For some time now, a concerted campaign has been underway to belittle non-government organisations that receive foreign funds. First came news about the government turning the screws on Greenpeace India and the Ford Foundation. In the meanwhile, the licences of almost 9,000 NGOs registered under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act have been cancelled. The official reason? They had not filed their annual returns with the home ministry for several years, as required under the act.  The United States ambassador to India has already spoken about the "potentially chilling effects of these regulatory steps focussed on NGOs".

Unofficially, there are several allegations against the foreign funded-NGOs. They deliberately impede development by using the money to stall crucial mega projects. They prop up specific political parties. They act against national security as they serve the vested interests of their funders, who have geopolitical ambitions. Worse, the NGOs that receive the largest amounts, goes the charge, are Christian organisations, whose sole aim to convert Hindus.

However, if one goes by facts and figures, most of the above charges are half-truths, complete falsehoods, or exaggerated claims. Here’s how and why.

Three fictions

Fiction # 1: NGOs receive foreign funds that are huge: the amounts can wipe out the country’s foreign debt in a jiffy, and enable foreign nations to interfere in India.

Fact # 1: In the last 10 years, Rs 85,000 crore has flowed through the FCRA route or an average of Rs 8,500 crore a year. The total amount for the 19 years between 1993-94 and 2011-'12 is Rs 116,073 crore, or an average of Rs 6,100 crore. To put the figures in perspective, in 2015-'16, the central government’s budgeted expenditure on Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy is Rs 896 crore. For the same year, the budgeted expenditure on Earth Sciences is Rs 1,620 crore.

Fiction # 2: Most foreign-funded NGOs deliberately don’t file their annual returns. This is merely to hide the purposes for which the money is used. Ergo, they are involved in political, security-related and other activities to undermine India’s interests.

Fact # 2: The news website claimed that “of the 40,000-odd NGOs registered under FCRA, at least half do not file proper accounts” with the home ministry. It forgot the information it included in the same piece that only half of the registered 40,000-odd NGOs actually receive foreign funds. The government said that over 10,300 NGOs did not file their annual returns for several years, and were sent notices to do so within a few weeks. When almost 9,000 of them did not do so, their licences were cancelled.

Clearly, the inability to file annual returns and keep proper accounts of how the foreign funds were used is a blunder, especially since it is mandated under FCRA. But it is not a criminal activity, or a mistake that should result in licence cancellations. By the same logic, there are tens of thousands of private firms, including large and well-known listed ones, which can be charged of similar illegalities. Some of the largest companies have faced charges of giving false information or inadequate disclosures. Does this imply that SEBI or the various stock exchanges should delist such companies or the government should revoke their manufacturing licences? The action against NGOs shows the intent: this government seems to be in a great hurry to take aggressive action against them

Fiction # 3: The huge foreign funds that the NGOs receive are used primarily for anti-national and anti-social activities, which include religious conversions (from Hinduism to Christianity) and inciting local and tribal communities to agitate against mega projects, which are crucial for faster economic growth. This was the stance taken by both United Progressive Alliance -2 and National Democratic Alliance-2 governments.

Fact # 3: In 2015-'16, the Centre and states together aim to spend over Rs 29,000 crore on health and family welfare, Rs 69,000 crore on education (school and higher), and Rs 100,000 crore on rural and urban development. Given these facts, it seems ridiculous to conclude that 20,000-odd NGOs with combined access to less than Rs 10,000 crore a year can influence the country’s socio-politico-economic future more than the central and state government, particularly when not even the government claims that all of this less than Rs 10,000-crore figure is being so misused.

The State's legitimacy

Even if a few errant NGOs decide to use their monetary clout to attempt to change social structures, or stall economic activity, the might of the State can always counter them with more money and its political legitimacy. It is only in areas where the State has completely failed, where the state of the poor is dismal, where such NGOs can succeed. But if they do achieve some measure of success, it is up to the State to deliver on-the-ground results and tackle on-the-ground realities.

The real fact remains that some of these NGOs oppose government policies, provide alternative socio-economic viewpoints, and excite local communities to pursue different paths of growth and development. Does this imply that they should be banned? If this is the case, then all the critics, even those who receive no foreign or Indian funds, should be muzzled. The ruling regime has to realise that this is not the manner in which a democracy works.