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How can NGOs work in Modi's India?

April 09, 2015 11:11 IST
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Kanika Datta explains why the Modi sarkar is gunning for non-profit organisations

When it comes to activists, do credit Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his consistency. His address to a joint conference of chief justices of the high courts and chief ministers on Sunday isn't the first time he has derisively referred to activists and their Non-Governmental Organisations as ‘five-star’. He did so in a speech in 2006 as chief minister of Gujarat.

Parts of that speech were quoted verbatim but without attribution (no one called it plagiarism, though) in a June 2014 classified report by the Intelligence Bureau that blamed the NGOs for ‘anti-development activities’ that, it says, cost the country two to three per cent in gross domestic product growth.

Of course, Mr Modi did not define the term ‘five star’ but we can assume he is talking about the vocal kind who file Public Interest Litigation appeals in court or highlight India's developmental and social ills at home and abroad.

At any rate, he has company across the ideological divide. Recall former home minister P Chidambaram's record. In 2012, he put NGOs that had led the protests against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant under investigation, the suspicion being that they ‘misused’ foreign funds to rally local opposition.

A year later, he revoked permission for some 4,000 NGOs to receive foreign funds, apparently for ‘prejudicially’ affecting public interest (undefined).

Such unequivocal hostility makes Modi and Chidambaram the modern-day equivalents of King Canute exhorting the waves to recede. As much as they may want, they cannot wish away this community.

According to a report by the Central Bureau of Investigation, India has some two million NGOs of various descriptions, one of the highest in the world. This is only to be expected in a chaotic, unequal and still largely liberal democracy such as India.

Many of these NGOs do genuine good work -- including those that may occasionally protest government policy, file PILs and so on. But many others can be called purely functional in nature; they enjoy tax breaks for activities that range from book publishing to shady money laundering schemes to proxy lobbies for industrial groups advocating a policy or stalling a competitor.

They are manifestly not working for national interest, however broadly defined. Recently, the home ministry has exerted some measure of control on foreign-funded ones by cancelling licences to receive foreign contributions to thousands of NGOs that have not filed returns. This may be valid, but the government does not seem to expend the same level of due diligence on purely India-funded NGOs.

Strangely, Modi's and Chidambaram's visceral distrust seems to be reserved for NGO/activists that are foreign-funded and/or those that highlight inconvenient truths about public policy.

If the IB report can be considered an accurate reflection of the establishment's views, the inference is that protests against a range of projects -- from Posco and Vedanta in Odisha to the nuclear power plant in Kudankulam and hydro-electric plants in Arunachal -- hurt ‘national interest’.

These objections don't seem to arise when protests are in the realm of politics. How can an activist lobbying for more stringent fuel norms or against the possible fallout from a nuclear power plant be called ‘anti-growth’ when politicians denying a link between smoking and cancer get the benefit of a government ‘study’?

Again, it is hard to see why the protests of local people to bauxite mining should be termed ‘anti-development’ whereas West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's banishment of the Tata Nano plant from Singur, a brazen vote-catching campaign if there ever was one, should be called people-friendly (to be fair, Modi never saw it that way).

In his very public aversion to activists of a certain kind, Modi may have also overlooked the irony of his position. He has chosen to retain at least one key scheme that was devised by an institution, the National Advisory Council, stocked with the kind of five-starrers he derides.

This is the rural jobs programme under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, a signature scheme of the previous government. Modi is also looking at ways to implement the controversial and expensive right to food Act, another NAC-backed policy.

The NAC was the quasi-government institution that Sonia Gandhi set up to advise the coalition on ways to implement its ambitious Common Minimum Programme. Indeed some of its members have opposed industrial projects and government policies in the past.

Much ink and oxygen has been expended on the utility or otherwise of the NAC, its institutional set-up and recommendations.

However flawed, the NAC undeniably brought a dimension to policy-making that has been absent in India: the voice of civil society speaking for the large population of India's disenfranchised, the kind politicians aren't really all that interested in.

Now that Modi recently expressed his commitment to the poor at the Bharatiya Janata Party's national executive meet, he may just want to have a word with the people who work with them. The term is called constructive engagement.

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