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India’s Foreign Contribution Law: NGOs

Volume 715: debated on Wednesday 25 May 2022

I will call the Member to move the motion and I will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the impact of India’s foreign contribution law on NGOs.

I am very pleased to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Twigg.

This time last year, India had a devastating covid surge. By 6 May 2021, the country had recorded over 400,000 covid cases. Oxfam India, which was founded in India by the British charity Oxfam, provided urgent supplies and support. It worked with India’s health departments, district administrations and local organisations, and its staff set up oxygen plants, provided ventilators and delivered food to vulnerable communities. India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was among those who praised the response to the pandemic by civil society organisations, and Oxfam India played a key part in that response.

Yet in January this year, the charity received some very bad news. The renewal of its Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act licence had been refused; the decision was apparently made last December. The result is that Oxfam India is no longer able to receive funds from abroad. Its annual income will fall from around €15 million to €2.1 million; at least 11 of its 15 development projects will close; and its former reach of over 1.5 million people, mainly Dalits, indigenous populations, minorities, women and girls, will be drastically cut. No explanation for this decision has been given.

Charities and non-governmental organisations in receipt of foreign funding in India must be registered under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act 2010—the FCRA—which regulates how foreign funding can be received. Charities and NGOs now need to operate through a designated FCRA account at the State Bank of India’s main branch in Delhi. According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, local human rights monitoring groups say the purpose of that is to supervise and monitor NGOs’ activity. The Act now gives the Government huge powers to inquire into what NGOs are doing, each time putting their work on hold until the inquiry is complete.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. On 6 January this year Members highlighted another charity, the Missionaries of Charity, who were reinstated some days after the debate. Organisations such as Oxfam, Greenpeace and Compassion are also affected. Some of the NGOs are of Christian heritage and some have a Muslim background. Some 250 Hindu NGOs have been closed because they are anti-Government. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with me that this is an early warning bell of increased human rights abuses in India? It harms India’s poorest and is a symptom of the continuing pressure from Hindu nationalism.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about that. It seems clear that the FCRA is being used to make life difficult for organisations that from time to time might be critical of the Government. In 2016, a commission appointed by the UN Human Rights Council called for the repeal of the Act, but in 2020 it was tightened up even further on the grounds of bringing greater accountability.

Of course, what is happening to NGOs is part of a wider pattern in India. We all grew up thinking of India as the greatest democracy on the planet. The briefing for this debate from the all-party parliamentary human rights group is absolutely right to refer to

“India’s rich tradition and constitutional status as a secular democracy.”

I was simply stunned when the reputable organisation Amnesty was forced to close its office in India. The suffocation of minority rights and the lack of freedom of expression has also been illustrated by the ongoing conflict in Kashmir, the farmers’ protest and the persecution of minorities, as has been mentioned, including the Christians and the Dalits. Today, Mohammed Yasin Malik and other leaders have been sentenced to life, and their only crime is wanting freedom from Indian illegal occupation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that India is a diminishing democracy?

I do agree with that. The situation is very worrying. I remember vividly the pride of Muslim constituents with roots in India, their home country, when I was first elected, but that has all drastically changed. There have been new laws to make things difficult specifically for Muslim citizens. Our Prime Minister’s state visit to India last month took place against a backdrop of inter-religious violence in Delhi and the demolition of Muslim-owned buildings.

The Christian charity, Open Doors, which launches its watchlist every year in Parliament, now designates India as the tenth worst country in the world in which to be a Christian. It has been sliding down other indices as well. It is ranked 150 out of 180 countries in the latest World Press Freedom index. Freedom House ranked India as only “partly free” in its Freedom in the World report this year, noting that:

The constitution guarantees civil liberties including freedom of expression and freedom of religion, but harassment of journalists…NGOs…and other government critics has increased significantly”.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest Democracy Index categorises India as a “flawed democracy”. Civicus, the Johannesburg-headquartered global civil society alliance, categorises Indian civil society as “repressed”, which is the second worst category in its ranking, having downgraded in 2019. Not one of those indices proves there is a problem, but the overall message that they all convey is unmistakable.

The 2020 changes to the FCRA have effectively banned NGOs from research, advocacy and campaigning. They have also created new bureaucratic and practical hurdles, a ban on NGOs transferring funds to other NGOs, other restrictions on fund distribution, a cap on administrative costs, and delays from the necessity of additional form filling. It is claimed that all of that is to strengthen transparency and accountability, but it is fairly clear that the Government are targeting charities and non-profits that question their policies. Will the Minister urge the Indian authorities to review carefully the FCRA for compliance with international human rights standards and to suspend aspects of the law that restrict charities from providing urgently needed relief?

The Centre for Promotion of Social Concerns is a prominent human rights organisation in India. It lost its licence under the FCRA in 2016. The Ministry of Home Affairs said that was on the basis of a field agency report. The group challenged the decision in the High Court and, in the Ministry’s evidence to the court, it complained that the organisation used foreign funding to pass information to United Nations special rapporteurs and to foreign embassies, that that was

“portraying India’s human rights record in negative light…to the detriment of India’s image”,

and that such acts were

“undesirable activities detrimental to national interest”.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) was right to draw attention to Amnesty International being forced to put an end to its covid support. The head of Amnesty International India said at the time:

“Even if you’re working on Covid, the law makes it very difficult for you to be able to even accept foreign aid coming in without being in violation of the law”.

Greenpeace, too, has lost its licence. The Ford Foundation has been suspended. NGOs from other overseas countries are telling their own Governments how hard this is making things for them.

Oxfam—I started with this case—has been sending help to India since 1951. Oxfam India became a fully Indian organisation in 2008. Today, it is one of the country’s largest NGOs, providing food, shelter, clothing, medicine and medical equipment. It was reaching more than 1.5 million people, but has now lost its FCRA licence, so that number will be reduced drastically. Oxfam India applied to renew its licence on 1 April last year, in good time, but it appears that the application was rejected on 15 December, although the organisation has received no official communication from the Indian Government about that decision. Now, it can only raise resources within India, but its previous income was 75% made up of foreign aid. A lot of staff will lose their jobs, and crucial humanitarian and social work has ended.

In the five years after the current Indian Government first took office in 2014, more than 14,000 NGOs were barred from accessing foreign funding, seemingly mainly to hamper criticism of Government policies. Nearly 6,000 did not have their FCRA licences renewed last year. One notable organisation affected, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out in his intervention, was the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa. It was blocked from accessing international funding on the grounds of “adverse inputs”, but nobody knows what that means, or what the problem with Mother Teresa’s charity was thought to be. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the decision has been reversed, which at least suggests that external pressure can help to deliver renewal of an FCRA licence.

Oxfam India applied well before the deadline. No reasons for the refusal were given, simply a statement that the decision had been taken in the “public interest”, but one of the problems is that the FCRA definition of

“activities prejudicial to the public interest”

is extremely vague. Will the Minister seek from the Indian Government an explanation of why Oxfam India’s activities are regarded as

“not in the public interest”?

Oxfam India has now filed a petition to the Indian Government for a final administrative review. There has as yet been no response.

On 10 February, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, Sir Matthew Rycroft, raised this issue with his counterpart at the Indian Home Ministry. In response to my written question, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), said on 17 May:

“The Permanent Secretary addressed the difficulties that some NGOs in India have faced due to the enforcement of the FCRA, which is impacting both on the work we are funding and the work of UK-headquartered global NGOs in India.”

I very much welcome the permanent secretary’s intervention on this issue, but as I understand it, the Indian Government have given no assurances at all about whether these cases will be reviewed. There is clearly a lot more to do. In answering my question, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department said that the UK continues

“to monitor developments related to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, especially impacts on UK Government-funded programmes in India, and the work of British NGOs in India.”

However, we need more than monitoring. I am sure the Minister will agree with me about the negative impact of the FCRA, and I ask her and her colleagues to press the Indian authorities to review the legislation and lift some of the restrictions. They should also press for greater transparency of FCRA licence determination.

I will finish with the words of Amitabh Behar—the chief executive of Oxfam India, whom I met on a recent Zoom seminar—about what is happening in India. He told the BBC:

“The Ministry of Home Affairs’ decision to deny renewal of FCRA registration will severely hamper these collaborations which were providing relief to those who needed it the most during times of crisis.”

I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us that Her Majesty’s Government recognise the importance of this issue, and that the influence of her Department will be brought to bear in order to promote freedom of expression, even where it makes Governments uncomfortable at times.

If it is helpful, Minister, the debate needs to finish by 16.43. It is a matter for you whether you take all the available time.

Thank you, Mr Twigg. Fortunately, I wrote down the time that we started, so I have had an eye on what time I need to sit down. It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I thank the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for securing the debate. I also thank hon. Members who have contributed to it. It is always a pleasure to see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—I think we have been in this Chamber several times over the last couple of days—and the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), and I will address some of the points that have been raised.

It is important to start by saying that the Government firmly believe that a vibrant civil society is central to any democracy. NGOs and civil society organisations in the UK and overseas make huge contributions by holding Governments to account and promoting respect for human rights. The Government support and work with a wide range of NGO partners through our programmes around the world, including in India. India is the world’s largest democracy, and it has a proud democratic tradition and a history of inclusive government. As with all democracies, we look to work with the Government of India to uphold their democratic values, norms and principles.

The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, which is otherwise known as FCRA for the benefit of brevity, regulates how NGOs and other civil society organisations can receive foreign funding for their programmes and activities in India. Versions of the legislation have been in force since 1976. It was amended by the previous Government of India in 2010, and by the current Government of India in 2020. Any NGO that receives foreign funding now needs to apply for a FCRA registration number and renew its registration every five years. Since the FCRA was last amended, a number of NGOs have had their applications to renew foreign funding licences rejected, and I will talk about the number of cases in a moment. They include organisations with which we work directly, and it has had a significant impact on their ability to operate. As has been mentioned, some organisations, such as Missionaries of Charity, have succeeded in having their registration restored, but others have not. The UK’s strong and growing partnership with the Government of India enables us to discuss concerns where we have them. We continue to believe that NGOs make a vital and positive contribution to society. As with all countries, we will always welcome more progress on these issues.

Through the British high commission in New Delhi, we monitor developments relating to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act. In particular, we look out for any impacts on UK Government-funded programmes and the work of British NGOs in India. We talk to the NGOs affected and encourage them to seek recourse, including through the Indian courts, where it is appropriate. We have also raised their cases with the Indian Government directly, at ministerial and senior official levels. That includes the issues faced by Oxfam India, the recent cancellation of the foreign funding licence of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, whose headquarters are in Delhi, and the freezing of Amnesty International India’s bank accounts.

As mentioned by the right hon. Member for East Ham, in February the Home Office permanent secretary raised difficulties facing Oxfam India with his Indian counterpart, during our home affairs dialogue.

This has been a week where we have been regularly in debates, as the Minister knows. The figures are that 12,580 NGOs had their licences revoked. That is reaching almost epidemic proportions. Has the Minister had a chance to oversee that number of organisations? If so, is there a programme of trying to address all those 12,580 NGOs that have had their licences revoked? I do not expect an answer today.

The hon. Gentleman is passionate on so many different issues, particularly defending freedom of religion or belief. Regarding the number he referred to, we do raise cases with the Government of India directly. I would happily pick this up after the debate and write to Members.

I welcome the intervention of the Home Office permanent secretary. Can the Minister tell us whether the case of Oxfam India has been taken up by Ministers, perhaps by the Prime Minister when he recently visited India?

With regard to the case of Oxfam India, the British high commissioner to India met with the CEO of Oxfam India on 14 January, to understand their concerns and offer support. As I said, that was discussed by the Home Office permanent secretary during the home affairs dialogue in February, as well. Turning to Amnesty, we remain in contact with Amnesty, and officials last met Amnesty International UK on 4 May this year.

In addition to financial regulations, some NGOs and civil society activists have faced difficulties in India as a result of security legislation. We have also raised that issue with the Government of India. Our relationship with India is very important and central to our foreign policy tilt towards the Indo-Pacific. Our 1.6 million diaspora community provides a unique living bridge of people, commerce, ideas and culture between our countries. A year ago, the UK and Indian Governments committed to strengthen our relationship through the new comprehensive strategic partnership.

There is no doubt about the importance of our good, strong relationship with the Indian Government but, as I said earlier, Mohammed Yasin Malik and other Hurriyat leaders have today been given life sentences for a very basic thing—wanting freedom. It is India that is occupying that place. As good friends of India, should we not be reaching out and telling it to obey the UN resolutions?

There are a couple of points I want to make. No aspect of our strong relationship with India prevents us from speaking frankly about issues with it. On the case that the hon. Gentleman refers to, we are monitoring the trial. We note that Mohammed Yasin Malik has been charged under Indian law, and we cannot intervene in the independent judicial process of another country, but we urge all countries to respect and uphold their international obligations regarding the treatment of detainees. These strong relationships enable us to have meaningful dialogue, and we can speak frankly where necessary.

Our relationship with India supports regional and global security and prosperity. A year into the road map, we have made excellent progress. As has been mentioned, the Prime Minister visited India last month to build on it further. He and Prime Minister Modi discussed the need for democracies to work together. On regional global security, they reiterated their commitment to transform defence and security relations and enhance co-operation in support of a free, open and secure Indo-Pacific.

There are lots of other areas of importance, such as joint work on research and development to deliver next-generation capabilities across land, sea, air, space and cyber. The Prime Minister also announced a raft of commercial agreements to boost our trade, investment and technology partnership. During the visit, UK and Indian businesses confirmed more than £1 billion in new investment and export deals in sectors from software engineering to health, creating almost 11,000 jobs in the UK.

Our Prime Minister also set a target to conclude the majority of talks on the comprehensive and balanced free trade agreement by the end of October 2022—a deal that could supercharge our trading relationship and boost jobs and wages here in the UK. Moreover, the Prime Ministers underlined their firm commitment to take ambitious action on climate change, and co-operate closely to deliver on the Glasgow pact. The visit reflected the breadth and depth of our relationship, and how it continues to deliver for the people of both countries.

I am grateful to the Minister for setting out the increasingly close nature of the relationship. Can she assure us that Ministers will make representations to the Indian authorities about the position of Oxfam India in order that it can continue to obtain income from outside the country?

As I have said in relation to a number of cases, hon. Members should be reassured that they are raised by senior officials and Ministers. We continue to monitor and raise the difficulties faced by some NGOs in India. We also continue to support Indian civil society and NGOs through programmes and the endorsement that comes from our relationship with them.

Our relationship with India, as democracies and friends, is important and will continue to grow. It is a partnership with the potential to deliver for the people of both our countries and beyond.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the impact of India’s foreign contribution law on NGOs.