Thousands of NGOs in limbo over MHA renewal by year-end

FCRA registration mandatory for associations and NGOs to receive foreign funds

Not just Missionaries of Charity, the international trust Mother Teresa worked for India, but thousands of Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) and charitable trusts are awaiting a decision from the government on the renewal of their permissions to receive foreign funds by the year-end.

With more than 22,000 NGOs registered under the Foreign Contributions (Regulations) Act (FCRA), experts are saying a tough line by the Modi government means at least 10-15% of the groups that have applied for renewal are likely to be denied permissions, and stopped from accessing funding from abroad. In addition, unless the government extends the date of scrutiny of renewal applications by some months, even those whose applications are pending could be stopped from accessing foreign funds until they are cleared.

“Unlike the simpler renewal process five years ago, this time the government has made it necessary for renewals to follow the same rigorous validation process as that for a fresh registration [under Section 12(4)] and that is going to complicate the process further. This will include many more compliance requirements, including certification that the NGO is not a “threat to public interest” or “national security”,” Sanjay Agarwal, FCRA accounting expert and author of a handbook on the FCRA 2010 law that was amended in 2020, told The Hindu.

In particular, the government has used the ambiguous terms on public interest and national security against NGOs that work on human rights, child labour and slavery issues, as well as groups working on climate change issues. As The Hindu had reported in recent weeks, at least 10 international NGOS, including the European Climate Foundation, Omidyar Network and Walk Free foundation were placed on the Prior Reference Category (PRC) earlier this year, And last week, the Minsistry of Home Affairs (MHA) cancelled the FCRA registration of two Christian NGOs.

The MHA extended the deadline till December 31, from the earlier September 30, for NGOs to apply for renewal. FCRA registration is mandatory for associations and non government organisations to receive foreign funds.

The MHA had given a relief up to September 30 to NGOs whose registration was expiring between September 29, 2020-September 30, 2021.

The certificates of around 80% of NGOs expired on October 31, and as per norms, they had to apply at least six months before the expiry of registration. There are 22,762 FCRA-registered NGOs.

Staff crunch

The FCRA division of the Ministry was also facing staff crunch . An official stated that key officers dealing with the division were recently transferred and creating new login ID and password took time, leading to many applications not being cleared despite meeting the eligibility criteria. FCRA procedure has been made completely online and NGOs have to file returns and apply for renewal only electronically. “Since the officer who was to clear files was not given his ID and password, the pendency surged. Before that, COVID-19 had slowed the process,” said the official.

MHA officials did not respond if the December 31 deadline will be extended.

Mr. Agarwal said, “I would say there are two issues an NGO faces- one is non-compliance, and given the number of complex rules, it is quite easy to show that an NGO has broken one rule or another. The second issue comes if there is media glare or the NGO focuses on some kind of activity that the government is unhappy about [like Human rights and economic issues”.

In several cases in the past few years, the government has refused to disclose its reasons for putting NGOs on the “prior permission” watch list or suspending or cancelling their FCRA licences. One of those NGOs, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) has challenged the FCRA sus issued by the government in court, but at a hearing on December 7, the additional solicitor general informed the Delhi High Court that the government declined to show its records to court.

Show-cause notice

CHRI director Sanjoy Hazarika said the issuance of the show-cause notice to CHRI on December 7, 2021, clearly indicated that there was no proceeding initiated under Section 14 of the FCRA prior to the MHA’s suspension order issued on June 7, 2021. So the suspension order was without sanction of the law.

With days to go until December 31, NGOs said they were worried their licences would expire without the government even finishing their scrutiny on thousands of pending applications.

“NGOs work in places where government reach is not there as its official partners. At the least, there should be an extension of three-six months,” Mr. Hazarika told The Hindu. “They’ve filed their applications on time, surely those whose applications have not been scrutinised should not be penalized for no fault of their own.”

Registered NGOs can receive foreign contribution for five purposes — social, educational, religious, economic and cultural. The FCRA registration is renewed every five years.

Amid a slew of amendments to the FCRA, 2010 that the Ministry introduced in 2020 in Parliament, it made form FC6C—-an authorisation certificate mandatory to operationalise a bank account with SBI’s main branch in Delhi, another compulsory requirement.

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