Restrictions on NGOs Threaten Civil Society in India, the World’s Largest Democracy

The Indian government’s decision to restrict foreign funding for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is a blow to civil society in India, and could have a chilling effect on the work of NGOs in the broader region. India joins authoritarian-leaning countries such as Russia and Egypt that are engaged in systematic campaigns to limit the space for civil society by targeting groups that receive foreign funding.

Nearly a dozen NGOs were denied permission to receive funding after the government claimed these groups were involved in activities that threatened the public interest.  Some four thousand smaller NGOs were denied permission to receive foreign funding after they allegedly “did not comply with reporting requirements.”  In addition, the Indian Social Action Forum – a network of more than 700 NGOs – has had funding drastically reduced in the past 15 years, and was also denied permission to receive foreign funding.

Restrictions on NGOs come after a March 2012 crackdown by the government on groups involved in protests that stalled industrial projects, including the commissioning of a nuclear reactor. The government froze the accounts of several NGOs involved in these protests.  These restrictions are particularly troubling given India’s strong democratic tradition, including as one of the founding governments of the Community of Democracies global initiative, and casts a long shadow on the rights of Indian civil society to hold its government accountable in the future.

India is rated Free in Freedom in the World 2013, Partly Free in Freedom of the Press 2013 and Partly Free in Freedom on the Net 2012.  While India has a robust civil society, under certain circumstances – the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act – the government has the authority to deny NGOs access to foreign funding. The government has been accused of abusing this power to target political opponents.

Learn more:

Freedom in the World 2013: India

Freedom of the Press 2012: India

Freedom on the Net 2012: India

Blog: Freedom at Issue