Are domestically funded NGOs all angelic?

There should be a debate on funding and patrons of NGOs – not only foreign-funded but domestic as well

seema

Seema Sindhu | June 16, 2014



Prime minister Narendra Modi could be considered a lucky man, for he is reaping the benefits of what UPA sowed. Somewhere in 2010, when I was working with a prominent business newspaper, my then editor had raised the very issue which the Intelligence Bureau (IB) has captured in its report that has taken the nation by storm: that many NGOs are coming in the way of development, and are lending a negative tweaking to the country’s growth plans.

But back to my story from four years ago. UPA-II had come to power again after surviving a fatal blow by the Left parties, when Manmohan Singh had paved the way for Indo-US Nuclear deal. My editor had asked us to explore a story about the funding and patrons of some of the NGOs mentioned in the IB report. In fact, in retrospect, the contents of the report seem to be stolen from the discussion we had in our Saturday meeting, which we jokingly called a "concentration camp".

My then editor had expressed his concern that these NGOs seem to have some covert agenda to halt development in not just India but in all Asian countries.

The Manmohan Singhy-led government was equally concerned with the growing influence of some NGOs, though people are making inferences by linking the content in the IB report with Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, a state that has been a hotbed of one of the longest NGO-driven campaign in the country – the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA).

The Intelligence Bureau report has alleged that NGOs are working at the behest of foreign powers to scuttle India's development – albeit without providing any evidence to support these claims.

The report claims the protests against the Kudankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu, for instance, had "deep and growing connections with US and German entities". There is, however, every reason to believe what the report enumerates.

Although India has huge amount of resources to generate hydropower, it had to limit its production due to campaigns by the likes of NBA and others.

Slowly, the country shifted focus to thermal (or coal-based) power. While India is one of the largest ground-bed of coal, it is hugely dependent on imported coal as the quality of coal in India is not very good and we don't have the apt technology to refine it. No wonder, critics could say, that the NGOs protested many a mining projects and thermal projects in India. After all, would it not be in the interest of countries we buy coal from?

Now, when the Manmohan Singh government signed the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008 and survived the fatal blow of withdrawal of support by the Left Front, NGOs became active in Kudankulam nuclear plant as well.

Not going into the debate whether nuclear power is the need of the hour or not, activities and motives of the NGOs certainly need to be scrutinised. And sooner the better, as the economy is in woods of slowdown and many mega-investment and infrastructure projects are stuck amid protests by NGOs.
In fact, there is another interesting point I wish to note here. The word "foreign" is more sinned against. Even domestic funding of NGOs, which is usually considered holier than thou, should be under scrutiny.

I remember visiting a steel plant of a big company (now embroiled in the coal scam) in Odisha, and while discussing local issues there a very senior official of the company narrated a story when he was working with another company (name withheld since we cannot verify veracity of the story). "People in steel (sector) need to have a heart of steel. It's very difficult to do business in mining. I am not saying they are all saints but the mining business is certainly one of the most difficult,” the official had said. “Apart from environmental clearances and other red-tape issues, dealing with the local people and NGOs is the toughest of all.

“When I was with this company, I came across an interesting issue. We often feel NGOs get funds from foreign entities with vested interest. But in this case, the NGOs got funding from small miners in the area to stop this company from coming there. Big companies have stringent operational rules and spend huge amounts of money on CSR and labour welfare, which the small operators fear.

“After a long investigation of the people involved in the protests, I came to know they were pawns of the local miners’ lobby. For them, it was a fight for survival after all."

Different strokes for different folks. But the arguments above seems convincing enough to debate the funding and patrons of NGOs – not only foreign-funded but domestic as well. There is a strong case to bring NGOs under the ambit of the Right to Information Act.   

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