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A just society needs fair financing

Politically motivated restrictions on NGOs hurt social development

A just society needs fair financing

The Indian government has notably failed to disburse public funds meant for non-government organizations in the social sector, especially those working on issues of justice and equal opportunity. Yet it offers no explanation on why it restricts foreign assistance to civil society,

The result is that there is almost no public funding available for encouraging and consolidating social action including struggles against nuclear proliferation, forced migration, disempowerment of tribal people and the continuing fight for religious freedom.

The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), conceived at the height of the 1975-77 emergency, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended the constitution, has by now become a major instrument to tame civil society in general and Christian NGOs and churches in particular.

Control and punishment are its basic instruments of implementation with the government as the sole arbiter of what will pass muster and what will be damned and banned.

Any infringement of the rules entails immediate cancellation of a license and severe penalties. An NGO can be starved to death if it errs, and the organizers punished.

NGOs, especially those run by the Church, are timid and some of the largest ones will have nothing to do with social and justice issues, confining their funding to merely “construction” or “training” projects with no thought of confrontation with the power structure or the bureaucracy. Challenging illegal actions of the police and military is, of course, entirely taboo.

The government also stigmatizes Christian NGOs, flaunting their finances in the media to insinuate that foreign money is pouring in for conversions to Christianity. Hindu groups are not named by the media, though they are listed on the Home Ministry’s website.

The publishing of this annual list is almost immediately followed by a cacophony in the pro-Hindutva media and from political parties accusing the Church of secret religious conversion activities and anti-national work especially in Orissa and the eight northeastern states. Church groups have been coerced by right-wing and terrorist groups to give out large amounts of protection money.

It is not, however, commonly known that a pretty impressive amount from the national exchequer earmarked for civil society never reaches the intended recipients. A study report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights (AHRC ) in New Delhi found that some 9,500 million rupees (US$173 million) a year in public funds is squandered. Even this figure is only indicative because many states are yet to part with information.

AHRC director Suhas Chakma, who carried out the three-year study, confirms something Church groups have known for a long time, that the selection procedure for NGOs lacks transparency. All the ministries claim that applications are selected on the basis of merit. But how that merit is determined is unclear. In reality, merit matters little and corruption rules.

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In the overwhelming majority of cases, only voluntary organizations who are close to government officials or political leaders get selected. Selection is often determined not on ability or technical expertise but rather on the applicant’s ability to pay a bribe amounting to 15 percent to 30 percent of the grant.

The Comptroller and Auditor General of India also conclude that fraud cannot be ruled out. The AHRC has suggested the creation of a “National Grants-in-Aid Commission” through which all grants to the voluntary sector by all ministries shall be routed.

Common sense would dictate that with the current national outrage against corruption, the government would take urgent steps to make it easy for honest NGOs to get finance for their voluntary work in development and social justice sectors. But so far there is little indication that the government is serious about this.

John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council.

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