New Delhi: After successfully restricting foreign funding of nonprofits, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to restrict domestic fund-raising drives by some of them.
The Reporters’ Collective reviewed three letters sent by two ministries and a national commission ordering curbs on fund-raising by nonprofits from Indian citizens through campaigns that appear to show the government in poor light.
The government has acted against two non-government organisations (NGOs) in particular to halt fundraisers and asked states in general to restrict operations of NGOs in areas where the government is active and is meant to assume primary responsibility.
Prominent among the nonprofits to face restrictive action is Save the Children, the 14-year-old India chapter of a global child rights NGO of the same name.
In November 2022, a union women and child development ministry note to the states asked them to act against a Save the Children fund-raising drive for malnourished tribal children in India and against NGOs.
The letter, reported by the Deccan Herald on 8 December, asked states to “expose the false information being spread by such NGOs” and “actively disseminate awareness” about the government's own nutrition schemes.
The public manifestation of larger government action against Save the Children was an order to pull an advertisement depicting a severely malnourished child, which inadvertently drew attention to failures in the government’s anti-poverty measures.
In another letter issued on 14 December 2022, the ministry of health asked Sightsavers India—an NGO working in India for 57 years since 1966 to provide eye health services and disability-rights advocacy for blind and visually impaired people—to stop seeking donations from the public for blindness control.
The health ministry said the donation drive was “against the spirit” of the government's own National Programme for Control of Blindness and Visual Impairment (NPCH&VI) under which “the government has been doing it for free”.
Without explaining what laws or regulations Sightsavers had violated, the health ministry asked the NGO to explain why it had collected donations in the name of blind and visually impaired people.
We sent detailed questionnaires to the health ministry on 23 December, 2022 and a reminder on 26 and 27 December. The questions were also sent to the PIB official of the ministry over whatsapp and email. We will update the copy when we receive their response.
“Your act of collecting donation (sic) from public (sic) in the name of blindness and visual impairment is against the spirit of NPCB&VI,” said the letter to Sightsaver. “You are, therefore, requested to consider halting the campaign for receiving donation (sic) in the name of blindness control and furnish reasons for undertaking this campaign, to this Ministry.”
The Clampdown Against NGOs
A tightened regime for NGOs fits Modi’s track record of antipathy to them. His government has put in place stiffer regulations for civil society groups that seek foreign funding and has used enforcement agencies against some.
Modi’s attitude to NGOs was made clear a week after he first became Prime Minister in 2014, as Article 14 reported in January 2022.
“My friends, you have voted me to rid the country of these diseases,” Modi said, referring in general to NGOs in 2016, by which time a gradual, government squeeze on nonprofits had begun.
The tightening of regulations led to 6,677 NGOs losing their licences to access foreign funding between 2017 to 2021, according to home ministry data submitted to the Rajya Sabha on 7 December 2022.
It is unclear how many had not sought to renew their licence after changes in regulation and how many had been found in violation of new regulations and had their licences revoked by the government.
Among the prominent NGOs that have faced restrictions are Oxfam India and Amnesty International India.
Many supporters of Modi laud his government’s actions against NGOs. While his critics warn that he is silencing critics and watchdog civil society organisations which criticise the government or shown it in poor light (here and here).
Both Congress- and BJP-led governments have worried over the years about foreign funding of NGOs dulling the competitive edge of an emerging economy by raising human rights, labour and environment concerns. These are issues over which developed countries often try to impose non-tariff barriers to make goods from emerging economies less competitive to import.
Modi’s government has also felt cornered after the concerns of civil society groups over the BJP’s polarising politics found resonance globally. In response, it has often tried to conflate NGO critiques of Modi’s government’s policies and politics to be, to use a pejorative term, “anti-national”.
Save the Children works closely with the union women and child development ministry, the health ministry and the NITI Aayog, the government’s think tank, and helps deliver government anganwadi services—mother and child-care centres that provide nutritious meals to children below six years of age in 16 states.
Save the Children’s donation drive to alleviate malnutrition, which inadvertently undermined the government’s claim of reducing poverty, did not sit well with its partners in the government.
On 2 November 2022, Captain Prabhanshu Srivastav, a deputy secretary of the ministry of women and child development, in a letter to the states said NGOs such as Save the Children were spreading “misleading advertisements” to seek monthly donations from people and that “grassroots functionaries should be sensitised about the activities of such NGOs and alert beneficiaries about false claims made by them”.
According to the official, the letter was issued after a Member of Parliament (MP), whose identity he didn't disclose, complained that the advertisement was emotionally triggering.
“The ad showed tubes attached to an infant’s body,” Srivastav told the reporter. “It is emotionally manipulative,”
When The Reporters’ Collective sought further comment from Srivastav, he said: “An honourable MP has raised the issue and on that we have circulated the same complaint to the states. They can see what is written in the complaint and take befitting action.”
“I am not authorised to speak,” he said, declining to answer further questions. “We have the media cell [of the ministry to do that].”
We sent a questionnaire to top officials of the ministry and the media cell of the ministry on 23 December, with reminders on 26 and 27 December. We called the media cell but were told that the official was busy. They acknowledged receiving our email. We have also forwarded the questionnaire to the PIB official of the ministry. There was no response. We will update this story if there is.
We also sought comment from Save the Children and Sightsavers India on the specific ads that the government objected to. We had not heard from Sightsavers India when this story was published. We will update this copy if we do. Save the Children’s representative told us that they had shared all relevant information with us in the interview and did not have any update.
Srivastav’s letter makes clear the government’s disapproval of NGO advertising that appears to show failures of the government’s own efforts.
Listing the government’s nutrition schemes, the letter to the states said it was “surprising that certain NGOs should attempt to raise money from the citizens of the country for the cause of addressing malnutrition which is already being vigorously pursued by Government at all levels”.
In the letter, Srivastav asked states to expose “false information being propagated by such NGOs” and to disseminate information about the government's own women and child welfare programmes.
Srivastav also asked all states and union territories to survey NGOs and report “any issues/incidents regarding these NGOs at the earliest to enable the Ministry to take appropriate action”.
As Restrictions Widen, Govt Fails To Meet Targets
A month after Srivastav’s letter, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) issued a notice to all NGOs to refrain from showing “vulnerable children in deplorable conditions in order to raise funding”.
The NCPCR’s notice again said that a member of Parliament had complained about NGOs using children in their advertisements to raise domestic and international funding but did not reveal the name of the legislator.
We sought comment from NCPCR chairman Priyank Kanoongo and member secretary Rupali Banerjee Singh, who issued the notice, on 23 December 2022. Singh’s private secretary confirmed receipt of the mail on 26 December 2022. Reminders were sent on 26 and 27 December, but there was no response. We will update this story if there is.
The government’s own efforts in alleviating malnourishment have not been particularly successful, according to its own data.
The Modi government’s 2018 Poshan Abhiyaan or National Nutrition Mission targeted a 2% reduction in malnutrition every year. A comparison of the National Family Health Survey or NFHS-4 (2015-16) and NFHS-5 (2019-2021) revealed that stunting reduced to 35.5% from 38%, wasting to 19.3% from 21% and underweight prevalence to 32.1% from 35.8%.
Malnutrition indicators increased in several big states between NFHS-4 (2015-16) and NFHS-5 (2019-21).
NFHS-5 also reported a 8.4-percentage point rise in anaemia in children under five: 67% of children have anaemia now, compared to 58.6% in 2015-16.
An Advertisement Is Taken Down
Save the Children has taken down the controversial advertisement and refused to share it with The Reporters Collective or disclose the TV channel on which it was shown.
“We do not see it as an attack on the work we do,” said Anindit Roy Chowdhary, the Chief Programme Officer of Save the Children. “The moment the government suggested that the ad was problematic, we took it down without giving it a second thought.”
Chowdhary said the government was the largest service provider for children and they played a “catalytic and facilitative” role.
“So, our responsibility is to offer support to the government,” said Chowdhary. “From that point of view, the advertisement was not necessarily adding value. We have completely removed it.”
He said the advertisement was “a generic advertisement seeking donations”.
We analysed the advertisements that Save the Children launched on Facebook in October and November through Facebook’s Ad Library. While we couldn’t get official confirmation of the advertisement that drew the government's ire, you can see the NGOs advertisements on Facebook here.
Harsh Jaitli, CEO of VANI (Voluntary Action Network India), a nationwide network of voluntary development organisations, said the union government had issued “many such letters”.
“They say false information, but there is no further explanation on what is factually incorrect,” said Jaitli. “Ethical fundraising is done by NGOs but it is not qualified. So organisations gradually learn from their work. There might be problems with showing malnourished children but that’s the reality.”
“The ads by NGOs did not show anything that wasn’t done before,” said Jaitli. “The Centre is constantly discouraging the work of NGOs by saying that they have their own schemes to tackle those issues. This goes against the very spirit of civil society, which exists to facilitate government schemes and help welfare reach the last person.”
While the child protection committee’s notice said that showing “vulnerable children in deplorable condition” violated the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, it does not mention what provision of the law was violated in showing pictures or videos of vulnerable children.
“The Juvenile Justice Act has provisions for protecting the identity of children who can’t give their consent for being videographed or photographed,” said Ramaa Sarode, an advocate with over 18 years of experience in child-welfare laws.
“Ethical fundraising would require NGOs to seek permission from parents or legal guardians of the child and inform them of the purpose of the documentation,” said Sarode.
In cases of child sexual harassment, NGOs are legally prohibited from revealing the identity of a child, but a blanket ban did not seem justified since NGOs can only show their work by documenting it, said Sarode.
“Ideally, the government should have a clear set of guidelines on ethical fundraising in this case,” said Sarode.
We sought a response on these issues from the ministries of women and child development and health and family welfare and the NCPRCR, but there was no response.
The Chilling Effects
After the women and child development ministry’s letter, the Madhya Pradesh government instructed its district administrations to publicise the union government's own schemes and discourage people from donating to Save the Children.
The government's action coincided with the toning down of reports and messages on Save the Children’s website.
The archived pages of Save the Children shows the NGO diluted its content over time and removed sections that portrayed the status of child nutrition in India.
The Health and Nutrition page earlier talked of “The Problem”—that India “is home to 46.6 million stunted children, a third of the world’s total as per the Global Nutrition Report 2018”, elaborating on malnutrition in four sections and how it jeopardised the lives of children.
Now, the page is solely dedicated to the NGO’s engagement with different government agencies.
Till September 2022, the fund-raising page asked for donations based on the NGOs work of “building an India where its children live a secure life”.
The current donation page has a section added. It reads:
“We work in close coordination with government agencies at various levels—National, State and District—to run child welfare projects. We work with the aim to support and contribute towards Government of India’s vision to build a “Bharat” where children are well-nurtured, with full opportunities for growth and development in a safe and protective environment.”
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(Tapasya is a journalist with The Reporters’ Collective, a journalism collaborative that publishes in multiple languages and media.)