Komala Ramachandra in Caravan (Photo: Adnan Abidi/REUTER):
OVER THE LAST FEW MONTHS, scrutiny of foreign funding for non-governmental organisations in India has been increasing. Although this trend is widely acknowledged, few commentators have pointed out that growing suspicion of NGOs that receive such funding is part of an emerging global reaction to civil society. India has joined the likes of Russia, Egypt, Israel, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador in trying to silence groups that raise objections to human rights violations and environmental degradation. These governments allege that foreign-funded NGOs threaten national security, often conflating such security—which it is their duty to provide—with the economic interests of private corporations that stand to benefit from silencing democratic opposition. What these governments have not done, however, is address the substantive concerns such organisations raise about lapses in due process for those harmed by industrial projects, and about such projects’ long-term environmental impacts.
In early June, an Indian Intelligence Bureau report blaming foreign-funded environmental organisations for a significant slowdown in economic growth was leaked to the press. The report alleged that these groups were acting on behalf of foreign entities rather than in the best interests of the Indian people, and argued that foreign influence should be controlled to protect India’s “national economic security.” It cited examples of non-governmental organisations stalling investments in fields such as nuclear power, coal mining, large-scale infrastructure and genetically modified crops, and raised the spectre of what has often been called a “foreign hand” guiding NGOs.
Around the time the IB report was leaked, in Russia the Ministry of Justice registered five internationally funded NGOs as “foreign agents” under a 2012 law aimed at organisations attempting to influence state decision-making or policies. (Infringements of the statute, which is enforced partly through annual audits and surprise inspections, are punishable by thousands of dollars in fines and up to three years in prison.) A week earlier, the Russian government had issued a notice of violation to a foreign-funded human rights NGO for providing legal assistance to other groups targeted under the law.
This followed similar crackdowns around the world, by governments across the political spectrum. In late December, a high-ranking minister from the office of Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, announced the immediate expulsion from the country of a Danish-funded rural-development NGO called IBIS, which was accused of political action against the government. IBIS had supported peoples’ organisations expressing concern about the impacts of industrial development and climate change in indigenous areas, and trying to influence democratic decision-making—activities protected under the Bolivian constitution.