MUMBAI – India’s prime minister has been making waves in recent months with what many are calling a heavy-handed response to activist groups and charities offering the country aid. On April 28, Prime Minister Narendra Modi placed the NYC-based Ford Foundation on a government “watch list,” barring banks from accepting the organizations funds without first obtaining permission from India’s Ministry of Home Affairs.
To complicate matters even further, this watch list is shrouded in secrecy, so much so that NGOs are not being informed of their placement on it. These actions from the ministry have demonstrated a significant lack of transparency, and the list has only added to the red tape which has been placed on aid-offering organizations for months due to Mr. Modi’s suspicions of outside aid.
The prime minister’s caution against the Ford Foundation can be traced as far back as the Cold War era, when the organization was linked to the CIA, but his actions have been more strongly linked to the foundation’s funding of a trust directed by human rights activist, Teesta Setalvad, who fought for Gujarat riot victims during Mr. Modi’s time as the state’s chief minister. Now, the prime minister is concerned that Ford donations may hinder national security and stability.
Modi has allegedly added other U.S. nonprofits to the watch list including the Sierra Club, 350.org and Mercy Corps, raising questions about U.S.-India relations and the lack of trust implicit in the ministry’s actions. Most recently, it was rumored that the ministry had been looking into funding from the Gates Foundation, but spokesperson KS Dhatwalia denied the allegations, stating that they were not fact-based and that “no such action” was being taken.
On May 6, Richard Verma, U.S. Ambassador to India remarked that the ministry’s actions could have a “potentially chilling effect.” Verma also stated that he “read with some concern the recent press reports on challenges faced by N.G.O.s operating in India.”
India’s ministry has placed restrictions not only on aid from outside organizations, but also on aid from domestic groups, suspending Greenpeace India’s foreign funding license in April due to accusations that it was hurting India’s economy through its opposition to nuclear and mining projects. The organization has since notified its staff that it may be forced to shut down due to a lack of funding. On May 5, Greenpeace India issued a press release stating that it plans to take legal action against what it is calling an “arbitrary attack” by the ministry.
As tensions and suspicions rise between NGOs and Mr. Modi’s ministry, the question becomes how much damage is being done to humanitarian aid efforts in India. With a handful of reputable, long-standing organizations now on a watch list, aid to the country has been lessened, and some may begin to wonder when and where a line will be drawn regarding governmental control. Mr. Modi’s actions seem to target mostly foreign groups, in particular U.S.-based organizations. The reasons are largely political, and it may be concluded that the ministry is willing to protect its own interests at the cost of aid to its citizens.
Although India’s government under Mr. Modi has exhibited a lack of support for the work of certain nonprofit groups, a report estimates that the country is home to about 3.2 million NGOs; therefore, it is unlikely that charities and advocacy groups will be severely impacted as a whole.
– Amy Russo