On March 30, more than 92,000 non-profit organisations across India received a letter from the central government’s planning organisation, Niti Aayog, signed by its chief, Amitabh Kant, asking them to join the government’s efforts to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. The letter outlined ten areas in which NGOs could supplement the efforts of district and state administrations, including setting up community kitchens, providing shelter to the homeless, distributing safety gear and creating awareness about coronavirus.

The following week, thousands of NGOs registered under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act – the law enabling them to receive foreign funds – received two more letters, on April 1 and April 7. These were from the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, once again soliciting the organisations’ help with coronavirus-related work.

The second letter asked NGOs to upload information about their Covid-19 response work in a specific format on the ministry’s FCRA portal, to be updated by the 15th of every month.

The letters, which addressed NGO functionaries as “dear friend” and acknowledged the expertise and importance of the social sector, have left several non-profit groups flummoxed.

For the past five years, Indian NGOs with FCRA licenses have been dealing with intense scrutiny, stricter regulations and an environment of mistrust and suspicion over the mere fact that they receive foreign funds.

The FCRA licenses of at least 14,500 NGOs have been revoked in this period, including those of well-known organisations such as the Ford Foundation, Greenpeace India, Amnesty International, Lawyers’ Collective and two NGOs run by activist Teesta Setalvad, known for her work to obtain justice for the victims and survivors of the 2002 Gujarat communal riots.

Last year, the Centre amended the eligibility criteria for receiving foreign funding, making it mandatory for individual office-bearers of NGOs to declare, every five years, that they have not been prosecuted or convicted for religious conversions or creating communal tensions, and that they are not likely to engage in “propagating sedition”, among other things.

All of this has created an impression in the non-profit sector that the government could use FCRA regulations to harass and target any NGO whose views or activities are critical of the government.

In this atmosphere, several FCRA-licensed organisations are unsure of what to make of the government’s appeal to them to use their funds and resources towards Covid-19 work. Is participation in coronavirus work mandatory or optional? Will there be consequences for organisations that do not report the work they have done on the FCRA portal? How come not all FCRA-licensed NGOs received the letters?

In the absence of clear communication from the government on this front, NGOs across the country have interpreted its letters in diverse ways.

To report or not?

Indian NGOs receive thousands of crores of rupees of foreign funding every year. In 2018-’19, they collectively received Rs 2,244 crore from abroad, in addition to funds raised domestically.

Since March 24, when lockdown to contain coronavirus was announced, the non-profit sector was already at the forefront of Covid-19 relief work, using their existing funds and new donations to provide food, shelter and support to millions of workers left jobless, homeless, and stranded away from their villages.

“We received the government letters but we had been doing Covid work before that, without being told to, because that is the need of the hour,” said Zarine Gupta, the founder-trustee of Salam Balak, a child rights NGO in Mumbai. Although Salam Balak does not typically provide food or rations to those in need, it began doing so after the lockdown to help the families of children in its network. In the absence of available funds, the organisation has dipped into its corpus fund and sought donations from individuals to be able to do this work.

Gupta claims her organisation has been confused by the Niti Ayog and home ministry letters, because they seem to direct NGOs to do specific type of Covid-response work even if that may not be the NGOs’ field of work. “We are doing what we can but we might not report it on the FCRA website – I don’t think that is a requirement,” said Gupta.

Children in Kolkata wait to receive food from volunteers. Credit: PTI

However, other NGOs that Scroll.in spoke to claimed that the letters were a mandatory directive from the central government and have to be followed.

“According to the letters, doing Covid work and reporting it is compulsory for those who have an FCRA license,” said the founder of a women’s rights NGO in Andhra Pradesh, who did not wish to be identified. With the help of soap and handwash stations provided by well-wishers, the organisation has been creating facilities for low-income families to maintain hand hygiene during Covid-19.

“We have not used any of our foreign or domestic funds so far, but we will still be reporting this work on the FCRA website because that is mandatory,” this person said.

Several speculations

A number of NGOs that did not wish to be identified in this report claimed that even though the letters were not explicitly framed as directives, it would be safer to treat them as such, given the government’s recent attitude towards FCRA-licensed NGOs.

“The government has been so suspicious of non-profits and their foreign funds in the past few years, that these letters make you wonder whether there will be negative consequences for those that do not follow them and do not upload their progress with Covid work,” said the head of one NGO in Mumbai. The “consequences” could mean difficulties in getting FCRA licenses renewed.

Others pointed out the “irony” and “hypocrisy” of a government that has cracked down heavily on NGOs for several years, but is now turning to the sector when it needs help.

Organisations also speculated about the government’s intention behind asking NGOs to report their Covid-19 work and expenses. While some claimed this could be another way for the state to monitor NGOs getting foreign funds, many felt the government simply needs all the help it can get to tackle the pandemic. Others believe that asking NGOs to report their Covid-19 spending would enable the state to measure how much of foreign funds coming into India were being used towards this public health emergency.

“Perhaps the government is asking us to report online and keep updating our reports to prevent duplication of Covid-response efforts by NGOs in the same area,” said Vanessa D’Souza, the chief executive officer of Sneha, an organisation working on public health.

Appeal, not directive

According to Asadullah, the programme director at the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, a Delhi-based policy think tank, NGOs have legitimate reasons to play it safe with respect to the government letters. “Due to the negative projection of NGOs in the media, especially the vernacular media, and the way the government has approached NGOs in recent years, there has been a lot of mistrust between organisations and the State,” he said. “NGOs are not currently in a position to treat these letters as mere advice or an appeal.”

Despite this, Asadullah is among those social sector professionals who believes it is best to view the government’s outreach to NGOs in a positive light.

“Already the state tracks every penny being spent in the social sector, so I would like to see this as the government’s intention to genuinely engage with NGOs,” said Asadullah. “NGOs had started responding to the Covid-19 crisis even before this appeal was made, from service delivery, to mobilisation, to research, advocacy and training. These letters give them the opportunity to be recognised by the government. And the government should also not expect NGOs’ response to Covid-19 to come only in a few limited ways, because of the varied nature of their work and the vast range of interventions that will required over the next several months or years.”

Noshir Dadrawala, a legal expert and head of Mumbai’s Centre for Advancement of Philanthropy, has also been advising NGOs to take the letters positively. “The letters were not in the nature of directives, but appeals, and for the first time the tone and tenor of the communications was friendly,” said Dadrawala. “It is an effort by the Niti Ayog to see how best NGOs can work with them and what they can do for Covid relief.”