A bill aimed to regulate religious conversions, among other things, has civil society organizations in India up in arms as they claim that it would compromise the model of bringing relief and support to millions of poor and ordinary people.
Spelling out the objectives of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Amendment (FCRA) Bill 2020 the country’s federal Interior Minister Nityanand Rai told parliament that it is specifically meant to regulate religious conversions supported by foreign funds and the workings of NGOs by making them accountable and transparent.
The bill discourages foreign funding, collaboration among NGOs as one NGO cannot transfer money to the other and puts a cap on administrative expenses among other measures.
Amitabh Behar, chief executive officer of Oxfam India, said the talk on conversions is “ridiculous”.
“A careful reading of all the arguments in favor of this objective fails to establish the amendments that will achieve it,” said Behar who added that the bill is “just a bid to galvanise political support from the government’s Hindutava” hard-line Hindu nationalism base.
Behar said it is a myth that foreign sources of money are largely church-based. The overwhelming majority of donors are philanthropic bodies or government agencies that have no association with Christianity.
“The majority of the organisations that receive funds have nothing to do with religion. They focus on developmental issues like poverty eradication and work for gender justice,” he said.
From overseas sources Indian charities receive more than $2 billion a year in donations.
John Dayal, veteran journalist and human rights activist, said the bill shows how the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government wants to cripple the Church in India, especially in rural areas.
“The victims are India’s poor, its marginalized; its women, and its children. It is with them that the Catholic Church works through Caritas India, the Religious congregations and through the nearly 200 dioceses of the three Rites — Latin and the oriental Syro Malabar and Syro Malankara,” Dayal said.
“All these 200 dioceses cover the entire country — districts, blocks and panchayats or local government units, especially in areas where the poorest live,” he said.
“This work involves education, child care and social empowerment, graining in issues of criminal law, human rights, constitutional provisions for various issues, and gender empowerment,” said Dayal, who is also secretary-general of the All India Christian Council.
Father Suresh Mathew, editor of Indian Currents weekly, said the new legislation is about keeping civil society on a tight leash by starving it of funds and forcing rules to choke their existence.
According to critics, the bill is also aimed at helping the government tightly monitor organizations and silence criticism.
Father Cedric Prakash, founder-director of NGO Prashant in Ahmedabad in western Gujarat, pointed out that Amnesty International has shut shop in India and many more would be forced to do so.
Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the Population Foundation of India, said according to bill there will be no sub-granting which means “if you are getting foreign funding, you cannot work in partnership as you cannot fund another NGO or collaboration partner.”
“All large NGOs collaborate with smaller ones which are there at the grassroots level — they do not have the capability of raising money on their own,” Muttreja said.
Father Cedric Prakash, founder-director of NGO Prashant in Ahmedabad in western Gujarat state, said the bigger NGOs always work in tandem with community-based organizations and other grassroots groups who are better aware of local perspectives. “So not being able to transfer the money for legitimate purposes, is going to hamper important work being done,” said Father Prakash.
Muttreja further raised concerns on how the bill’s cap on administrative expenses from 50 percent to 20 percent will curb all research and creative activity.
“We will not be able to do any research — be it international or national. We won’t be able to collaborate with universities or research institutes and this would impact research especially in this time of COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.
Muttreja said the clause that all transactions are to be made only in one bank in Delhi will be inconvenient for 20,000 charities — over 90 percent of whom are based out of the national capital.
She said the amendment is inexplicable after the government commended the NGOs for their role played during the lockdown. Even the Supreme Court praised the way civil society helped migrants and the poor.
Harsh Jaitli, chief executive officer of the Voluntary Action Network India (VANI), said the bill with all its “curbs and repressive measures” would be a “death blow” to the development relief, scientific research and community support work of NGOs. VANI, a membership-based apex body, has a network of 10,000 civil society organizations across India.
Jaitli said by bringing in this amendment, the government of India was not recognizing the diversity of NGOs, which include world-class science organizations.
According to the federal interior ministry, the move is to ensure that foreign money does not dominate social and political discourse in India.
The ministry has stated enough money can be raised within India for charitable and social causes, but if NGOs want to access foreign money, then they have to come under a system of regulation, the federal interior ministry said in a statement.
Opposition party Trinamool Congress’ Saugata Roy termed the bill as a means to “crush dissent” and “concentrate powers in the hands of the government.”
Several NGOs last week appealed to Indian President Ram Nath Kovind to not sign the FCRA amendment bill and send it back for a parliamentary committee consultation.
The bill after its passage in Parliament is awaiting the Indian president’s assent to become law.
The Congress government enacted the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act in 1976 to regulate the acceptance and utilization of foreign contribution in India. It was repealed and FCRA was enacted in 2010 by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government.
Jaitli said that the development sector has worked diligently to serve all Indian citizens even those in inaccessible remote areas, but it is coming under scrutiny and all those organizations that have been doing outstanding work and adhering to all the rules are now being “punished for no reason.”
Critics say the bill will have far-reaching consequences on the fields of education, health, people’s livelihoods, gender justice and indeed democracy in India.
“It is unwise to burn the house to smoke out a rat,” said Father Mathew.