Financing a just society
Delhi, Delhi, India
The Indian government has not been able to explain why on the one hand it severely curbs foreign assistance to civil society, and on the other it fails to disburse a huge chunk of public funds meant for non government organisations in the social sector, specially those working on issues of justice and equal opportunity.
The result is that there is almost no public funding available for encouraging and consolidating social action -- including struggles against nuclear proliferation, forced migrations, disempowerment of Tribals, and the continuing fight for freedom of faith.
The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, FCRA, conceived at the height of the Emergency of 1975-77, when prime minister Indira Gandhi suspended the has by now become a major instrument to tame civil society in general and Christian NGOs and churches in particular. Control and punishment are its basic instruments of implementation with the government as the sole arbiter of what will pass muster and which will be damned, and banned.
Any infringement of the rules entails immediate cancellation of the licence and severe penalties. The NGO can be starved to death if it errs, and the organizers punished. NGOs, especially those run by the Church, are timid, and some of the largest ones will have nothing to do with social and justice issues, confining their funding of merely “construction” or “training” projects with no implications of confrontation with the power structure or the bureaucracy. Challenging the illegal actions of the police and military is, of course, entirely taboo.
Government also stigmatizes Christian NGOs, parading their finances in the media to insinuate that foreign money is pouring in for conversions to Christianity. Hindu groups are not named by the media, though they are listed in the full records on the Home Ministry’s website. The publishing of this annual list is almost immediately followed by a cacophony in the pro-Hindutva media and from political parties accusing the Church of secret religious conversion activities and anti-national work specially in Orissa and the eight north eastern provinces. Church groups have been coerced by right wing and terrorist groups to give out large amounts of protection money.
It is not, however, commonly known that a pretty impressive amount from the national exchequer earmarked for civil society never does really reach the recipients. A research report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights in New Delhi, has found that some Rs 9,500 million a year in public funds is squandered. Even this figure is only indicative, because many states are yet to part with information.
AHRC director Suhas Chakma, who carried out the three year long research, confirms something church groups have known a long time, that the selection procedure for the NGOs lacks transparency. All the Ministries claim that applications are selected on the basis of merit. Buthow that merit is determined is unclear. In reality, merit matters little and corruption rules.
In an overwhelming majority of the cases only those voluntary organizations, which are close to the government officials or political leaders, are selected. Selection is often determined not on ability or technical expertise but rather on the applicant’s ability to pay a bribe amounting to 15% to 30% of the grant.
The Comptroller and Auditor General of India also concludes that fraud is not ruled out. AHRC has suggested the creation of a “National Grants-in-Aid Commission” through which all grants to the voluntary sector by all the Ministries shall be routed.
Common sense would dictate that in the current national popular outrage against corruption, the government would take urgent steps to make it easy for honest NGOs get easy finance for their voluntary work in the development and social justice sectors. But so far there is little indication that the government is at all serious.