Modi’s War on Foreign NGOs Will Have Dire Consequences

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Since helping Muslim victims of violence, foreign charities such as Greenpeace are being harassed by the Indian government. Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

Charities and citizen advocacy groups are having a tough time these days in some large developing countries. Both Russia and China have increasingly tightened restrictions on their activities, as well as other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Now it is India’s turn, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government announced on April 27 the cancellation of registrations for close to 9,000 foreign-funded NGOs, citing the failure of the NGOs to file returns. Tensions between foreign NGOs and the Indian government have long existed, although some fear under Modi’s watch oversight of NGOs is increasing.

Some NGOs have been placed on a “watch list,” rumored to include such well-known NGOs as the Climate Work Foundation, the Danish International Development Agency,  Greenpeace, Hivos, Mercy Corps and the Sierra Club. Other NGOs have had their bank accounts frozen.  

Among those targeted is the Ford Foundation, based in New York, which currently funds programs in India to promote livelihood among the poor, advocacy for economic and social rights, good governance and women’s reproductive health. Since starting its operation in 1952 under Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, the foundation has funded some $508 million. These programs are now required to receive permission from India’s home affairs ministry before any money gets transferred to recipients.

Many link the crackdown on Ford’s activities to their support of human rights activist Teesta Setalvad, who has fought for the rights of victims of the 2002 riots in Gujarat—during which Modi acted as chief minister of Gujarat. The riots followed the torching of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, which killed 59 people. Hindu mobs then attacked Muslims, resulting in the death of over 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.

Given his Hindu nationalist background, Modi stands accused of failing to quell the violence against Muslims in 2002, and has recently been criticized for his silence on several anti-Muslim incidents taking place since he assumed power.

In March, the Gujarat government condemned the funding by Ford of a trust to support the victims, accusing Ford of interfering in the “internal affairs” of India and “of abetting communal disharmony.” Some analysts attribute the move as an attempt by the Modi government to appease Sangh Parivar, the coalition of right-wing Hindu nationalist groups, started by members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, who support Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

Last June, a report by India’s Intelligence Bureau leaked to the media accused Ford, Greenpeace and Hivos of hindering India’s growth through their active opposition to nuclear, mining and power projects.

While registrations for close to 9,000 NGOs have been canceled, by some estimates there are 3.2 million NGOs operating in India, of which some 40,000 are registered. An attempt by the Modi government to clean up the registration process is needed, as well as more transparency, but the effort should not turn into a witch hunt to target specific groups, such as those who are trying to protect the environment or fight for human rights.

The German ambassador to India, Michael Steiner, recently added his concerns at an event in Delhi, stating “NGOs are doing impressive work in India,” adding, “I think the fundamental approach should be to support their work.” U.S. Ambassador Richard Verma went further, warning of a “potential chilling effect” should the Modi government continue to crackdown on NGOs.

While scrutiny of the activities of NGOs is certainly necessary and justifiable, any perceived bias against those NGOs operating in the environmental or human rights space risks driving many NGOs out and making it difficult for those that remain to operate effectively. Should the Modi government chose to impose new regulations on the operations of all NGOs, this will likely slow the operations of the many NGOs who are having a favorable impact on the quality of life in India.

International NGOs, such as the Danish International Development Agency, the Ford Foundation, Greenpeace and Mercy Corps, operate across many countries and regions, and with constraints on their funding they must choose among worthy nations.  

In making that choice of where to deploy funding and resources, two key factors are: local operating conditions and how effective that capital can be deployed to produce real change. Should international NGOs decide India’s operating conditions are too onerous, and efforts to produce real change too distant, it will be up to the Indian government to fill the void with effective programs of its own, lest the Indian populace suffer.

Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. This article first appeared on the Foreign Policy Association site.