Earlier this year, the Indian parliament amended the Finance Bill 2018 and the new amendment allowed political parties to accept foreign funding without scrutiny. In fact, it was a retrospective amendment which exempted parties from scrutiny for funds they received as far back as 1976.
But NGOs working in India’s health sector have been battling the government over this very same issue. Specifically speaking, NGOs working on tobacco control such as the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) and the Institute of Public Health (IPH) have been embroiled in months of administrative logjam as their licenses to receive foreign funding were suspended, related to their work on tobacco control.
And the Bloomberg Foundation, which gives millions of dollars to health organisations around the world working on tobacco control, has also been investigated by Indian intelligence agencies. The two-year-old investigation has not yet reportedly shown any actual malpractice on the foundation’s part.
Now in a fresh conflict, another long standing NGO – Socio Economic and Educational Development Society (SEEDS) – funded by the Bloomberg Foundation to work on tobacco control, found itself suddenly isolated by the Delhi government. This was in November. Last week, they just as suddenly found themselves in the clear. The Delhi government has not issued any clarification on the turn around.
Bloomberg funded NGO prohibited from “any activity”
A Delhi government note in November called for the sweeping prohibition of “any activity” by NGOs, especially SEEDS, who get any international funding or who get funding form the Bloomberg Foundation, unless it is approved by the Delhi government.
Although the note is titled generally, it in fact is specifically about SEEDS and Bloomberg and says that SEEDS did not submit details of the project and its funding to the Delhi government for seven months.
The note was signed by S.K, Arora, Additional Director in the Delhi government and in charge of the National Tobacco Control Programme (NTCP). Within three weeks of this, Arora has been taken off the tobacco portfolio. Arora was designated tobacco control for many years, and won a World Health Organization award for his work this year.
In four weeks, Arora’s successor, Dr. Bhagwan Singh Charan, has overturned Arora’s order without giving any reason.
Dr Arora declined to comment on the matter as he is no longer handling this portfolio but said he is “demoralised” by his transfer and that he had only acted in the interest of “maintaining funding transparency so that good work done by anyone should not become questionable on any ground”. “It is shocking that no one is asking the NGO, why the project and funding details are not being shared,” he said.
Deepak Mishra who heads SEEDS contests this. He says that SEEDS had submitted details on their proposed activities to Arora’s office in April this year and followed up on this for six months, only to be told that these documents were misplaced.
“We are assisting state governments in Bihar and Jharkhand in implementing the national tobacco control programme. There, it is the chief secretary of the state who is also the head of the tobacco control committee. Those state governments have not been cutting ties with us because we receive foreign funding. Only Delhi government put forward these obstacles,” says Puranjit Banerjee, regional director at SEEDS.
In a letter to the principal secretary for health and family welfare of the Delhi government, SEEDS explains that they already are registered under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) to receive foreign funds, and these funds are regulated by the ministry of home affairs. They explained that some details of funding are bound by a legal contract between Bloomberg and funding partners, so they may not immediately be available for sharing.
But the state government’s memo was wide reaching, naming and penalising SEEDS, in what the NGO sees as disproportionate, and a “defamation”.
A Delhi government source explains that an FCRA license doesn’t mean that SEEDS is exempt from sharing details on their funding and project with the local government.
Further, the “NGO has received funds in the name of the NTCP. So they cannot work on their own without collaboration with state governments,” says the source. The person explains that the state tobacco control cell still needs to sign a memorandum with NGOs like SEEDS in order to partner with them, and for that NGOs will have to part with all information on their funding.
“The Bloomberg website says they are already working with the Delhi government but this is not true. Is Bloomberg not monitoring their funds?,” says the Delhi government source.
Health NGOs taking the hit for tobacco control
While the situation for SEEDS turned around quickly and in their favour, this has not been the case for public health NGOs in India over the last year who work on tobacco control.
SEEDS chose to take on the issue straight on and immediately, writing strong letters to the Delhi government, mincing no words in their complaint.
But other organisations like the PHFI and IPH have taken it more quietly and much slower. PHFI for example, submitted hundreds of pages of documents to the home ministry, and after about twelve months, they were re-awarded their FCRA license but not told why it was suspended in the first place. Although they have a license, their fund inflows are still subject to slow and lengthy regulation. IPH has also chosen to tackle the issue quietly, taking up a legal challenge which has itself not progressed fast.
Various other smaller NGOs have suspended their work on tobacco control, dissolving staff positions and projects.