Webinar on "Foreign Funding, Social Welfare and the Role of Voluntary Organisations"
India Policy Foundation 05-Feb-2022
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"Foreign Funding, Social Welfare and
the Role of Voluntary Organisations"
February 4, 2022
India Policy Foundation & India 4 Children
Dr Sudhanshu Joshi
(International Financial Aid Expert)
Prof Ashwani Mahajan
(Economist and National Co-convener, Swadeshi Jagaran Manch)
Dr Kuldeep Ratnoo
(Director, India Policy Foundation)
(Director, India 4 Children)
I welcome everyone to today’s discussion organised by India Policy Foundation and India 4 Children. The topic that we are going to be discussing today is of utmost importance. It has been a topic of debate at the political, economic and intellectual levels. Does foreign funding help in the development of the nation? If yes, to what extent? Is there need for checks and balances on it? We have organised this discussion today to find answers to these questions.
We have three important people with us today to speak on this topic. They have been working on these issues for long and have the expertise to discuss it at length. I would like to first introduce the speakers.
Our first speaker is Dr Sudhanshu Joshi who, in his more than four-decades old career has held senior most positions in many international finance and voluntary organisations. He studied in Jawaharlal Nehru University and was active in student politics. He currently lives in the USA.
Next, we have with us today, Dr Kuldeep Ratnoo, who is a well-known writer, journalist and academic. He is currently the Director of India Policy Foundation. Prior to this, he was the editor of many important publications including Swadeshi Patrika. He will be taking today’s discussion forward.
Our third speaker is Dr Ashwani Mahajan. He is among the renowned economists of the country and is a big supporter of Swadeshi. He has been associated with the swadeshi movement for long. He often raises pertinent issues on social media which are taken up and addressed by those in power. He teaches economics at the Delhi University and is National Co-convenor of the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch.
I request Dr Kuldeep Ratnoo to give his views on the topic and also take this discussion forward by playing the role of a moderator. Thank you.
Dr Kuldeep Ratnoo:
Thank you, Anil ji.
Dr Sudhanshu Joshi has worked with many international organisations, He knows in detail about foreign funding in NGOs, their account maintenance, performance appraisal etc. He is also familiar with the rules and regulations and also the way different governments function.
Prof Ashwani Mahajan is a well-known economist. His over three decades of association with the swadeshi movement has made him an authority on foreign funding and its impact on India. There are two ways in which foreign investments come to India- one is by means of trade and second is through voluntary organisations. He can help us understand in detail the impact of these two investments.
I welcome you both on behalf of India Policy Foundation as well as India 4 Children.
Today’s core topic is the relation between foreign funding and voluntary organisations. The recent debate surrounding the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) due to the cancellation of licences of close to 6000 NGOs need to be put in perspective. We need to understand why it happened and why a number of foreign governments reacted to this.
There is a need to go to the roots of this problem. We all know that colonialism continued for a long time. Europe colonialised many countries of the world. It led to the economic, social and political progress of Europe. But during both the first and second world wars, European nations had to suffer heavy loses of life and property. These wars led to the realisation that Europe would no longer be able to exert supremacy over so many nations. So, it started giving independence to colonised nations. We all know that India got independence solely due to this reason. But the coloniser nations that were prosperous did not want to let go of their control and began devising ways to make the newly independent countries dependent on them. One such idea that they came up was to inject the thought that these nations cannot survive without foreign aid. This idea was so aggressively marketed that intellectuals in every country began to believe that without foreign aid, no development can take place.
Two ways were formulated to disperse foreign aid. First was done through the establishment of World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Second was through the United Nations (UN) and other international funding agencies. It was decided that the UN and other agencies will fund governments as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
If you see, the concept of NGOs is not very old. Charitable activities have always taken place, either through temples, gurudwaras or mosques, and also, by kings, and socially responsible citizens etc. But this was given an organised structure by the rich countries and the concepts of foreign investments and foreign aids were aggressively promoted. So, when did the problem start? Things were going smoothly till the funds were getting dispersed. But then, it came to the notice of people that huge sums were coming in and there were no developmental activities to be seen that were in proportion to the amount received. It came to light that a major share of these funds was used for religious conversion of the poor. Secondly, it was also observed that the institutions that were receiving foreign funds was getting themselves involved in either supporting the developmental activities in the region they were operating in or they were opposing it by means of strikes and other activities. They started working according to the interests of their donor agencies or donor countries. Slowly, media started picking this up and it also started getting noticed in the political circles.
One major question arises here. Many people have started saying that by putting restrictions on foreign funding, the government is trying to curb political dissent. In any democracy, if you want to dissent, the way forward is to either form a political party or to become a political activist. The question is, why is there a need to take foreign funding and organise protests through NGOs? The biggest question is should the government put restrictions on foreign funding? What are the concerns here with regard to the government, citizens and society? Why are the civil society organisations, taking funds from foreign players, paranoid of transparency in governance and refusing to audit their accounts? It is ironical that these same organisations keep demanding the government for better transparency and governance.
The biggest issue here is that the funding that comes is supposed to serve public interest but it somehow ends up serving private interests. It becomes a medium to serve the interests of either an organisation, a family or an individual. The so-called work that such organisations undertake to alleviate poverty in the country often ends up alleviating the poverty of those running these organisations. The government has tried to put a stop to these excesses by coming out with a rule that the administrative expenses should not exceed 20 per cent of the total funding. But that is opposed by organisations receiving foreign funding.
The question is if a sovereign nation wants to implement its own rules and regulations, why should foreign nations, governments or organisations have a problem with it? This is directly related to a nation’s sovereignty and security. When it is clear that foreign funds are being misused for stopping developmental activities, for forced conversions and even for terrorist activities, then any government is forced to make rules and regulations to keep a check on it. But this was turned into an issue and it was said the government is afraid of political dissent. It needs to be noted that no other country has so many political organisations. Every state has regional parties and all the districts together have thousands of such political organisations. There are a lot of platforms for voicing concerns and for organising protests.
The main aim of the NGOs was to work for the welfare of society and to reach those areas where the government is unable to cater to the needs of the citizens. But some of them are neglecting their main area of work and involving themselves in other activities that are against national interests. It is true that in some areas there may be environmental concerns, employment issues and other social issues. But why is it that organisations find it so difficult to abide by the rules of the country that they are operating in?
There are many such issues which we need to discuss today. I request Dr Sudhanshu Joshi to put forth his views first after which we will hear the views of Prof Ashwani Mahajan.
Dr Sudhanshu Joshi
Thank you so much for this opportunity. Today’s topic is very close to my heart. For the last 35 years, I have been closely associated with funding, development financing (both bilateral and multilateral) and co-financing. I have been able to see how these work in South Asia, Southeast Asia, Central and Eastern Europe. It is possible that some of the statistics I have may be wrong as it has been a long 22 years since I left the country. However, I have always maintained close ties and have been keenly observing the happenings in India.
I have always been curious to understand what was our national interest when it comes to this particular topic. Earlier, I used to oversee development financing of the European nations. I have realised that there are different forms of funding. We need to look at it decade wise. The role of funding that we got right after independence was different from the direction it took 25 years later and funding in the present times has taken a completely different form. But since today’s discussion is on FCRA, I will focus on that.
This topic is vast as the funding that comes for public organisations, research institutions, NGOs, for organisations that engage in spreading false narratives are all different. Coming to FCRA, it was in 2010 that changes were made to it. The political dispensation at the time was different from now, as Congress led UPA was in power. During that time also, the funding of close to 11,000 organisations was blocked.
But today, after almost 75 years since independence, we see that the British Parliament has taken this issue up for debate. They are debating for long hours about Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, Oxfam, Amnesty International, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative etc. and asking why restrictions on foreign funding are introduced. Who are these people raising concerns? Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former Bishop of Oxford, Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, Baroness Vere of Norbiton and the like. They have spread a narrative that the Indian government came under the pressure of nationalist organisations and took this step. This is a matter of concern for us because if the Indian government is putting any due diligence on FCRA or asking for compliance of regulatory mechanisms, then there is ideally no need for other countries to raise any questions. Even after 75 years of independence, if still there are organisations in India which are dependent on foreign funds for their existence, it raises a huge question mark on their credibility and role in India. It raises a question mark on their legitimacy in India. Is their perspective on development and the plans that they have made for the country dependent solely on foreign funding?
In India, in the year 2020, approximately Rs 64,000 crore was raised through domestic philanthropy for voluntary organisations. However, the foreign funding was only 25 per cent of this, whereas the domestic corporate social responsibility (CSR) contribution was 28 per cent of this. We need to ponder over two things. The Indian government had in 2014 made it mandatory that the private sector will spend 2 per cent of its profits on CSR. The companies were also asked to report it in their tax compliance. The government has brought about a major ecosystem change with this move. My personal view is that such a step demonstrates the phenomenal commitment of the Government of India for the functioning of the civil society organisations.
The point is when a domestic philanthropy of Rs 64,000 crore is thriving which did not see any major shortfall despite Covid, it means that every organisation working in the country has enough for its cause. It is interesting that when the case of Missionaries of Charity was taken up in the British Parliament, the Missionaries of Charity had come out and made it clear that their funds were not blocked and the government had only asked for some explanations. It was the organisation that decided not to use the funds for the time being. At no point of time, the FCRA was blocked.
My fundamental question is that why even after so many years - Missionaries of Charity came to India in 1951 and Oxfam in 1953 – the Indian public has not extended its support to their activities? Why do they need foreign funding even after decades of work? Is the concept of welfare and development of these organisations so alien that they are unable to get the support of domestic philanthropy? This question needs to be pondered over and these voluntary organisations will have to come out with answers.
There are some other issues too that need to be deliberated upon. In the development financing that the Indian government used to receive from multilateral agencies or bilateral agencies for development of urban infrastructure or rural water supply, there was a clause in the initial years that 25 per cent of it should be kept aside for voluntary organisations. Apart from this, funds used to come from co- financing organisations from these same countries. Most of these voluntary organisations were based in Europe. Among the funding that was coming from Europe, one was Bread for the World which was a German organisation and part of the Protestant church; Action for World Solidarity which was part of the Evangelical church in Germany and had its origins in Action Against Hunger in East Germany; Novib was part of the Dutch Labour Party and there were many other organisations that had an interest in working in India. Other than this, the British charities that were working in India had a network that consisted of more than 600 organisations. Christian Aid used to represent the churches of UK and Ireland. Then there are Action Aid, Oxfam, PAN International etc. Coincidentally, all these organisations started their work in South India right after independence. Then during 1980s-90s, they shifted their focus to North India. But even then, they continued putting their money only on the causes of tribal and Dalit empowerment. In states like North-east, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madya Pradesh, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh where these organisations were active, you can see that the maximum number of conversions to Christianity had taken place.
When the nature of their work changed after 2000, they began thinking in line of how to make an impact on global platforms like the UN and other multilateral forums. For this, they claimed that they were representing the southern poor. But the southern poor were not there in any leadership roles at any point of time. To meet their agenda, they started establishing their chapters in India overnight. Action Aid established their offices. Oxfam got together with their grantees and established offices. There was a huge conflict of interest. The people who were receiving money were also part of the board. After several failed attempts, Oxfam India took its present shape. Today also, the board largely comprises people who feel that there is intolerance in India. They have also taken a few industrialists in their board thinking that it will make resource mobilisation easier. But they need to declare how much of their funding is from India and how much of it is from abroad. These are the same organisations that run to other countries when the Indian government demands transparency and runs a campaign against the country. We need to ask why does this happen?
The second thing is that all these organisations hold only a symbolic value. They wanted something by which they could say that they represent the southern poor. But if you look at their leadership roles and those who take part in major debates and discussions, you will find that they are all from the North of the World. It is the agenda set by these people that are being pursued in India. My view is that if any organisation which has been operating in the country for more than 50 years is still dependent on foreign funds, then it becomes an existential question for them. Why do they still have to depend on help from abroad?
It has been my experience of working in the USA that whenever we transfer funds to organisations in Jordan, Syria etc, we immediately get a call from the US authorities enquiring about the recipients of the funds. A proactive environment like this is still lacking in India. Even when you say that foreign funds are fuelling many anti-national activities in the country, the Indian government still does not have a mechanism to monitor these funds. We need to create such a system to strengthen national security. The organisations operating within the country will also have to think about how by receiving foreign funding, they have become mere puppets for fulfilling the vested interests of other nations. I have played a role in funding of several organisations which were strong southern voices. But they were never allowed to have any leadership roles on global platforms. Those who are fiercely independent never get to be part of any international debates or discussions. The people who get a chance to be part of such discussions are those who are fully compliant with the donors. So, the Indian government has a right to take strong measures to regulate foreign funding.
In the 1970-80s, a lot of foreign funding had come to South India in the name of supporting orphanages. Even now, if you go to Tamil Nadu, you will find an orphanage at every nook and corner. Poor children are brought to these centres and are converted before giving them food and education. We very well know that the money to run these institutions come from the evangelical world. But we still do not have any mechanism to trace these funds or their usage. It is important to take effective steps to regulate this. I will conclude with this.
Dr Kuldeep Ratnoo:
Thank you, Dr Sudhanshu Joshi ji, for giving us insights into many important issues and discussing those at length. Now, I request Prof Ashwani Mahajan ji to throw light on whether foreign funds can come from any other medium other than FCRA. In the face of constant threats, how important is it to bring about regulations by the government?
Prof Ashwini Mahajan:
Thank you Kuldeepji.
Today I will share my points with the help of incidents that I have come across. There was a time when India used to receive a lot of developmental grants from a number of other nations. I recall that when Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government was in power, and Jaswant Singh was the finance minister, it was decided that except for 8 or 9 nations, India will not take grants from any other nation. This decision which was taken to strengthen the position of India as a sovereign state was met with a lot of protests. Opposition began asking why would India not take the help of other nations when there was so much poverty and unemployment in the country. When this debate was raging, the Economic Times asked me to write a column on this. In that, I supported the government’s decision and argued that it is our fundamental right to choose from which country we should take help and from which country we should not.
When Modi government came to power, it decided that those NGOs which are not transparent in their activities, their FCRA licence will not be renewed. This gave rise to a lot of debates and a narrative was spread that this move supports a particular school of thought. In 2020, the government made it clear that the organisations receiving grants and other forms of foreign funding will have to be transparent about the source of the funds and how it is being used. NGOs have also been asked to renew their registration and do all the paperwork. This was being done to ensure that the internal security is strengthened and there is harmony in society. It is also the government’s responsibility to check that there is no money laundering or terror financing.
In 2020, when the government enforced the law regarding FCRA licensing, a number of organisations chose not to renew their licences. Why? Was there something to hide? In this context, I will share some of my experiences with you. Smoking tobacco is injurious to health. If everyone in the country stops smoking, that is the best thing which can happen. But if the production of tobacco stops in the country and it is smuggled from China or other countries, then it is not an option. A number of NGOs were in effect doing this on the pretext of running anti-tobacco campaigns. What they were essentially trying to do was to close down India’s beedi industry. More than 55 per cent of people who are employed in the beedi industry are women. More than 35 lakh workers are there in this unorganised sector. At least one crore people are involved in the collection of tobacco leaves and they are all in the Naxalite regions. Directly and indirectly, almost four crore people are dependent on the beedi industry. Because of these anti-tobacco NGOs, four crore people will lose their livelihoods. They will become soft targets for Naxals. The country at present cannot provide employment for these four-crore people in other sectors. I was surprised to know that there are also a number of corporates that take foreign funding and support these organisations running the anti-tobacco campaign. Second, we all know the difficult situation faced by copper industry in the country. Under pressure of some NGOs, a copper factory was forced to shut down. From then on, our import bill from China has been on a rise.
Foreign funding comes to our nation by two means – one is through NGOs where they are allowed to bring foreign funds into the country by means of FCRA licence; second is through liaison offices like Ford Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation etc. These liaison offices come under RBI regulations. Home ministry asked the RBI to transfer to it the power to regulate liaison offices as they were in the process of streamlining foreign funding. But RBI refused to do so. The reasons remain unknown. One day, I was attending a meeting of economists and I happened to spot a gentleman. When I asked someone who that person was, I got to know that he was Mr Nachiket Mor who was in the governing board of RBI. He was the head of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I found it strange that the head of a liaison office was sitting in the board of RBI. He had even got a second term. It was a huge conflict of interest. So, I wrote a letter to the prime minister. The prime minister took a decision in three days and removed him from the board. This happened because the issue was flagged.
After this, Swadeshi Jagaran Manch also got to know that the multi-national companies were trying to gain monopoly over digital transactions in the country. And it came to light that Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had a major role to play in this. You may be able to recall that when the vaccination drive was about to begin, Bill Gates had told that he is against the transfer of technology to developing nations like India because he was concerned about the quality issue. India is the world’s biggest manufacturer of vaccine. Whom are you trying to fool? I have observed that Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have greatly influenced the vaccination drives in the country. The DPT vaccine which was initially administered in three doses was increased to five with the intervention of this foundation. The vaccines that were available for Rs. 10-15, later came to be priced at Rs 525. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said that they will bear the increased costs. But it was only for a period of one year, after which the government of India had to bear the burden. I am not against vaccination but everything should be based on scientific evidence.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has created many organisations. One such organisation started clinical trials of HPV vaccine and many girls in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh lost their lives. This issue was taken up at the political level. A Parliament Committee was formed and eventually the trials of HPV vaccine were banned. Later, the same HPV vaccine was brought to India through the national immunisation program (NIP). So, Swadeshi Jagaran Manch wrote a letter to the prime minister pointing out that nowhere in the world is HPV vaccine part of the national immunisation program including that of the US which is known for its vaccination policy influenced by multinational corporations. Immediately, several consultants who were part of the ministry from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other corporates were removed and HPV was no longer part of India’s vaccination drive.
However, the trials for rotavirus vaccination were started and in that too, a number of our children lost their lives. These organisations have always been involved in such inhuman activities. We should also recollect the way in which the Ford Foundation was functioning which was against the interests of our national security. I have seen in many countries that Ford Foundation is the agenda setter. They conduct meetings, interact with officials and introduce health schemes in countries as per their interests. FCRA has no control over these organisations. Home ministry should take stringent measures against these organisations.
I had once written an article about how Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was not philanthropy but just business. They spend money to include a particular vaccination in the country’s vaccination drive and then they foot the bill for a year. But after that, the country is left with burden of crores in its health bill. The money that could have ideally been spent on the eradication of tuberculosis or other such widespread diseases is being spent on unwanted vaccinations pushed by foreign organisations. There are many more examples which we see on a regular basis.
I believe it is not just FCRA that we need to be strict about but we should also closely monitor the activities of organisations like Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Ford Foundation. Earlier they had the freedom to walk in to the prime minister’s office whenever they wanted to. But now it is heard that they are not even getting an appointment with the prime minister. Their strategy has been so strong that they were able to influence the health policies of the country and also policies of digitisation. But now, we have a nationalist government. We need a law similar to FCRA regulations to monitor and control the liaison offices.
Dr Kuldeep Ratnoo:
Thank you Ashwani ji for throwing light on international organisations and their liaison offices. We will now move on to the Question-and-Answer session.
Q & A session
Q: What is your opinion on the funding that comes from other nations for research in India. If you see, the West has often tried to spread a narrative that practices like slavery and serfdom existed in all other countries too. Their funding in India is mainly in three areas – conversion, to create caste divisions and to attack the Indian family system. How do you see this?
Dr Joshi: Like Prof Ashwani Mahajan had mentioned, our apex policy organisations have been in the control of outside powers. During the time of UPA government, a National Advisory Committee was formed. If you look at its members, you will be surprised to know that many of those who were in the Committee were in the direct pay roll of multinational organisations. Among them were also some IAS officers who left the service and were appointed as the CEO in international agencies. The standards which should ideally be there in national policies were not there and this particular aspect was ignored by all the previous governments. In fact, those governments gave a platform for international agencies to influence India’s policies. Also, it needs to be pondered over as to how government officers who have sworn to protect India’s Constitution end up serving organisations with vested interests.
Coming to the question, a major share of funding for social science research in India used to come from Europe. Institution finance did take place in this. The one topic that was predominantly covered was caste oppression. If you see, in the 1970s and 1980s, a number of institutions were established that were working on caste issues and scholarships were also offered by them. Many of these scholars were glorified on the international fora. The social sciences were thriving on German resources.
When Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided not to take funding from certain countries, then the development cooperation offices were closed down. But many of the governments re-routed the funds through research organisations or through organisations based in Canada which had the permit to operate in India. The European nations were transferring the funds meant for development cooperation to organisations in Canada. This was one way. The second way was to transfer their commitments to co-financing organisations. I will give an example. When funding by The Netherlands was stopped by the government, it resulted in enhanced allocation to the four co-financing organisations – Novib, Cordaid, Eco-Congregation and Hivos. Now, the Holland government has added another four to the list and all these organisations are still active in India. When money stopped coming from one instrument, it was routed through another instrument. We need to think what kind of discourse these organisations are spreading with the funding.
Today, the government has definitely taken due diligence and is keeping a strict tab on the kind of researchers that are being allowed in the country. However, a bigger issue is the Resident Scholar Fellowships offered by the European nations. Indian students are spending long years in European nations and are publishing papers against the nation there. There are a number of researchers who are offered plump faculty position in these European universities to build that international conversation against India.
FCRA does not really affect the existence of the voluntary organisations. But it is being used as a façade to project India in a negative light on international platforms. Look at the way, a narrative has been woven around communalism. This was originally a debate started by the Left after the 1984 riots in Delhi. That movement today has been hijacked by international NGOs funding to India. The actors have changed but the politics remains the same. The funding for social sciences research has been going on for five decades. From caste, the debate has specifically shifted to Dalits now. The government should pay attention to the resident scholar program where scholars are being paid to write against India. This is what I wanted to submit.
Q: What is the significance of FCRA route for funding for civil society organisations?
Dr Joshi: My personal view is that in today’s time FCRA is completely irrelevant. The form of domestic philanthropy is so vast and India’s voluntary organisations have done commendable collaborative work with the government. Inclusive growth is fundamental to our nation. If you look at the last 70 years, you will see that poverty is an agenda that is a continuous part of Indian politics. But now by making CSR mandatory, the government has created the right ecosystem. In addition to this, there is also family philanthropy which has been doing phenomenal work. My opinion is that FCRA should be revisited and foreign funding for civil society organisations should be dismantled. I don’t see a future where there is legitimacy for any such funding.
If you look at the big organisations like Missionaries of Charity, you will realise that in the balance sheet which they themselves made public, there is a carry forward balance of Rs 110 crore. This means that there is not really sufficient scope for absorption of that money. So why do we need these foreign resources? This is the question that we should ask.
Prof Mahajan: I want to add to this. There is an example of Swadeshi Jagaran Manch. If you look at the impact of Swadeshi Jagaran Manch in national policy making for the nation, in the interests of the small industries, downtrodden etc., and you can measure it by any scale, we are not getting any foreign funding from any route. We are able to do it. So, this answers the question. There is no legitimacy for demanding foreign funding.
Dr Joshi: There is absolutely no legitimacy. And if your development agenda is hostage to a nation and you are not able to generate resources, that’s because there is no buying for that agenda in India. Organisations like Missionaries of Charity and Oxfam are so alien and so removed from their realities in the country. They say that they want to be an Indian organisation but they act like puppets of European nations. On international forums, you end up reprsenting these nations. This is something for them to ponder over and explain. It is not for us to justify. Their existence is intrinsically dependant on foreign funding.
Dr Ratnoo: In this case, it is also important to note that in our nation, there are more than one crore sadhus, saints and also beggars. This nation never lets them sleep hungry. And what is the population of these nations that are offering funds? In fact, India feeds that many number of poor people every day. There is no dearth of money in our country. The only thing is that those who are working should do so with earnestness and sincerity. And that work should be service oriented and for public welfare, it should not have vested interests. During Covid, we have seen how people of this country came forward to donate and also to extend a helping hand to those in need. As you rightly pointed out, there is no legitimacy to take foreign funding to serve the people of this nation. It only serves the vested interests of those who are giving funds and also dents India’s image.
Q:Which are the areas other than civil society organisations where NGOs receive funding but can be a threat to India’s peace, unity and security?
Dr Joshi: India has home-grown organisations like Akshaya Patra Foundation. It has its roots in India and has grown due to the organic support it received from within the country. So, the first question is what request can you make to an organisation that does not have roots in India? What we need to fear the most due to foreign funding is our internal security. A huge population of India, especially in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal are being resettled through Islamic seminaries that are being funded from abroad. A narrative is also being spread that the democratic space is shrinking in India. This is a matter of grave concern. Another issue of worry is that many people from the media are given fellowships and brought to foreign countries to trigger a particular debate in India i.e., there is increasing nationalism in India due to which the space for minorities are shrinking. Recently, we saw how in farmers’ protests, a large number of resources had come from other countries. Huge funds have come from Europe and Canada. I am sure that the government is paying attention to that. A serious investigation needs to be conducted to ascertain the sources of these funds and the organisations involved. There is a continuous effort to destabilise the nation and it is the biggest internal security threat we have. This needs to be addressed at the earliest.
Q: What are the key activities and areas that saw funding rise in the last 10 years. Any reasons which were important earlier but now have become less important?
Dr Joshi: In India, poverty has been an important discourse for all political parties and they are all associated very intimately with this issue. India’s growth in this regard has been very inclusive. Our country is among those nations where there is maximum social protection for the poor. There is support extended to farmers, children, women, elderly, differently abled etc. This kind of support is seen only in very few countries. We have right to education, right to livelihood, right to employment etc. We have constitutional safeguards for almost every aspect. This is why foreign organisations have changed the discourse and now they talk aboutlack of freedom of expression in India, rising communalism etc. These countries are turning a blind eye to the plight of minorities within their borders and the increasing ghettoization. Instead, they are busy creating a discourse in India. Because of this, organisations that have their roots in India should be careful about not getting caught in the conspiracy of circumstances.
Dr Ratnoo: There was a question regarding government closing down some NGOs. This is based on wrong information. The government has never closed down any NGO. If you remember, there was a time when new NGOs were being created every other day claiming that HIV cases were increasing in the country. They fudged data and claimed grants both from within and outside the country. They kept opening and closing down NGOs for this purpose. The government’s role is limited to issuing and renewing FCRA licences.
There are a lot of organisations doing good work. To recognise them, the only way is to increase transparency and acknowledge their contributions.
Q: Has any book come out on the issue of foreign funding in India?
Prof Mahajan: Sometime ago, we had published a white paper on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. A book is a good suggestion and we will work towards it.
Dr Ratnoo: The one thing that we all need to talk about is bureaucrats and judges taking positions in international organisations and corporate sector. It is clear conflict of interest. There has to be some guidelines on when and where a public servant can get into these bodies.
Prof Mahajan: I would like to put forth a suggestion here. The top officers who retire should not be allowed to join organisations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The children of many of these officers are studying in foreign countries with the help of these multinational organisations. There is a need for society to stay vigilant and make others aware of such practices. This conflict of interest is a big issue and there needs to be a law on this. Organisations like WHO already has guidelines on conflict of interest. But India still does not have any guidelines. When Prime Minister Modi took office, he had laid down 17 points among which was a proposed legislation on conflict of interest but he is yet to get the support of his officers to formulate a law.
Dr Joshi: I want to give an example in this regard. Jal Nigam was a very efficient undertaking of the Uttar Pradesh government. The World Bank was implementing a water supply project and they said Jal Nigam had a lot of flab. So, they created a leaner asset organisation called Swajal. The bureaucrat who floated the idea to create this organisation by setting aside Jal Nigam was rewarded as the South Asia head of water and sanitation and he served there for the next 20 years. There is a system of rewards put in place by these organisations. Even today, you will see many former officials of the Indian government in high positions in World Bank offices in Washington D.C., Singapore and Indonesia.
Q:Is there a mind game being played through means of foreign scholarship?
Dr Joshi: Yes, in a big way. The scholars who are being implanted in European universities are critiquing the government from the comforts of their homes. They are ignoring all the good work done by the government for inclusive government. They have just one single agenda. This is where I think our missions abroad should be aggressively engaging and promoting a counter narrative. I think this is something that is already in the radar of the government. Another important thing is the development partnership of the Ministry of External Affairs. India will have to promote the work it is doing in African and South Asian nations, in the same manner China is doing with regard to its aid program.
Q:Funding from Islamic countries has increased significantly in the last few years. Earlier there was more funding from Christian countries. Do you see the objective of these two differently?
Dr Joshi: I see the funding from Islamic countries to India as of far more concern. The funding from Islamic countries is not just channelled through civil society organisations or seminaries, it is also coming from hawala transactions. It poses a very serious risk to India.
Prof Mahajan: Once someone asked us why we are not taking FCRA for SJM. We told him that we are not interested in foreign funding, so there is no need for it. He said he can arrange Rs 100 crore to be transferred and we can take 20 per cent and transfer the rest of the money to him. This indicates that some voluntary organisations are also a medium for money laundering.
Brig Rajpurohit:As a soldier and as a citizen of this country, I am concerned. The democracy which should thrive has got a large number of loopholes which you correctly identified. Why are we failing to implement the rules? It is right time that we wipe out the colonial thought process and bring in our culture and Indianness.
Dr Ratnoo: I will add one more question. What was the position of successive governments post-independence? Despite knowing everything, they were not in a position to even ask questions to these multilateral and bilateral agencies. What was the problem? Was it lack of confidence or where they under too much influence of these foreign powers?
Dr Joshi: The previous governments had presented India as a soft state to the world. There were even allegations that the political foundations had taken funding from China. It is indeed an irony. There was a time when if the government did not let civil society organisations receive funding from foreign nations, then it used to be said that there is lack of freedom in the country. The governments were portrayed as despotic that did not let the civil society organisations exist, thrive or flourish. So, the governments kept inviting these organisations and asked them for suggestions to alleviate poverty. But none of the measures benefitted those in need and only helped to fill the coffers of those in power. Today, with a new thought of direct benefit transfer, we have been able to address the issue of poverty alleviation. This is a huge change. From a soft state, India is now seen as a strong state and has changed the global equations. Today, India is telling the world how to make the poorest of poor secure through digital transfers. Even during Covid, when the world’s best health systems fell apart, India managed to recover well, aggressively promoted the vaccination drive within the country and gave vaccines to other countries. This is a new India which has made its mark on the international stage. I believe if things continue this way for the next 10 years, it will change the face of the world and India will be seen in a new light.
Prof Mahajan:When Pranab Mukherjee was the finance minister, he had told a UK minister, “we don’t need your peanuts.” During Covid, we have proved how India is a strong state and how the world needs India’s help. Also, I agree that we need a law on conflict of interest. Only then will we be able to handle the foreign influence in an integrated manner.
Dr Ratnoo: I thank both of you for an insightful and comprehensive discussion. Before concluding, I would once again like to say that those organisations that take foreign funding and do good work and are transparent about their work, will never face any difficulty. But many organisations have been working to create divisions in the country, be it religious, caste or even within families. India is an ancient society and family plays an important role. We need to determine our path and chart our course. With almost 140 crore people, we need to ensure that there is peace and harmony in society. We will keep moving ahead. With elections happening at every level, it is clear that there is no threat to India’s democracy. Every voter casts his/her vote with complete freedom and even posts their views and opinions freely on social media. The need is to be vigilant about what is happening in the country. I thank everyone for taking part in the webinar. Thank you!