With the recent de-licensing of 4470 NGOs in India, in addition to the 8875 NGOs whose licenses were revoked in April for violation of rules governing foreign funds, the government of India seems to have set in motion a process that it began by targeting Greenpeace and Ford Foundation.
Legally, the government may be right because these NGOs have reportedly violated government rules they were required to play by, but morally it’s on a sticky wicket because the action was preceded by a lot of anti-NGO paranoia and animosity from its own benches. Going at the present rate of the clamp down – more than 13,000 organisations in two months – one could expect more.
But in the overall anti-NGO rhetoric, what gets drowned is the precious civil society voice a democracy like India cannot live without. This is the voice that enabled organisations such as Greenpeace to stand up for the rights of tribals when they were usurped by corporate greed.The numbers will be big because India has more than 20 lakh NGOs and reportedly only 10 per cent file their annual returns. If the government is to take action against all the non-compliant ones, it has to close down most of them. A lot of them are certainly dubious, non-transparent, undemocratic and money making enterprises. Some of them, particularly those involved in faith-based activities across all religions, receive huge amounts of money and own assets that arouse genuine suspicion.
Unlike in many poor countries, the share of NGOs doing development work in India is negligible. Its slice of the overseas development assistance, which itself is minuscule, that India receives doesn’t even matter. However, what does matter is that many of these NGOs are engaged in activities that are essential for the survival of our democracy such as holding governments and institutions accountable and standing up for the rights of people, particularly the marginalised and the voiceless. More over, they also pilot ideas that strengthen democratic governance. Strong-headed governments obviously don’t like them.
By constricting civil society space, even democratically elected governments all over the world routinely seek to restrict and stymie dissent. In the process, they get around the tenets of democracy such as participation, human rights, transparency and accountability. Last month, Russia introduced a new law under which civil society workers can be jailed if Vladimir Putin’s government thought an NGO was “undesirable”. His targets are nobody, but the rights groups.
A notable casualty of this repressive approach is human rights, and it’s intentional. Human rights encompass a lot of stuff and is a big headache for governments which would like to have its way on critical issues including minority rights and neoliberal policies. With civil society gagged, local and global vigil on rights gets compromised. Still, people stand up to resist their governments and tell the world what’s happening on their home turf at great cost as they did in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan, Uganda and so on. Without civil society resistance and international scrutiny, the scale of the massacre of Tamils by the Sri Lankan government or the threat to life that homosexual men faced in Uganda wouldn’t have been known to the world. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, or even China, are human rights black holes because there is no civil society space.
It’s also civil society organisations in both developing and developed countries that resist the collusion between governments and the Big Pharma in their fight for affordable medicines. NGOs in countries such as Thailand, Brazil and India have played a remarkable role in keeping drug prices under check. Their vigil has also prevented government-submission to MNCs and developed countries through cunning trade treaties.
Just because they receive overseas funding, the truths that the NGOs stand up for don’t become lies. Most of these groups get foreign funding because globally a lot of people and groups are concerned about rights and democracy.
The critical question, therefore, is who gains from a feeble civil society atmosphere? Obviously, autocratic governments, multinational capital and the interests of rich countries. Notwithstanding the old Marxist stream of thought that the idea of civil society is to aid capitalism, there is an abundance of evidence from all over the world that it helps people to stand up against their unjust governments and the exploitative market. Quite often, it has also been successful in forcing governments to change their anti-people policies and programme. Many enabling working models of governance such as participative budgeting and decentralised planning have come up in many parts of the world through civil society participation.
As the United Nations notes, “a dynamic, diverse and independent civil society, able to operate freely, knowledgeable and skilled with regard to human rights, is a key element in securing sustainable human rights protection in all regions of the world.” The government of India certainly needs to be strict with the NGOs in terms of rules, but it should also be careful not to paint all of them with the same brush.