Why Pick on NGOs: Civil Society Should be Given Space to DissentAfter the Prime MinisterÃ¢â¬â¢s remark at a judgesÃ¢â¬â¢ conclave that the judiciary was under pressure from Ã¢â¬Åfive star activistsÃ¢â¬Â and the media, the recent crackdown on NGOÃ¢â¬â¢s, including Greenpeace and the Ford Foundation, is not very surprising. Despite touting Ã¢â¬Åminimum government, maximum governanceÃ¢â¬Â as his partyÃ¢â¬â¢s slogan, Narendra ModiÃ¢â¬â¢s government is trying to squeeze agencies who are doing extremely good work in areas where the government has no reach. It smacks of maximum government.
By Sunil Garodia
NGOÃ¢â¬â¢s are doing pioneering work in many fields. In many other fields, they are helping Indian universities, institutions and individuals to take up work that is benefitting large sections of our society through their liberal grants. Some of this work is at variance with stated government policy. The government feels that these NGOÃ¢â¬â¢s create hurdles in the path of development. Hence, it goes ahead and cancels the FCRA licenses of nearly 9000 NGOÃ¢â¬â¢s, ostensibly for not filing their annual returns regularly. Legally, the government cannot be faulted for this decision. If the NGOÃ¢â¬â¢s need to file certain papers with the authorities, they must do so in time. But coming at a time like this, it seems a measure to make them fall in line. Squeezing the source of funds is the best way to kill any initiative for good deeds cannot be done by good intentions or good words only.
The PMÃ¢â¬â¢s ire at what he called Ã¢â¬Åfive star activistsÃ¢â¬Â is mainly due to the fact that some NGOÃ¢â¬â¢s and their visible faces try to protect peopleÃ¢â¬â¢s rights by filing PILÃ¢â¬â¢s in the courts to counter government hamhandedness. The ire against Greenpeace is rooted in its opposition to IndiaÃ¢â¬â¢s civil nuclear programme without proper safeguards. The ire against Ford Foundation is for the support it gives to Teesta SetalvadÃ¢â¬â¢s NGO, among others.
As the Modi government embarks on a journey of rapid infrastructure growth and industrialization, it knows that the one stumbling block could be the NGOs Ã¢â¬" long known as the idealist jholawallahs. That perception needs to be changed now. NGOÃ¢â¬â¢s have become savvy. Thanks mainly to the internet, they have the latest inputs and resources at their finger tips. They employ hotshot MBAs. Top lawyers represent them in court cases. In fact, they are playing the role of the opposition much better than most opposition parties in India.
The fact is that the government needs to be opposed and checked at times when it seeks to bulldoze its way in or out of situations where the rights of thousands are affected. The government cannot say that we will allow the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help NGOs fight child trafficking and AIDS while we will not allow Greenpeace to agitate against civil nuclear plants. It has to allow the good work with what it considers to be Ã¢â¬ÅbadÃ¢â¬Â work. For, the work is not bad. There is due judicial process in the country. The NGOÃ¢â¬â¢s just subject government decisions to this judicial process. Or they create awareness and organize protest against some decisions that are instantly applied.
Instead of trying to stifle informed dissent, a government that is seeking to use minimum government should involve these Ã¢â¬Åfive star activistsÃ¢â¬Â and their lesser known but maybe more knowledgeable and experienced counterparts, in the process of decision making. They are the ones working on the ground and with the people and are more aware of the implications of the policies. Civil society has a stake in how government shapes its policies. This is a fact no government can ignore.