India crackdown? Ford Foundation latest foreign NGO slapped by Delhi

The Ford Foundation joins a growing list of foreign non-profit organizations – including Mercy Corps and the Sierra Club – whose funds have been restricted by the Indian government.  

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP
The Indian government has shown increased scrutiny of non-profit groups and their foreign donors under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Ford Foundation has joined a growing list of charities and advocacy groups on an official Indian “watch list” as Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government seeks to tighten oversight of foreign-funded NGOs. 

The move reflects long-standing tension between the state and civil society in India that appears to be intensifying under Mr. Modi, observers say.

The New York-based foundation, which funds a wide range of projects in India, was put on the list on April 23. As a result, Indian banks must receive permission from India's home affairs ministry before transferring Ford's money to recipients. 

The action has been widely linked to Ford’s funding of a trust led by human rights activist Teesta Setalvad, who has championed the cause of riot victims in Gujarat where Modi previously served as chief minister. The Gujarat government in March accused Ford of interfering in the "internal affairs" of India and "of abetting communal disharmony." 

In a parallel move, India's home ministry said April 27 it had canceled the registrations of almost 9,000 foreign-funded NGOs for failing to file returns as mandated under Indian law.

Suspicious eye on NGOs

The Ford Foundation has given out some $508 million in India since 1952, when it was invited here by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. Its initial focus was on nation-building institutions and is credited for helping kickstart India's Green Revolution in the 1960s. It continues to fund a wide range of economic and social justice projects, with grants of nearly $29 million awarded over the last three years.  

The watch list designation recalls suspicions in India about the Ford Foundation – and foreign aid in general – that date to the cold war, when the group was linked with the CIA. It sends a strong signal, given Modi’s emphasis on closer relations with Washington, says Satish Mishra, a political analyst with the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

As with Greenpeace India, whose foreign funds were recently frozen, the “move is also symbolic,” Mr. Mishra says. “The Indian government is showing that it is willing to take on big organizations.”

Unlike the past, however, the current targeting of foreign NGOs is by the forces of the political right.

“The right has issues with American funding. The left has no issues,” said DL Sheth, emeritus professor at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies. Mr. Seth was referring to the coalition of right-wing Hindu nationalist groups called the Sangh Parivar that make up and support Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. 

Designations and information requests

Designating groups for the watch lists is tied to national security policy. Many targeted organizations are not told directly, as is the case so far with Ford. The watch list reportedly includes US groups such as Mercy Corps, the Climate Work Foundation,, and the Sierra Club, as well the Danish International Development Agency and Dutch NGO Hivos.

Hivos and Greenpeace were named in a report by India’s Intelligence Bureau leaked to the media last June. The report accused human rights and environmental groups of slowing down India’s economic growth by opposing nuclear, mining, and power projects.

Hivos India and suddenly found their accounts frozen last year. They've yet to receive a formal explanation from the home ministry.

“Because [the watch list] was secret, and because it was linked to national security, it’s impossible to fight or even file a right to information request,” says Ingrid Srinath, head of Hivos India, who has had meetings with the home ministry. She hopes that diplomatic channels will help unlock funds and allow the payment of overdue salaries.

The Ford Foundation’s New Delhi office, in an email last Wednesday, said it had not heard from the home ministry. “Our aim is to work closely with Government partners to clarify any area of question or concern,” it said., meanwhile, is holding off on plans to expand an environmental campaign to challenge the use of coal. “We’re definitely on the back foot,” said Chaitanya Kumar, the group's South Asia campaigns coordinator.

Ms. Srinath, like many other activists, says that both NGOs and foreign donors need to be more accountable but that watch list status should be based on real evidence and be more transparent. “What is troubling is how opaque and unaccountable the process has been," she says. 

'Congress never went this far'

Distrust in India of Ford, in particular, is a legacy of the cold war. Left-wing groups opposed the foundation in the 1960s; Prime Minister Indira Gandhi later came to suspect that a "foreign hand" was destabilizing her Congress Party's rule.  

In 2012, the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance froze the accounts of NGOs involved in protests against a nuclear power plant in Kudankulam in the state of Tamil Nadu. But experts say the big-tent, liberal sympathies of Congress constrained it from taking drastic action. “Congress never went this far,” says Mishra. 

While many activists lament an onset of dark days for NGOs under Modi, Mathew Cherian, chief executive of Helpage India, an NGO focused on helping senior citizens, is more optimistic. He says the watch lists won’t affect NGOs significantly in the long run. Indeed, by one official estimate there are 3.2 million NGOs in India, many of which are small religious charities or government-funded groups. Some 40,000 are registered under laws regulating federal funding.

Cherian, whose organization is largely funded by Indian donors, says NGOs can and should be able to raise funds locally. But he admits that is harder for those that focus on controversial issues such as land rights or mining.

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