Civil society under more pressure

Imlisanen Jamir

Even as Parliament passed the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Bill, 2020 last week, which according to the government will bring about transparency in the working of non-profit organizations, certain facets of the bill stand to hinder the function of civil society organisations, whose roles in the present climate remain crucial.

It seeks to make Aadhaar number submission for NGOs mandatory, while enabling the Centre to allow an NGO or association to surrender its FCRA certificate, among others. More concerning is the bill’s prohibition on transfer of funds from one FCRA-registered society to another which is also recognised by the Act.

According to the Centre, the Bill seeks to help achieve the government’s vision of a ‘self reliant India’ while also making sure that foreign funds are not misused or utilized against the ‘national interest;’ aims which are difficult to argue against, as any organization needs to be held accountable on their activities.   

But the sweeping powers given to the government to regulate and hound non-government agencies show the intensity of the State’s distrust towards civil society. The latter has always played a vital role in voicing the concerns of the marginalized while working towards grassroots empowerment and keeping power structures in check.

The clauses in the bill are in danger of being used to make non-governmental organizations more vulnerable to harassment. For instance, the bill places all NGO activity under a net of suspicion. Meanwhile, the inability of FCRA non profits to transfer funds to other FCRA registered organizations will hinder resource distribution for activity in marginalized areas, while dampening the spirit of cooperation between non profits.  

It may also reduce the already besieged space for civil society activity in the country.

In Nagaland, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs’ online portal, over half of registration certificates of associations in Nagaland have been cancelled for violation of various provisions of the FCRA 2010 since 2012. Seven FCRA registered associations filed their Foreign Contribution (FC)-return in 2019-2020 in Nagaland; while 81 associations filed their returns in 2018-2019.

Out of 260, only 85 FCRA registered associations were denoted active “as on today” informed the FCRA Dashboard on the portal accessed on September 24. Overall, out of 49,859 total FCRA associations in India, 22,444 were active while the rest were either cancelled – 20,674 or deemed expired – 6,741.

Civil society in Nagaland, despite its fair share of problems, has been instrumental as pressure groups to nudge government into action on crucial issues.  It is crucial to recognize that NGO activities go beyond mere philanthropy. They engage with the grassroots, and civil society has been an important cornerstone of Indian democracy to bring out deficiencies of government programmes, while bringing to the limelight the difficult issues on human and labour rights, gender issues, healthcare, environment, education, legal aid, research etc. 

To handicap such activism, by overwhelming it with distrust and suspicion, only serves to weaken democracy. 

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