By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Charities in India on Friday appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to stop a government crackdown on thousands of foreign-funded non-profit groups saying it would hurt the lives of poor and marginalised people.
Since Modi swept to power almost a year ago, his right-wing nationalist government has tightened surveillance on foreign-funded charities. It says some had violated the law by not disclosing details of their donations, or used overseas money to engage in "anti-national" activities.
Charities reject the accusations, but admit there may be some groups which had unintended funding discrepancies. They say authorities are using an opaque, "draconian" law on foreign funding to muzzle criticism of initiatives such as industrial projects affecting the poor and the environment.
"Funds are being frozen, intelligence reports are being selectively released to paint NGOs in poor light, disbursal of funds are being subjected to case-by-case clearance, and their activities are reportedly being placed on 'watch lists'," said an open letter to Modi signed by 171 charities and activists.
"At the moment it seems that 'compliance' is serving as a garb to actually target those organisations and individuals whose views the government disagrees with, and indeed to monitor and stifle disagreement itself."
The letter - signed by groups such as Oxfam India, Human Rights Law Centre and the Conservation Action Trust - said the clampdown was "arbitrary, non-transparent, and without any course of administrative redress".
Last month, the government cancelled the licenses of almost 9,000 charities and blocked the bank accounts of Greenpeace India, which has led campaigns against genetically modified crops, coal mining and nuclear power projects.
Greenpeace says it now faces closure within a month due to a shortage of funds and has accused the government of "strangulation by stealth".
Big donors like the U.S.-based Ford Foundation are also being investigated. Ford Foundation faces a probe of its funding of a group run by Teesta Setalvad, a prominent rights activist and critic of Modi.
U.S. Ambassador Richard Verma to India said this week he was worried about "the potentially chilling effects" of the action against the NGOs, while Germany's top diplomat Michael Steiner said charities should be supported for their "impressive work".
There is no official number of charities operating in India, but the government estimates there are at least two million non-profits - working in areas from conservation, education and health to protecting the rights of minorities.
A 2013 report by the home ministry said that while more than 43,500 - around 2 percent - were registered as charities which receive foreign funds in 2011/12, only 22,700 had provided details of their donations.
Home ministry officials say they were now simply enforcing the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), a law which bars overseas donations going to NGOs of a "political nature".
A leaked intelligence service report in June 2014 said local branches of organisations such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International and ActionAid were using foreign funds to damage the country's economy with anti-industry campaigns.
The groups have been involved in many campaigns in which they have supported indigenous communities to successfully mobilise against big mining firms such as Vedanta and Essar.
Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is keen increase investment in infrastructure and make it easier for businesses to buy land to boost growth.
This jars with NGOs who oppose what they say is economic development at the cost of the poor and the environment.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla; Editing by Ros Russell)