India uses foreign funding law to harass charities: rights groups

November 8, 2016 8:03 PM EST

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By Nita Bhalla

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India's refusal to renew the foreign funding licenses of 25 charities is a violation of their right to freedom of association and appears to be a move to quell criticism, two rights groups said on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's right-wing nationalist government has tightened surveillance on non-profit groups regulated under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA)since sweeping to power more than two years ago.

"The home ministry's decision to prevent NGOs from receiving foreign funding without sound justification is mystifying. The ministry has an obligation to show how these restrictions are necessary and proportionate," said Aakar Patel, Amnesty International India's executive director, in a statement.

Home ministry officials were not immediately available to comment.

More than 10,000 civil society groups in India have had their licenses to receive overseas donations canceled or suspended since 2014, impairing their ability to work in areas ranging from health to the environment.

The government has previously said that the groups had violated the FCRA by not disclosing donation details or by using foreign funds to engage in "anti-national" activities.

Amnesty International India and Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the latest group of charities to be affected included the Centre for Promotion of Social Concerns, a prominent human rights group also known as People's Watch.

A statement on the FCRA website did not give any reason.

This is not the first time People's Watch has been targeted. In 2012 and 2013, the previous government suspended its FCRA license three times and froze its bank accounts. People's Watch challenged the move and the Delhi High Court ruled in its favor.

Other charities such as the Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF) and Sanchal Foundation, which work in areas including land and housing, health, education and governance, have also not had their FCRA licenses renewed, Amnesty and HRW said.

In July, a group of U.N. experts said they were stunned by the way India was applying the law to stymie its critics, adding that the FCRA was "overly broad" and activities deemed political or against the economic interest of the state were vague.

There is no official number of charities operating in India, but the government estimates at least 2 million non-profits work in areas such as the environment, climate change and protecting minority rights.

A 2013 home ministry report said some 43,500 groups were registered as charities that received foreign funds but slightly less than half provided details.

Home ministry officials have said they are enforcing the FCRA to make the non-profit sector compliant and transparent and ensure charities are not engaging in illegal political or anti-national activities.

But Amnesty and HRW urged the government to repeal the FCRA or amend it so that is not misused to restrict charities' work.

"While India is actively encouraging foreign investment in key industries, it is trying to deny funding for efforts to assist the most vulnerable and marginalized," said Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW's South Asia director.

"The government should engage with those seeking rights reform and empower these groups, instead of treating criticism as a threat to be quashed."

(Editing by Emma Batha. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)



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