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Foreign Funding for
NGOs Under Review

The Indian government is now accusing NGOs, particularly the popular movement against the Sardar Sarovar dam, of acting on behalf of foreign interests, says
Ranjit Devraj

New Delhi, November 14

Having won a prolonged judicial battle against the anti-Narmada dam campaign, the Indian government is getting tough with people's groups, which it accuses of acting on behalf of "foreign interests".

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has declared that it would closely scrutinise the sources and use of foreign funds received by hundreds of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the country.

However, the decision, announced by junior Home Minister Vidyasagar Rao, is said to be 'targeted' mainly at the nearly two-decade old popular movement against the four billion-U.S. dollar Sardar Sarovar dam.

Supporters of the scheme, which is to be the first of 30 big, and hundreds of medium and small dams planned on the central Indian Narmada River, have long accused the anti-dam Narmada Bachao Movement (NBA), of being anti-national.

The NBA leader has challenged the home minister to prove that her movement has used foreign funds. Patkar has declared that if this could not be proved, Advani should quit office

A huge advertisement in the leading national daily 'Indian Express', Friday, accused famous NBA leader Medha Patkar of sustaining her campaign with the help of foreign money received through illegal channels.

"NBA has established various support groups in different names and parties are pursued
to donate to such support groups instead of the NBA directly," claimed the advertiser, the National Council for Civil Liberties, a group based in western coastal Gujarat state, where the dam is located.

Last month, India's Supreme Court rejected an NBA plea to scrap the Sardar Sarovar, after hearing both sides for six years. The apex court allowed work on the partially built dam wall to resume, more than five years after it was suspended under the court's order.

Gujarat, ruled by the BJP, is the main beneficiary of the scheme, which is supported by all political parties in the state. The Sardar Sarovar is described as the 'life-line' of the arid state, where tens of thousands of peasants were forced to leave their homes by a chronic water scarcity this summer.

The NBA has also been accused in the advertisement of "passing on confidential documents related to national importance to foreign people with the sole objective to halt the progress of the nation."

Home Minister L. K. Advani, who belongs to Gujarat, has also accused the NBA of acting on behalf of unnamed "foreign interests".

Speaking during a Nov. 1 public ceremony at the dam site to mark the symbolic start to the resumed construction, Advani also observed that it was "more than a coincidence" that the same people were opposing both the Sardar Sarovar dam and India's nuclear weapons.

Without naming, Advani was referring to famous Indian author Arundhati Roy who has championed the NBA's cause and is also a strong critic of India's May 1998 nuclear tests ordered by the BJP-led government.

Roy, who has won the British Booker Prize, also come under attack in Friday's anti-NBA newspaper advertisement for "criticising the nuclear blast by the country".

The home minister, who is the second most powerful man in the BJP and the government after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and is known for his hawkish nationalist views, subsequently said that foreign funds received by NGOs should be properly accounted for.

Announcing this at a press conference, Advani's junior minister Rao said the government was planning new legislation to regularise use of foreign contributions received by NGOs. The government expects Indian NGOs to receive more than one billion dollars in foreign assistance this year, Rao said.

"Tightening the laws has become necessary because some organisations were receiving foreign donations without the permission of the home ministry," he said.

The NBA leader has challenged the home minister to prove that her movement has used foreign funds. Patkar has declared that if this could not be proved, Advani should quit office.

She has welcomed a probe on the NBA by the federal sleuthing agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), requested by the Gujarat state government.

"The NBA is a mass organisation of the people of this country and it draws its initiative from this country itself. It is expected of Mr. Advani that as home minister, he should rise above party politics and avoid making such baseless statements," said NBA spokesman Shripad Dharmadhikary.

Existing legal regulation of foreign funds for NGOs in the country has been under fire from the groups for a long time. The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) is criticised for being too rigid and reflecting the mindset of the authoritarian government, which ruled the country during the national emergency a quarter century ago.

The FCRA was further tightened in the year 1985 on the ground that some NGOs were using foreign funds for 'anti-national' purposes.

Under the law, the government can reject NGO applications for receiving foreign assistance if this is found against "the sovereignty and integrity of India, the public interest, freedom or fairness of election to any legislature, friendly relations with any foreign state, harmony between religious, racial, linguistic or regional groups, castes or communities."

"More than two decades have passed since the Act came into existence and the allegations have been proved wrong," says Anil Singh, chief of the Voluntary Action Network of India, an umbrella grouping of NGOs in the country.

The NGO's grouping is trying to persuade Members of Parliament to get the law repealed. Singh alleges large-scale official corruption in the registration of NGOs. Many foreign donors even set aside a small percentage to be paid to corrupt officials to get necessary clearances, he says. (IPS)

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