On 29th September, Amnesty International India (AI) released a statement on their website announcing the shutting down of their operations in India because of the complete freezing of their bank accounts. All of AI’s operations in India had to be shut and all 150 employees have been laid off.
Ministry of home affairs (MHA) in reply released a statement debasing AI’s claims and highlighted their scrupulous ways of securing fundings that are not compliant with the provisions of Foreign Contribution Regulation Act.
AI has accused GoI of a witch hunt against them & other NGOs working to highlight human rights issues in India and termed the latest attack on them as an attempt to suppress the dissent.
Since the last few years, it has been noted that the prime tool used for such a crackdown against NGOs is the FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act). It is thus critical to look at what FCRA is and what compliances are being sought by the government under FCRA.
What are the key features of FCRA and what are the latest amendments proposed in 2020?
Any NGO that wishes to receive foreign funds must be registered under FCRA and has to renew the registration every 5 years.
The FCRA was originally enacted in 1976 and there have been subsequent amendments in 2010, 2016, 2018 and the latest FCRA amendment bill in 2020. The act was introduced to regulate the foreign fundings which some NGOs can deploy for anti-India and activities detrimental to national interests. The FCRA was enacted in 1976 when Govt felt that foreign contribution can be motivated by political and religious objectives.
As per the Govt, the 2020 amendment bill is mainly aimed at increasing the transparency and accountability of foreign contributions received by NGOs. It is however arguable & not clear how most of the provisions under this amendment relate to this purpose.
However, the bill has received strong objections from opposition and grave concerns from NGOs as being an institutionalized tool of suppressing the dissent.
The new amendments state that the foreign contributions received by NGOs cannot be transferred to other organizations or persons if the latter are not registered under FCRA to accept foreign contributions. Bigger NGOs like Amnesty work with a network of smaller Indian NGOs and they provide direct assistance to the poor as financial aid. Smaller NGOs too find it easier to leverage the reach, infrastructure, resources, and expertise from bigger NGOs to engage in impactful work. The new amendment makes it almost impossible for many NGOs to continue doing their humanitarian work, especially during the trying times of COVID-19 where the downtrodden need as much relief as possible.
One of the new provisions also restricts NGOs to limit their administrative expenses allocation to a mere 20% from the previous 50% limit. This puts serious limitations of work continuity as NGO employees have to travel a lot to document the ground reality, provide aid, and conduct rigorous research on a specific issue and concerning geography. Payment of salaries, office expenses, water/ electricity, internet & telephone charges, etc. are also part of admin expenses.
What is the rationale provided by MHA & ED for freezing AI’s bank accounts and how has AI responded to the allegations?
In its statement, MHA mentioned that Amnesty had only got FCRA approval in December 2000 and their repeated attempts to renew the registration have been rejected by various governments since, due to their anti-India activities. To keep the operations running, AI circumvented the FCRA, incorporated one Amnesty International India Pvt Ltd (AIIPL), and accepted contributions from Amnesty UK as FDI i.e. foreign direct investment, and remitted it to AI. MHA & ED termed this illegal activity as ‘money laundering’ and the reason for completely freezing AI’s bank accounts.
AI has stated that the allegations are false and maintained that the entire funding secured by them is as per the ambit of all applicable Indian and international laws.
AI has accused the government of conducting a witch hunt against them because of their unbiased reporting on human rights abuses J&K published in a series of 4 reports post abrogation of article 370, and more recently on the report published on the reality of Delhi riots.
What does the FCRA amendment bill 2020 and case in point of Amnesty International India indicate about the future of humanitarian work in India?
In 2016, Prime minister Modi claimed that NGOs are working against him and want to finish him & remove him from the government. From 2011 to 2019, FCRA registrations of 20,675 NGOs have been canceled and 81% of these cancellations (16,746) have come under the Modi regime – as per MHA data.
Because of the crackdown on NGOs, foreign contributions to NGOs in India have collapsed by 40% under the Modi government as per Bain & Co.’s India Philanthropy report 2019.
In June 2016, UN human rights experts also criticized India for the FCRA and called out to repeal the act stating that it prohibits civil society’s access attain foreign funding and fails to comply with international human rights norms and standards.
Unfortunately, the above facts and data point out that NGOs in India will struggle in terms of securing funding, cutting down costs to comply with the admin expense clause, and most importantly tackle with decreased freedom in reporting and documenting on-ground realities of true India.
By: Nishad Patil
(Cover image credit: Amnesty)