NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A clampdown by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government could have "chilling effects" on foreign-funded charities and activists and is a cause for concern, the U.S. ambassador to India said on Wednesday.
Since taking office almost a year ago, Modi's government has frozen the accounts of Greenpeace; limited the travel of some activists; and has put the U.S.-based Ford Foundation on a security watch list.
"I read with some concern the recent press reports on challenges faced by NGOs operating in India," Ambassador Richard Verma told a news briefing in New Delhi.
"Because a vibrant civil society is so important to both of our democratic traditions, I do worry about the potentially chilling effects of these regulatory steps focused on NGOs."
Modi, a right-wing Hindu nationalist elected by a landslide last May, wants to increase investment in infrastructure and make it easier for businesses to buy land to boost Asia's third-largest economy.
That has set his government at odds with non-governmental organizations that oppose untrammeled economic development such as Greenpeace, an international environmentalist campaign group.
The Ford Foundation, one of the world's largest charitable funds, was put on a watchlist in April after the Indian home ministry said it was investigating funding to a group run by a prominent activist and critic of Modi.
The Economic Times newspaper reported on Wednesday that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was also being investigated by the home ministry. Ministry spokesman K.S. Dhatwalia said the report was untrue.
Greenpeace India faces imminent closure after authorities froze its bank accounts, the environmental group's head said late on Tuesday, accusing Modi's government of "strangulation by stealth".
The home ministry has blocked foreign funding to the local branch of Greenpeace and suspended its registration for six months. Officials said the charity was misreporting funds and using unaccounted foreign aid to stall development projects.
The United States expressed concern last month that India's crackdown on the activities of the Ford Foundation and Greenpeace India could limit "necessary and critical debate" in the world's largest democracy.
(Reporting by Nidhi Verma and Manoj Kumar; Additional reporting by Nita Bhalla; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel and Douglas Busvine; Editing by Alex Richardson)