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India to tighten foreign funding, social workers upset

Foreign donations doubled in the past decade but organizations have not used them for their registered purposes

Nirendra Dev and Bijay Kumar Minj

Nirendra Dev and Bijay Kumar Minj

Updated: September 21, 2020 10:02 AM GMT
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India to tighten foreign funding, social workers upset

Farmers shout slogans as they burn an effigy of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar in Amritsar on Sept. 20 following the passing of agriculture bills in parliament. (Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP)

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has introduced a bill in India's parliament to tighten the rules of overseas funding in a move that could adversely affect thousands of social workers including Catholic organizations.

The government led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Sept. 20 proposed certain amendments to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FRCA), which critics say aims to help the government tightly monitor organizations and silence criticism.

The amendment proposes to decrease an organization's administrative expenses from foreign funding to 20 percent from 50 percent. It also proposes to link leaders of all organizations to their biometric identity cards called Aadhaar.

The proposal also wants to empower the government to stop the utilization of foreign funds by an organization by ordering a "summary enquiry."

Opposition lawmakers and social workers see the move as a major step to crush dissent and give government unbridled powers to harass certain voluntary organizations in a country where religious minorities continue to complain of being sidelined.

The amendments are expected to sail through parliament because of the BJP's majority in the house. But it aims to "crush dissent," opposition Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said in the lower house of parliament.

His party colleagues and another opposition member belonging to Trinamool (Grassroots) Congress supported him.

"This is an example of big brother watching — that is, the central government keeping an eye on all those receiving foreign contributions. It is mainly directed at minority organizations or institutions," said Saugata Roy of Trinamool Congress.

Several Christian social workers in the northeast have also decried the government's move, saying that FCRA norms have been stringent in India. The government has "misused" it to discriminate against charity organizations run by religious minorities.

Three years ago, an influential US-based Christian donor called Compassion International was forced to stop its Indian operations. Since it came to power in 2014, the Modi government has been enforcing FCRA provisions rather harshly, said Jewel Marak, a social worker in Shillong in Meghalaya.

In 2018, Baptist World Alliance chief Reverend Paul Msiza could not attend the 150 years of celebrations of Christianity in the Garo Hills in Meghalaya after the government denied him a visa.

The Modi government canceled the FCRA licenses of about 10,000 organizations in 2015 alone. It included funding agency Ford Foundation and the global environmentalist group Greenpeace.

However, leading Catholic organizations were cautious in their reactions to the proposals, saying it was premature to comment on them.

Father Paul Moonjely, director of Caritas India, told UCA News that "it was too early to comment because we are not sure what the new FCRA bill has."

"We have to study, consult our expert and legal advisor and follow accordingly. It is a very sensitive issue, so better we wait," said Father Moonjely, the head of Caritas India, the social service wing of the Catholic Bishops' Conference and the biggest networked non-governmental agency in India.

Amitabh Behar, CEO of Oxfam India, is against the proposal. "Devastating blow. Red carpet welcomes for foreign investments for businesses but stifling and squeezing the non-profit sector by creating new hurdles for foreign aid which could help lift people out of poverty, ill health and illiteracy," he tweeted.

A social worker in Christian-dominated Nagaland state said the government exhibits hypocrisy. "They want foreign corporate investment but no charity?"

"This law is against Christians and Muslims. This is a move to target people who speak against the government. It seeks to scare away the common people who dare to vote against the BJP," he said.

A government statement explaining the amendment's reasons said the annual inflow of foreign contributions has almost doubled between 2010 and 2019. "But many recipients of foreign contributions have not utilized the same for the purpose for which they were registered or granted prior permission" under the law.

A right-wing Hindu intellectual, S. Gurumurthy, said that "the so-called social entrepreneurs can't get dollar-rated salaries, five-star accommodation and executive class travel and a posh office and secretariat."

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