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Greater probity, please

 MPost |  2015-05-22 01:03:10.0  |  New Delhi

Many intellectuals tied to foreign-funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs), who have pontificated on national and global forums about the state of affairs in India, now need to introspect. Recent disclosures by the Ministry of Home Affairs reveal that Indian NGOs have received funds through Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) channels to the tune of Rs 47,000 crore during the decade starting in 2002 and ending in 2012. The United States of America (USA) topped the list with Rs 20,000 crore worth of donations followed by the United Kingdom (UK) and Germany with Rs 8,000 crore each. The investigation further revealed that a quantum of funds worth Rs 11,070 crore were received by Indian NGOs during 2013-14. The US, yet again, topped the list with Rs 4,491 crore worth of contributions.

It was only last month that the government had cancelled the licences of nearly 9,000 such entities for Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) violations. In that particular order, the MHA said notices were issued to 10,343 NGOs for not filing annual returns for the year 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12. The notices were served way back on October 16, 2014, saying that NGOs should file their annual returns within a month, specify the amount of foreign funds received, sources of such funds, purpose for which it was received and the manner in which such foreign contributions were utilised. Out of the 10,344 NGOs, only 229 had replied. Without prompt replies from the remaining NGOs, the Centre had cancelled all their registrations that were earlier issued under FCRA.

It was a positive move on the government’s part, primarily because these entities, who claim to represent social and environmental causes, seem reluctant to disclose their funding pattern to the larger public. Although one could accuse the Indian government of needlessly painting them as villains, the fact remains that these NGOs should disclose their funding pattern to their larger audience. Such public scrutiny is precisely required because many of these NGOs claim to represent the people’s interest. If indeed many of these NGOs do serve the public interest, there should be no hesitation on their part. With many NGOs unwilling to share key financial details, we have strong reasons to believe that they are not genuine think-tanks or public service activists. One could argue instead that these NGOs are actually paid lobbyists of their foreign benefactors.

Merely because they deem themselves to be “non-profit”, it does not mean that they do not have their own vested interests. Questions, for example, can be asked of those non-profits that promote renewable energy and present a bleak picture of what coal and other non-renewable energy projects can do to the environment. After announcing plans to generate 40 percent of its power through renewable energy, Germany decided to scale back such projects owing to massive costs. Therefore, what chance does India have to quickly lower its dependence on fossil fuel-based energy sources, considering its burgeoning population?  Are there other vested interests at play behind the push for renewable energy by such NGOs?

The intention is not to paint the entire gamut of NGOs as lobbyists or paid arms of foreign governments. Like any arm of the State machinery, NGOs are vital for a vibrant democracy because they challenge the status-quo and bring new ideas and “facts” to the table by organising people. Like any other corporation, however, they must be subject to public scrutiny. Unlike corporations that have financial motives and investors, many NGOs have large donors or benefactors, who provide the requisite resources required to conduct various activities. Like customers for various corporations, NGOs have people that it claims to serve. Therefore NGOs, like corporations, must also be subject to closer financial scrutiny. 

Imagine the hullaballoo it would cause if a large Indian corporation decided not to file their annual returns with the Income Tax Department. In one report by a leading national daily, it was found that even though foreign-funded Indian NGOs had received Rs 12,500 crore from abroad in 2013, barely two percent of them reported it. It is another matter that corporations in India are given greater leeway by the Indian State, besides questions surrounding why funding to Indian NGOs from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have not come under MHA scrutiny.

Among the major NGOs working on policy issues who have received maximum donations through 
FCRA route -The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), which is headed by RK Pachauri, has received about Rs 156 crore via foreign donations, some of which has come from US-based corporations like Dow Chemicals. One must remember that it is the same Dow Chemicals, which acquired the company responsible for the disastrous Bhopal gas leak of 1985. For a non-profit that promotes “clean energy”, it does seem rather odd that TERI would receive funds from such a controversial company.

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