom of association. Our constitution also provides for it. Access to resources, especially foreign funding is one of the parts of this right. Of course, it comes with restrictions, which need to be clearly defined well in advance. The report also mentions that recent restrictions in the name of “public interest” and “economic interest” (largely the reasons quoted for revoking FCRA licenses) fail the test of “legitimate restrictions”.

The new amendment would certainly not pass the above test. Yet, the government has notified it. Clearly, the above report has fallen on deaf ears. Of course, the NGO funding needs to be regulated. One cannot disagree that corrupt organisations do exist. But there are better ways to address these concerns. An autonomous self-regulatory agency could be one way, instead of “inspector-raj” imposed on the NGO sector in the form of FCRA.

(The writer, a company secretary, can be reached at jassi.rai@gmail.com )

(Published on 30th September 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 40)