Do we need to turn Ostriches over the IB Report?
The past week appeared as though Indian media (both MSM and social) has been set on fire over the leaked IB report. This report is critical on some of the foreign funded NGOs, at the helm of protests against various Indian government policy initiatives, especially in the domain of energy, power, infrastructure, defence, and agriculture. It is not clear when the report was prepared and who leaked it to media. Indian Express first broke the story and Times group has also published several excerpts from the report.
The “pro-establishment” folks (as branded by PMANE fame Uthayakumar; one of the persons named in the report) have called for a thorough investigation of funds received and utilization of funds by these NGOs. The foreign funded NGOs named in the report and their sympathizers have mounted a counter attack to defend their position. This objective of this article is to summarize these counter attacks and critically analyze the validity of the arguments put forth in their defence.
Counter Attacks – Summary
There may be several reports of counter attacks from those critical of the IB report. But I am listing a select sample of those that have been popularly shared over social media. A group of prominent activist including Former Navy Chief Admiral L Ramdas, former Director General of Tripura Police K S Subramanian, senior columnist Praful Bidwai, anti-nuclear activist S P Udayakumar etc. organized a press conference and defended the NGO’s (here). Popular news portal The News Minute (hitherto TNM) managed to get a copy of the leaked IB report and presented a critical analysis (here). Noted columnist Surjit Bhalla trashed the IB report and presented his defence of Green Peace and foreign funded NGOs (here).
Activist and Independent Journalist Jay Mazoomdaar wrote a good piece on this subject. He skips over the trivial issues and laments on government ushering in policy initiatives while there is panic among the NGOs (here). The verbatim copy of the IB report does not appear to be available online; however TNM has summarized the report (here) applying their discretion of what to highlight and what not to highlight. Kiran Vadlamani has countered Bhalla (here) questioning some of his claims. This article will look at the key points made by all the above articles in defence of the foreign funded NGOs and examine the validity of their claims.
The GDP loss figure has no scientific basis
This is the line of defence put forth by TNM and Bhalla to trash the entire report. Yes, the quoted GDP numbers may be exaggerated, but does that automatically trash the validity of the entire report? One needs to remember Intelligence services exist to gather Intelligence and alert the government for action. They are not a prosecution body or a CAG to present statistically valid econometric analysis on their subjects. The intention of quoting a GDP number appears to be a “usual” middle managerial trick of attracting attention from the top management. The top management also knows this trick and take such claims with a pinch of salt.
But is estimating the GDP loss possible?
A ballpark may be possible by concerned governmental agencies. For e.g. the loss due to Ms. Medha Patkar’s Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) against the Narmada dam over the past 10 years has been estimated to be 45,000 Crores; much more than the project value itself (here). By this precedence whatever the exact GDP loss figure is, it is going to be a whooping number! Bottom line, an inflated GDP loss figure is not a good reason to trash the report; when the focus of the report is on the modus-operandi of the NGOs.
Plagiarism, Grammatical errors & Poor writing
Indian Express started this line of defence which was picked by TNM too. The key criticism is two paragraphs from the report have been lifted from publicly available sources like books, articles, blogs etc; without appropriate references. TNM also complains that there are many grammatical errors in the report and its style is poorly written, thereby wondering how it hopes to shape serious policy discourse in the country. Intelligence gathering is all about collating information from multiple sources to alert the government for formal action. Such critiques seem to forget that, what they are holding is a leaked IB report and not an academic dissertation or an op-ed / article for public consumption.
Those with knowledge of IB’s working would vouch that “declaring sources” is something alien to them. So what is wrong if some of this information already exists in public domain? Do they think government proactively reads all this content available around us? IB may have deployed people with poor knowledge of Shakespearean English; does it automatically annul the validity of the content? The shaping the policy discourse for me is a real killer! They forget that IB’s only objective was to alert the government for action. It is the media that is using a leaked copy of the report to shape policy discourse in this country. So why thrust your objective on them?
Timing & Motive is suspect
Some TV channels such as IBN questioned the timing of the leak. TNM, TOI (here) and Bhalla think that IB is doing a disservice to the NDA government by assuming such a report would please the bosses. The above TOI report establishes that IB was tasked to keep an eye on NGOs by the UPA government in 2012. The leaked report has only incidentally appeared after NDA has assumed power. The IB’s role is to alert the government for action. Just because the timing is bad, does it invalidate the merit of the points in the IB report?
Even if this report has certain exaggerations to please the new bosses, would it be right to summarily dismiss the issue, as if everything is perfectly right about NGOs? Wouldn’t it be fair to ask Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to order an investigation to be safe? If such a ‘badly prepared’ report had appeared on a Hindu Right wing NGO, wouldn’t the same media and NGOs be crying foul calling for investigation; just to be safe? So why panic now?
Does not list Acts of Breaking of Law and Offences committed
Almost all the counter attacks barring Mazoomdaar, devote space to this line of thinking. Their core argument is the report does not list details of offences committed (IPC section numbers would have been handy too!). They forget that IB is not a prosecution agency that is filing a charge sheet against the accused. After the government has investigated the NGOs and if there is any case for prosecution, then I am sure the prosecution wing will take over. Isn’t it churlish to expect such level of detailing in an IB report? But those familiar with the FCRA act (like Mazoomdaar) can easily see through the list of sections violated; as they tantamount to ‘political activity’ – a wide term that is defined in the act.
These NGOs are properly registered & receive funds transparently under FCRA
TNM, Bhalla and the NGOs repeatedly state that these NGOs have a well-defined MoA and have obtained proper FCRA registration. They say that the funds have been received in a transparent manner under FCRA. If there was any problem, why was the funding stopped at the input stage? This line of tomfoolery appears convincing to those naiveté’s who are not familiar with the FCRA act and the overall process. If you want a quick dummy on FCRA for NGOs refer to the website.
Firstly taking funds (input) in a transparent manner is mandated by law; and does not bestow any virtue to the NGO. Secondly the ambit of FCRA act is not limited to “how you get foreign funds” but it also clearly lays out “what you can do with it, and what you can’t do with it“. The said NGOs talk about input transparency as a fig leaf to hide their trickery in what they have done with it. This is similar to AAP which projects its input transparency while hiding its expenditure.
Professor Vaidyanathan (as far back as 2012) has detailed the modus-operandi of these NGOs and what they do with the money (here). By analyzing the financial statements of tiny minority that filed them in the first place, he observes a far too “disproportionate” spending towards “establishment expenses” (about 50% to 70%). This is money plainly spent towards the welfare of the founders thereby depriving the welfare of those in whose name the funds were originally received. Agreed this is a “moral” issue and not a “legal” issue. So let us look at the legal issue.
As per FCRA act the money received CANNOT be spent towards “political activity”. The definition of political activity (as per link) covers a wide range of activities. A screen shot of the list is given below with key portions under-lined.
Even if the MoA doesn’t state it, if there is material evidence to suggest that the NGO is organizing people based on caste, community, religion or language for advancement of “political interests” of such groups, then it is deemed political activity. Any NGO which habitually engages in ‘public disruption’ (dharnas, rail rokos, road rokos etc.) is deemed to be political. Now I leave it to the readers to decide how “clean” these NGOs really are, and have they violated FCRA act or not.
FCRA Act is muzzling dissent
Mazoomdaar says that the wide definition of political activity is a concern to the nation because it muzzles dissent. He explains that there is panic among NGOs that received notice from MHA because of this wide definition. If the NGOs and their sympathizers are not happy with the FCRA amendment in 2011, shouldn’t they have been in the streets in 2010/2011? Shouldn’t they have invoked a policy debate then? Was their silence then because they had a “friendly regime” in place with nothing to worry on implementation of the act?
If so then there is nothing to complain today because a law once enacted has to be complied. Questioning it and amending the law will grant relief only on a retrospective basis.
Mazoomdaar also asks “who is IB to decide what is anti-national?”. Is working against “corporate interests” dubbed as anti national?
Firstly IB is a secretive establishment group that is an extension of the government and is there any surprise that those who oppose government policy decisions are anti-national in their internal lingo? Does it change anything for NGOs as far as their worldview is concerned?
Secondly let us be honest, not all agitations discussed in IB report are anti corporate. If NGOs call PSU firms such as Coal India, KNPP etc. as corporate, then they don’t really know whom they are fighting. These PSUs employ thousands of people (often beyond their requirement) and subsidize things which the government itself can’t afford in the first place. The next section will also respond further to this line of argument.
If NGOs avoid “people-centric” issues what else they should do?
TNM and Mazoomdar argue that NGOs exist to take up the cause of people and protect their rights. If not what else are they supposed to do? This argument is a fair point when viewed superficially. However the devil is in the detail.
Firstly does a NGO need foreign funds to take up such people issues? If so what are the motivation of the foreign donors sponsoring it? Should the NGOs be conscious and accountable of that? If one looks at the “establishment expenses” of these NGOs, one starts wondering if they are protecting the interests of the founders or the people.
That besides, in a civilized democracy there are “ways” by which one fights for the rights of people. Contrast the fight against Sethusamudram Project vs. Kudankulam Project to see the difference in the “way” the fight is being pursued. NGOs are welcome to take the legal avenue; obtaining stay orders for controversial projects from the designated courts. The onus then shifts to the government to justify a particular project is “for greater good” to the society, even if it causes a certain degree of hardship to people that are displaced.
Agreed that this may delay the project, but at-least the “way” is legal and civilized. This also ensures timely rehabilitation and compensation to the people affected. Look carefully, IS this “way” DISALLOWED by FCRA Act? The Answer is NO! It is only when these NGOs organize massive shows of “public disruption” (like the ones witnessed in Kudankulam or Narmada valley), the question of violation of law comes into picture. So is there really anything “unfair” about FCRA act or the “expected behaviour” of NGOs as sought by the “establishment groups”?
After the SC has given a verdict and all legal avenues are exhausted, do these NGOs reconcile and let the project proceed? They don’t because many of these NGOs including Greenpeace don’t believe in the ethics of “utilitarianism” or greater good. They subscribe to alternate ethics school called “no one’s rights should be offended”. Hence the mutual differences are simply irreconcilable if you read theoretical literature of these two schools of thought. A case in point is the hardened positions of NBA and PMANE after the SC judgment; and that is where “lies” the problem that IB report seeks to highlight.
Why should there be a bar on FF NGOs? Why not only Monitor Government Action?
This is a strange argument put forth by Bhalla. He says why have FCRA act? Why not allow NGOs to take foreign funds from whosoever they wish? Why do we need to restrict the type of activities they engage in? Why can’t we simply MONITOR the functioning of government policy (alone) as a watchdog to ensure no injustice to “greater good” creeps in?
This in essence is the “pro lobbyist” argument in the United States. Since Bhalla is an Economic Right winger it is not surprising that he makes this argument. Let us critically examine this.
Firstly, as things stand lobbying is not allowed in India. It is the prerogative of the government to engage with experts (of its choice) to come out with policies that are for the greater good of the country. If affected parties are aggrieved they can approach the court after the policy decision has been formally announced. So FCRA act is consistent with this line of thinking which disallows lobbying before policy formulation.
Secondly, Bhalla does not realize that “malafide” intention cannot be established in the court of law unless the “inputs” are monitored. For example, if the prosecution cannot prove that A. Raja (ex Telecom minister) gained pecuniary advantage in the policies he formulated during 2G auction, then no case of malafide intention can be made out. If you allow NGOs that are lobbying, politicians who own some of these NGOs, members of these NGOs in panels such as NAC to collect funds without restrictions and monitoring; then establishing malafide intent in policy making is virtually impossible.
So this simply won’t work! But how do countries with legal lobbying manage it then?
The hard fact is they “don’t” manage it well enough!
Transaction Cost Economics suggests that people will “collectively organize” themselves for a cause only if the transaction cost associated with the action of organizing, justifies the end benefit to each member. The idea behind banning of lobbying in India is – few powerful players (like say Oil companies) can quickly organize themselves with low transaction cost, while it is very hard for the numerous affected common men (often geographically dispersed) to organize themselves.
There is also the factor of Information Asymmetry between these two groups which is very high in India compared to the west. So by letting an elected government formulate the policy, we repose trust in them to determine the greater good for the society. If they don’t get the balance right (without any malafide intent), they get punished electorally in a democracy. If malafide intent exists, civil society can take them to the court like in the case of 2G. Hence if these foreign funded NGOs (with thousands of Crores of money) were allowed to lobby against common men, it becomes an unequal battle. This goes against the tenets of our democracy.
It is easy to say Energy companies have more clout than foreign funded NGOs. That may be true in Western Countries with the likes of Shell, BP and Chevron. But in a public sector dominated country like India, would “sarkari” energy companies (ONGC, GAIL, NPCL, IOC etc.) lobby actively for their interests? Again whose interests should they lobby for, as they are simply acting as the agent for the government and are not engaged in a profit maximization drive?
Even for Kudankulam project, the “anti” group was well-organized with foreign funded NGOs, but will it be possible for those desperate common public in Tamilnadu who face 6 hours of power cut to organize a counter lobby? Firstly will a poorly educated and “karma” believing society such as ours vociferously organize itself to lobby? No, they would blame the NGOs, Government and God in that order and continue to live in deprivation with negativity. These are social & institutional situations that are unique to India. Hence it is pointless to mindlessly ape the US model of lobbying for a country like us.
The IB report may be badly written and make certain exaggerated claims. However the fundamental issue of impropriety by foreign funded NGOs has been established prima-facie.
The material put together by IB may not entirely be new. The writings of Professor Vaidyanathan (here), the book and articles written by Radha Rajan (here) were accessible to a few. The IB report was simply calling government’s attention to the issue, but the media coverage has expanded its reach. One of the global NGOs – Greenpeace that figures in the IB report is not only flagged by India, but has also been flagged by Canada (here) for such disruptive actions. The above link details their funding pattern and modus operandi and is seriously scary.
The confession of one of the Co-founders of Greenpeace (here) details how exactly the organization has shifted its focus from ecological protection to what amounts to ecological terrorism and anti-globalization. He also confirms how Greenpeace does not believe in the concept of “greater good” which is at the root of Indian democratic system. The structure of the accused NGOs indicates a maze of complexity (here). For example Six of these accused NGOs are shown to reside in the same address and one of them is apparently an umbrella organization of 750(!) NGOs. The amount of funds they received is whopping thousands of Crores, and the practice of “cross diversion” of funds for causes that do not match with the original stated purpose appears to be rampant.
And where are these funds going? They are stalling the very development projects that Narmada dam, KNPP etc. the benefits from which a significant section of the society is craving for. What more prima-facie evidence do we want for a thorough investigation?
Do we want to turn Ostriches that bury their heads in the sand as if the sandstorm will just pass by?
All well-meaning citizens would in fact welcome the MHA to thoroughly investigate the operations of these NGOs. Let them explain the anomalies in their operations. Until then defending the NGOs mindlessly (or) issuing unsolicited clean chits – is unlikely to satisfy the concerns of the “common man” of India. If you don’t like that coinage; Sorry at least the 38% who voted for Narendra Modi and his development model are not going to turn Ostriches over this issue!