Target NGOs: Why Greenpeace got the rough treatment

In a significant order on Tuesday, the Delhi High Court unblocked Rs 1.87 crore received by NGO Greenpeace from its Amsterdam headquarters. The NGO had filed a case after the ministry of home affairs in June last year directed the Reserve Bank of India to take prior permission of the ministry before clearing any foreign aid to the NGO from Greenpeace International and Climate Works.

Saying that there is no material evidence against the organisation and that the government's move is "arbitrary" and "unconstitutional", the high court said that all NGOs were entitled to have their viewpoints and because their views are not in consonance with that of the government's, it does not mean they were acting against national interest. This statement will hopefully stop the government to move cautiously against such organisations in future, especially if they don't have ample proof.

This view that NGOs and Left activists are stopping India's development is quite pervasive in India's administration. A senior police officer in Chhattisgarh, the ground zero of many clashes between pro-industry government and people led by NGOs, once told me that "the JNU-educated Leftists will ruin the country".

While many are accusing the NDA of acting arbitrarily against civil society organisations, especially those working with poor communities on right-based issues, the process of stifling the voice of NGOs actually began during the UPA regime when the then government strengthened the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act in 2010.

Before the amendments came into force, the FCRA imposed restrictions only on involvement of civil society organisations in electoral politics. The new one covers all "objectives of political nature" and even "common methods of political action" such as dharna, rallies and strikes.

"Whatever we do at the ground level has a political connotation. Even awareness programmes about rights of a citizen, for example, the Right to Education Act or the NREGA, can be construed as 'political' in nature. Like the 'public purpose' in the land acquisition act, this is a grey area," a senior NGO activist told me on condition of anonymity. Others said that this provision is being used at local level by even petty officials to stop NGOs from questioning their decisions, many of which could be faulty.

The 2010 FCRA rules were then used to haul anti-nuclear protesters in Kudankulam and the Dantewada-based Vanavasi Chetna Ashram (the NGO was a strong critic of the Chhattisgarh government's now discredited Salwa Judum programme).

Together with a restrictive visa regime and targeted application of the Foreigner's Act, the FCRA became a handy tool to suppress dissent. Unsurprisingly, the 2010 FCRA amendments were cleared by a bipartisan parliamentary committee.

It was hardly surprising then when the BJP came into power in 2014, an Intelligence Bureau (IB) report on NGOs surfaced that calculated (the methodology is unclear) the negative impact of NGOs on India's GDP at about 2-3% per annum and identified seven sectors/projects that got stalled because of agitations.

Since development is high on the agenda of the NDA government, such clashes between the government and the NGO sector is certain to continue, and there is no doubt that thanks to the strong FCRA law, the government will always have an upper hand. But let's not forget that a "society that gets rid of all its troublemakers goes downhill".

Instead of painting the entire sector black, the government must focus its energies on weeding out NGOs that squander money. A 2013 report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights alleged that over Rs 1,000 crore of state funding to the sector was decided by bribes and political influence.

It is generally believed that the Act covers only non-profit organisations, and not others. This is not true. While it covers NGOs, it also covers persons in sensitive government positions and political parties.

So, why is the government focusing its energies on easy targets, like NGOs? The answer is easy, so no prizes for guessing this one.