Washington: Top American lawmakers today expressed concern over the alleged curbs imposed by India on a Christian charity organisation whose representatives appeared before a Congressional hearing seeking change in New Delhi’s policies related to foreign funding of NGOs.
“It is my hope that by bringing attention to this issue, as we’re doing here today, the 145,000 children will not be tragically denied the services they desperately need, and that American families….can continue to send the USD38 a month for food and education fees to the poorest of the poor,” Congressman Ed Royce, Chairman of the powerful House Foreign Relations Committee said in his opening remarks.
Royce joined by other lawmakers and representations of human rights bodies and Compassion International (CI) — the Christian charity organisation which is often accused of being engaged in religious conversions in India — rued that the recent effort to regulate foreign funding and enforce taxation laws has made it impossible for them to carry out work among poor children in India.
“In India, it (CI) is the single largest contributor of aid for children living in extreme poverty,” Royce said. “We have spent nine months and hundreds of hours dealing with the Indian bureaucracy on this, and it looks like the bureaucracy is trying to run out the clock,” Royce said.
Compassion International says in 2011, the Indian government made significant changes to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), which is the law that regulates NGOs’ receipt of foreign funds into the country.
The Indian Government has asserted that its policies initiated in 2011 is not aimed at one particular NGO. Congressman Eliot Engel, Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he has been concerned by reports that NGOs are having difficulty registering and operating in India.
“Civil society plays a pivotal role in democracy, holding government accountable and standing up for the rights of marginalised groups. So it’s troubling that a country with such a long tradition of an empowered and active civil society might be going down this path,” he said.
“We cannot avoid the hard questions or avoid discussions simply because they are difficult conversations to have. This is how democracies work, warts and all,” he added.
Testifying before the committee, Stephen Oakley, general counsel and vice president of the General Counsel Office at Compassion International, alleged that the Home Ministry and the Income Tax Department are harassing NGOs like his which are engaged in charity works among poor children.
“Most recently, MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs) has prevented the return of USD 330,000 in aid that Compassion attempted to transfer to its Indian partners. The money cannot be received by the intended partner in India or returned to Compassion. This low-level harassment and intimidation by MHA is widespread and not limited to Compassion,” Oakley alleged.
“While Indian government has wrongly accused Compassion of engaging in illegal conversions and anti-national activity, it has simultaneously ignored and violated its own laws,” he alleged.
“MHA knows that they can use the inefficiency and massive delays of the Indian bureaucracy as a weapon – forcing charities like Compassion to either accept their determinations, or spend years seeking redress in a painfully slow and often corrupt legal system. In short, India`s Home Ministry is using those aspects of India’s bureaucracy, which are most in need of urgent reform, to systematically target NGOs with agendas and views that differ from its own,” Oakley said.
John Sifton, Asia policy director Human Rights Watch, alleged that a troubling new crackdown on civil society is underway in India, especially in the last few months.
A large number of NGOs have faced increasing governmental harassment including intrusive and politically motivated legal scrutiny, and the US government – a close ally – needs to respond, he urged members of the Congress. Sifton said the US government should raise concerns about the FCRA more publicly.
“US officials should also urge (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi to end government harassment of NGOs, while encouraging him to ask parliament to amend the FCRA to only regulate corruption and deprive the Home Ministry authority to block funding for NGOs,” he said.
Irfan Nooruddin professor Georgetown University in his testimony said, “This incident is consistent with a broader trend affecting many NGOs and nonprofits in India which are increasingly complaining of heavy-handed government regulation in what has led many social observers to raise alarms about an attack on civil society by the current government. Such alarmism is not entirely misguided but it is overblown.
“In enforcing the regulations of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA), the Government of India is acting fully within its rights as a sovereign state, and the reality is that a great many of the organisations that have lost their licenses since May 2014 were in violation of FCRA regulations, he said.
“But it is also arguably true that many have violated the letter rather than the spirit of the law, and that the enforcement has been too often opaque and without clear explanation of cause. Further, while concerns that the Government of India has targeted faith- based Christian organisations disproportionately cannot be confirmed without more systematic analysis, anecdotal evidence does suggest that such concerns are not without warrant,” Nooruddin said.