An Intelligence Bureau (IB) report submitted to the Prime Minister's Office has alleged that Greenpeace and other foreign-funded NGOs were threatening the country's economic development.
Neera Nundy, partner and co-founder of Dasra, a strategic philanthrophy foundation, shares her views on the report and the regulation and transparency of NGOs with Ranjita Ganesan
Is the IB report a realistic assessment of the funding of NGOs?
It is clearly not a balanced view. Dasra has been working with NGOs for many years and we have been catalytic in helping very strong NGOs become leaders.
Many groups under us like Magic Bus and Educate Girls are partially funded by foreign funds. High net-worth individuals and corporates are also giving more now. The concern could be that some foreign funds may be supporting issues that could challenge the interests of development.
That can be addressed with changes to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) and by encouraging local funding.
Should foreign-funded NGOs necessarily be viewed differently from Indian ones, perhaps treated with more caution, or is that a bogey governments use?
I think 'where' the money is coming from is not as important as 'who' it is coming from. You could have Indian donors who have vested interests.
There is an equal risk. Foreign funding is a small part and a large portion of it goes to religious organisations.
We could have more transparency about where the money is coming from and going to by getting income statements of NGOs and auditing them. I think the main challenge is because of the FCRA regulatory environment.
You have to jump through hoops to get approval. We can digitise a lot of this to expedite permissions and build transparency. For example in the US, tax-exempt NGOs file tax documents and make them available online.
Broadly, do NGOs in India need to be more transparent, especially about funding and donations?
We can modernise the archaic system a bit. For instance, a guy comes to visit the space and see if it is legitimate. Sometimes he asks for bribes indirectly and NGOs wonder if they should pay or not. We always tell them 'do not pay, just wait it out.'
The government has to respond in 120 days, which is a good thing. Another good move is that they have put applications online so you can just fill it out there and then the clock starts ticking.
Dasra has been working with NGOs and donors. What are the common concerns about NGOs in India that donors feel need to be addressed?
The big question is always legitimacy and whether they are using the money for a good cause. There are three million NGOs listed in India and only around 500 doing actual work on the ground.
A whole host of others are used as tax havens and for purposes other than a good cause. That leads to fear and paranoia. But the scenario is changing and a significant number of groups are doing good work. What we need from NGOs is more reports of the impact of the work and frugality with funds.
We are also trying to encourage HNIs to be more strategic about their giving. Some still give to temples and religious groups but a lot of them, especially the younger generation, want to be more involved.
The IB report has also been criticised in some quarters for positioning economic growth against development. What are your views on the new government's approach to development as can be determined from the president's speech and the Bharatiya Janata Party's manifesto?
The manifesto is quite well written, seems balanced and is definitely ambitious. It is a great starting point but the challenge lies in its implementation and keeping all the stakeholders involved.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi talks of 'not alleviation but elimination' of poverty. It is aspirational but we need to be cautious. When you do things quickly, some people get left behind.
Do you welcome the new law on corporate social responsibility activities under the new Companies Act? Should charity be compulsory?
This is a double-edged sword. There will be questions of whether this is compromising shareholder value but there is a responsibility for businesses to give back strategically.
This will help by forcing companies to see how their business can align with development. Will it be 100 per cent effective? No. But it has started a conversation.
A lot of the discussion at this stage is around compliance but hopefully the next thing will be discussing 'where can we make a difference'.