Red tape and restrictions: India’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act is preventing NGOs from doing their vital work

Home of Hope, Chennai, is a church-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) that helps underprivileged children and orphans with monthly sponsorship feeding programs, and helps women with microloans. Like many NGOs, Home of Hope relies on funds from generous donors across the globe to sustain their work, but the Indian government is making life increasingly difficult for this and many organisations like it.

Since amendments to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) came into effect in September 2020, things have been different. Two boys receiving support from Home of Hope were prevented from sitting their final examinations in September as they were unable to receive the funds that helped pay their fees on time. Several other critical needs, such as healthcare for COVID-19 patients, were also left unmet due to the delay in funds. 

Of course, Home of Hope is not the only organisation affected by the new regulations. A majority of Christian charities, organisations and even educational institutions in India are funded by international donors, relying on them to survive. The FCRA amendments have made it almost impossible for them to function. 

According to the Times of India, the home ministry suspended the FCRA licenses of six NGOs, including Christian and Islamic groups, from 1 August to 13 September due to alleged attempts of religious conversion and other violations of the FCRA. The suspensions reportedly the total number of NGOs that have been targeted to nine in this year alone.

Even before the latest amendments were issued, the government had made attempts to curb the activities of Christian organisations. Perhaps the most widely-reported example was when the global Christian NGO Compassion International shut down its operations in India in March 2017, after the Modi-led government barred it from funding Indian NGOs without permission, over allegations of religious conversion. A day after the decision was announced, the NGO’s social media page was flooded with heart-breaking posts from individuals who had been supporting children in India for years, had built meaningful foster relationships with them, and were suddenly forced to end everything. 

An amendment with a specific target

The FCRA was first passed in 2010 as an act that seeks to regulate the acceptance and utilisation of foreign contribution by individuals, associations or companies and to prohibit the use of such contributions for any activities that are deemed detrimental to national interest. 

In 2020, the Indian parliament passed a bill to reduce the limit of foreign contributions for administrative purposes from 50% to 20%. They also made several other changes that make it extremely difficult for NGOs to get foreign funding.

The bill also prohibits transfer of funds to any other person or organisation. This affects the people who are most needy because many foreign donors do not have direct access to them, relying on larger organisations to act as intermediaries and funnel money to smaller charities.

Another hurdle for NGOs is that all funds must now be channelled only through the State Bank of India (SBI) in Delhi, delaying the timely transfer of funds which now have to be wired from Delhi to other states. For example, Andrew Paul, Director of Home of Hope had to open an account with SBI in Delhi in order to continue receiving funds. He told CSW: “Each month, we are facing huge delays in receiving our funds. We have written to the bank manager several times, but we almost never get a response. There were so many families under our care who needed critical aid during the pandemic and we were not able to provide help on time because of this delay.”

The minister who tabled the bill in parliament justified it by saying that it would bring transparency to the financial dealings of NGOs, but many activists believe that these amendments are specifically targeted at minority organisations which are sustained largely by foreign support. Even churches depend on foreign support for other activities such as mission, relief work and social activities.

According to a briefing paper by the International Commission of Jurists, the amendments ‘unlawfully obstruct the critical work of non-governmental organisations in India’. It also states that since 2014, almost 19,000 NGOs including high profile organisations like Greenpeace India, Public Health Foundation of India and Lawyers Collective have had their FCRA licenses suspended.

The FCRA violates India’s constitution

In its new form, the FCRA is a violation of the right to ‘freedom of association’, which is protected in India’s constitution. The law greatly restricts the ability of Indian NGOs to access resources, while contravening a UN Human Rights Council resolution that prohibits criminalising or delegitimising humanitarian work based on the origin of funding. It has greatly affected the safety and livelihood of thousands of children and adults that are surviving because of the work of NGOs that run mostly because of foreign contribution.

For the sake of the most vulnerable in Indian society and the local charities who serve them, the FCRA must be repealed and vital funding streams restored.  NGOs like Home of Hope and many human rights and humanitarian organisations must be free to carry out their work without fear of harassment and interference, and regardless of the religion or belief that may underpin their activities.

By CSW’s India Desk

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