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Friday, July 27, 2007

Government steps to strangulate the voluntary groups of civil society who expose corruption and demand transparency of Goverment acts

UPA shows an iron fist for ‘foreign hand’
D K SINGH / SEEMA CHISHTI
Posted online: Friday, July 27, 2007 at 0000 hrs Print Email
Even Cong questions draconian Bill on NGOs’ foreign funding
New Delhi, July 25: In 2002, the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, chaired by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, honoured former IAS officer Harsh Mander with the Rajiv Gandhi Sadbhavna award for what it called his “commendable work” in Gujarat after the riots. In September last year, the Cong-led UPA’s Home Ministry sent him a letter denying his organisation Aman Biradari foreign funding saying “your association is engaged in political activities.” Mander filed an RTI application asking what those “political activities” were. He got a reply saying sorry, we can’t reveal that because of “national security concerns.”
Mander is a media-savvy activist who gets his voice heard in several fora but for countless NGOs across the country, the Home Ministry’s proposed Foreign Contributions Regulation Bill 2006 — it’s currently before a standing committee, chaired by Sushma Swaraj, which meets next week — has come to stand for a draconian licence raj, giving a raft of discretionary powers to bureaucrats (see below) and, in the name of national security and checking terror, threatens to choke the voluntary sector.
It also imposes five-year permits for getting foreign funds, permits which have to be renewed by officials in the Home Ministry. And in a bizarre provision, leaves it to the babu to decide what quantum of foreign funds can be used for the NGO’s “administrative” work.
This, ironically, from a government that showcases its secular, tolerant credentials and announced a draft policy on voluntary organisations that argued the exact opposite of what the proposed law entails: it called for a process to “evolve a new working relationship between the government and the voluntary sector, without affecting the autonomy and identity of voluntary organisations.”
But as per the Bill — which claims to update the 30-year-old Foreign Contributions Regulation Act — it’s now babus who will decide both autonomy and identity. What worries civil society groups is that with such arbitrary rules proposed and no guidelines to define what is “political”, there will be tremendous discretion and power vested in the government of the day to clamp down or harass any group politically inconvenient at the time.
Flooded by complaints — economist Amartya Sen has called it “alarming” and former RBI Governor Bimal Jalan even sent a letter to the Prime Minister — senior Congress leaders, at a meeting yesterday, questioned their own government’s Bill.
“Are we leaving it to the District Collector to judge the ideology and programmes of an NGO to decide whether it is political or apolitical?” asked a Congress leader at the meeting.
Attended by Pranab Mukherjee, P R Dasmunshi, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, H R Bhardwaj, Kapil Sibal, Motilal Vora, Margaret Alva, Mohsina Kidwai, and Madhusudan Mistry, the meeting criticized the provision linking certificate for foreign funding with the condition that the organization not indulge in activities related to “conversion, directly or indirectly.”
Said a senior Congress leader: “Of course, we need to strengthen the existing Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act to prevent the misuse of foreign funds in anti-national activities but we need to set up a system of increased safeguards with justice and transparency.”
Says Rajesh Tandon, India Director, PRIA (an international Centre which promotes participation and democratic governance): “We urge the government to immediately shut down any group taking money for terror activities. The laws for regulating civil society groups already exist, like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (1967), the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (2002), the Foreign Exchange Management Act (1999) and the Income Tax Act (1961). In the days of Right to Information, this arbitrary political clause is there to clamp down on all human rights groups or on any group campaigning for freedom of information and exposing corruption in government. It is a Reverse RTI. The bureaucracy will use this to get back at any group urging people to demand their rights or transparency.”
Then there is the problem of clearance. Under the old law, in case a civil society didn’t hear from the government in 90-120 days, it was considered as “no-objection.” The Bill now puts no time limit.
“FCRA 1976 was an enabling legislation. The Bill is an inhibiting legislation, civil society groups can be waiting for months, awaiting their registration, and eventually finding out that they have not been given one,” says P C Pandey, formerly, CEO of Voluntary Action Network India (VANI), a forum of 2500 civil society groups.
The All-Powerful Babu
To clear foreign funding, officers in Home Ministry will decide:
• Which organization is engaged in "meaningful work"
• Which organization has done enough work and which has not
• What is administrative expenditure since NGOs can't allocate more than 50% of foreign funds towards this head
• Which NGO should be debarred in the name of "sovereignty and integrity of India, public interest, freedom or fairness to any legislature, friendly relations with any foreign state, or harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic or regional groups, castes or communities."
• What kind of foreign hospitality, if accepted by a legislator, government servant, media person or judge, is of "purely casual nature" and thereby exempt from the prohibitory laws.

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