The Supreme Court has weighed in on the current stand-off between non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the Centre. On Wednesday, the court said a stronger regulatory regime was needed. In other words, an appropriate law is required to regulate the flow of money to the nearly 31 lakh NGOs in the country. The court observed that less than 10 percent of NGOs in the country submitted the details of their accounts with the registrar of societies. “There is no Central legislation to ensure accountability,” the court said. “Anyone can register a society and it becomes an NGO. Unless some mechanism is put in centrally, nothing can be done,” it added.
According to the petition filed in the apex court, 80 percent of NGOs in India receive foreign funds. As per the records filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation with the court, India has one NGO for every 400 people. Many NGOs that claim to espouse various causes seem reluctant to disclose their funding pattern to the larger public. Although one could accuse the NDA government of needlessly painting them as villains, the fact remains that these NGOs should be open to greater probity. Such public scrutiny is precisely required because many of these entities claim to represent the people’s interests. If they do serve the public interest, there should be no hesitation on their part.
With many NGOs unwilling to disclose key financial details, many detractors 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. Even though these entities present themselves as “non-profits", it does not mean that they do not have their own vested interests. The intention is not to paint the entire gamut of NGOs as lobbyists or paid arms of foreign governments. 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. But like any other corporation, they must be subject to public scrutiny. Unlike corporations that have financial motives and investors, many NGOs depend on large donors or benefactors, who provide the requisite resources. 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 hullabaloo 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 entirely another matter that corporations in India are given greater leeway by the Indian State.