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Dollars, Dissent and Democracy

April 5, 2012

The government has problems with foreign-funded NGOs, but is comfortable with corporate lobbying.

Do dollars dictate dissent? Are agendas altered as advised? Government statements related to these questions — specifically, the foreign funding of non-government organisations (NGOs) involved in the protests against nuclear power at Kudankulam — generated much discussion. The uproar is over, and Kudankulam will soon be operational. However, many wider issues remain, and these merit consideration. Among these, two significant ones are the role of NGOs — or, more specifically, civil society organisations (CSOs) — and the foreign funding of these. As a consequence of globalisation, international CSOs or NGOs are now common and play an important role, particularly in areas like environment and human rights. Also, large foundations do drive agendas, for example, the thrust on HIV/AIDS a few years ago. While some may be out of sync with local needs, others may add strength to local requirements. These are consequences of globalisation that we have to live with. In all cases, though, differing viewpoints help debate, which is the essence of real democracy.

Foreign funding of NGOs is circumscribed by many laws and restrictions, with the draconian FCRA imposing severe constraints. Similar funding for companies is far simpler; in many sectors, even 100% foreign ownership is permitted. The government implicitly discourages foreign funding to NGOs, but it seeks overseas investment for the corporate sector, including in sensitive areas like defence production, telecom and media.

Foreign-funded NGOs are prohibited from undertaking ‘political activity’. This, presumably, includes picketing or demonstrations on such things as reservation for women in Parliament. But there is no such restraint on companies. The latter are free to engage in policy advocacy and almost all of them do so, often through senior executives stationed in Delhi just for this. The government seems to have overcome its aversion to the ‘foreign hand’ with regard to the corporate world, but evokes it — with underlying anti-national connotations — in the case of NGOs. 
It is strange that while the development sector, represented by NGOs, has difficulty in accessing policymakers, commercial or market forces have no such problem.

Not only are they free to actively engage in policy advocacy, but they have direct reach to the very top echelons of government, with visiting foreign CEOs getting a ready audience with even the Prime Minister. Thus, the government saw no wrong when foreign companies, and even a foreign government, campaigned against the nuclear liability Bill, or when they tried to mobilise support from Indian industry associations and media. But when NGOs campaigned with regard to nuclear safety at Kudankulam, the government saw red. Apart from arresting activists in Kudankulam and Ratnagiri, it highlighted foreign funding of the NGOs as an issue. According to media reports, the offices of an NGO have been ‘raided’ apparently in connection with a . 4-lakh foreign grant received some years ago.

The pros and cons of nuclear power are best left to another piece and time. The issue here is with regard to foreign funding and the stifling of dissent, including through such coercive means as use of enforcement agencies. The government provides almost unlimited leeway to commercial interests — without differentiating Indian ones from those funded through foreign money — to participate in and influence the policy scenario in any area. As long as this is done without bribery or corruption, it is a positive sign of a vibrant, largely free-market economy. With almost free flow of capital, partial convertibility of currency and diffused global ownership of listed companies, the participation of foreign companies in this debate is both inevitable and desirable.

This openness to policy advocacy and mobilisation of support by the commercial sector, though, needs to be matched by an equal welcome to advocacy and mobilisation by civil society too. Foreign funding is hardly the issue: if anything, NGOs that have to necessarily depend on grassroots constituencies and support are less prone to be influenced by foreign forces than companies. As for the bogey of terrorist financing: first, money for this need not necessarily come from abroad; second, foreign funds can be sent through hawala channels; and third, within the regulations, it is easier to route money through a company rather than an NGO. 
It is an accepted role of all CSOs to empower people, promote and protect their rights. In doing so, and in challenging the status quo, even those involved in grassroots work in safe fields like education or health, often find themselves at odds with the administration.

Policy advocacy in any field pits NGOs against existing policies. Yet, the attitude of any progressive government, certainly one that professes inclusion and empowerment, must be favourable towards such advocacy and work. 
Dissent must be debated, not crushed. Not all NGOs are angels, but good ones can help to promote and monitor delivery of essential services and goods at the grassroots level, and provide genuine feedback. 
A government keen on this should see NGOs not as enemies, but as potential partners who can be proponents of alternative approaches and policies. Certainly, attempts to involve NGOs in the formulation of the 12th Plan and through the NAC were indicative of positive thinking. Recent pronouncements and actions indicate a reversal. This reversal bodes ill for an equitable, democratic and open society. 
Call for a course correction, captain.



From → India, Innovation

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