Funds and civil liberties

Through the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), the government uses its powers to control flow of funds, policing what is essentially a financial transaction. Often, the FCRA is used to suppress rights activities, to intimidate and silence funded organizations who criticize state policy, expose rights abuses or challenge government action. It gives the government uncontrolled, discretionary powers to selectively favour groups by granting permissions for foreign funding. If perchance a human rights organization dissents against the state, then it is politically targeted; its FCRA permission is cancelled or denied. Outfits run by Hindutva right-wing groups like the RSS receive lots of foreign funds; FCRA constraints are rarely applied to them. The law is used only to stifle certain actions, and nurture other convenient political agenda. This itself is human rights violation, and I agree with Nair and Guruswamy that the FCRA must be repealed.

While I criticise the FCRA's stranglehold, a discussion on foreign funding would be incomplete if we ignored some of its impacts. Many funded groups do good campaigns, but the activities of many others are questionable. For them, human rights work is more a profession, than an expression of commitment.

Does human rights work in India need global funding? I believe not. People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), with which I've been associated for over two decades, raises campaign-specific funds only from Indian sources. We do not accept institutional funding, global or Indian. We have a cap on individual contributions too, to encourage broad-based participation. This decision, made during PUCL's establishment in 1976, was driven by ethical and political considerations. The foremost is that human rights work should be voluntary, political, and reflect a personal and ethical commitment to strengthen democracy. 

Dependence on funding and funding agencies, unfortunately, has crippled human rights work in India. It has begun to dictate the agenda of human rights work, the issues chosen, and the strength and durability of campaigning. Funders' interests determine the flavour of the season, whether it is HIV/AIDS, education, child rights, women's rights, Dalit rights, or torture. Funding has turned human rights into a career, and it encourages project-based, apolitical involvement.

Institutional funding has promoted several unhealthy trends in human rights work in India. Firstly, it has led to the depoliticization of endemic human rights issues. Most violations are structural and chronic, but because of the pattern of funding interest, many NGOs only look at the manifestations of problems. They focus primarily on superficial, less contentious incidents of rights violations— on individual cases of torture instead of institutionalized abuse of police and state power; on child rights instead of poverty, land reforms, oppressive agrarian structure and unemployment; on incidents of women’s rights violation instead of systemic patriarchy. The politics of issues are often dominated by many a funder's illusion that human rights work is humanist, sanitised, and beyond the political. In other words, development fixes are offered as the solutions for rights violations.

In Tamil Nadu, for example, after the tsunami on 26 December, 2004, activists realised that rehabilitation funds would only be available for some actions like distributing boats and nets, or housing. The administration only granted permissions to NGOs that did development work that didn't challenge the state's relief and rehabilitation measures. Barring a few notable exceptions, most funded organizations fell in line. Few questioned the state policy on rehabilitation, or caste-discrimination in relief operations. They didn't examine the tsunami in the context of coastal degradation, pollution or crisis afflicting the fisheries sector. The unprecedented and massive inflow of funds also fuelled shameful competition amongst funded-NGOs and compromises among local activists. Powerful collective community action was punctured by quick-fixes from NGOs flush with funds.

I emphasize that I'm not accusing all groups. But widespread corruption and ethical degeneration are real concerns that a debate on foreign funding should deal with.

Secondly, funding has monetized human rights action. NGOs pay— or in their words, compensate—labourers or farmers who attend protests. They give them travel fare, boarding, and minimum wages for the days they miss work. While I don't blame the participants for accepting such payment, this practise discourages the volunteerism that has driven Indian human rights movements for decades. It has kicked the wind out of sustained participation even in some iconic grass roots movements. People now ask: will you give me a biryani, a folder and a bag? If not compensated or incentivised, sometimes, they do not participate.

Democratic processes, which thrive on voluntary involvement and commitment can alone take the human rights movement forward.  A few months ago, in Barwani in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, a massive tribal protest mobilised people in thousands. Every participant contributed from her or his own pocket. 

The culture of paying for attendance has permeated many movements and debilitated, to an extent, the organic, empowering process of grass roots democracy.  Local movements – of Dalits, agricultural workers, women’s groups – which hitherto relied on their own resources are, in recent years, being wooed by funding organizations offering to subsidize their agitations. This has sparked unhealthy competition amongst groups that earlier collaborated. 

Thirdly, I worry about the emergence of a human rights career. Social workers too need a livelihood and form of sustenance; but I ask a moral and ethical question: what compromises are built into human rights becoming a profession? When it is a job, a human rights `employee’ works for the first three years on tribal rights, and when offered a higher salary, he/she moves on to work child rights.  This job-hopping erodes the seriousness, vision and long term commitment necessary for sustained human rights work, whose timeline for success is longer than in most other fields. When human rights professionals are parachuted into places for a few years, and are then asked to move elsewhere, their involvement and contribution never moves far. Their approach is '9-to-5', while civil liberties is a 24-hours, 365 days affair that directs the way you live life. The ideal is democratic involvement in human rights. You contribute whether you're a lawyer, advertising professional, construction worker, or businessman.

Fourthly, one cannot overstate the lack of accountability in the NGO sector. There are, of course, exceptions, but the painful, ugly reality is that funds are flushed away through corrupt or inefficient practices. Valuable human rights funds are largely spent on accommodation, travel, food, and salaries. The more funds go towards administrative, office or salary expenses, the less there is to help a rape victim or torture survivor. Indian NGOs are often personality-based; a good number are controlled by one individual or a family. Their lifestyles are often lavish and questionable. It is here that tremendous corruption resides.

Fifthly, and most worryingly for me, funding has begun to affect the priorities of human rights groups. We live in a severely repressive and anti-democratic context in India today. Ruling elites have joined the state to suppress and crush people's agitations. Independent, spontaneous protests against gang rape or corruption have been quelled with police force. Many Indian activists are today saddled with exhausting litigation and false prosecutions; entire communities like Tamil fishermen or Muslims have been branded as terrorists; and marginalised sections of society suffer state-sponsored brutality. Human rights work is caught in a nexus of industry, politics, and power.

Even in this challenging scenario, few funded humanitarian groups question state terrorism or corporate impunity, beyond making politically correct statements. Industry-related issues like illegal mining, low wages, bans on factory unions, abuses by armed forces, villagers against coastal nuclear power plants are politically incendiary and receive little support.

Often, practices of funded organizations are determined by fund flow, and by the sponsor's ability or willingness to foot the bill. Taking on state or corporate systems requires independent, consistent support. Large sponsors rarely enable that. 

I am engaged with PUCL because its core principles resonate with how I understand civil liberties: as a personal commitment that doesn't depend on the availability or dicta of institutional funding. During the 2004 parliamentary elections, PUCL's Tamil Nadu state unit launched a Citizen’s Campaign for Peace and Harmony. This was in the backdrop of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat and the BJP's 'India Shining' campaign that threatened the secular fabric of the country. Many ordinary citizens contributed to the campaign for secularism and peace: advertising professionals designed creative ad inserts, posters, pamphlets, several newspapers gave free space. Over 12,000 people attended a music concert in which prominent singers, dramatists, and poets performed for free.

Citizens contribute in their own way, and while their particular contribution could be small, it bolsters the democratic fibre of society. PUCL has existed 37 years, and several mass movements for even longer, because of sustained, non-funded voluntary participation.

There are surely downsides to not being institutionally funded. Perhaps if we could afford to pay, there would be more full-time workers. Perhaps campaigns could run longer, or reach more people. We however attempt to overcome these limitations through innovation. The Internet has increased participation from the youth across economic and social backgrounds, and has made transmitting messages through petitions, media outreach, and advocacy more robust. And much cheaper.

Fund constraints do not constrain sincere work. The emergence in New Delhi of the new Aam Aadmi Party (AAP: Common Man's Party), has confirmed this once again. A bottom-up political party formed on an anti-corruption platform, all its workers are volunteers. Bangalore professionals made lakhs of phone calls to the party's potential voters. If this could be converted to money, I wonder how much that would be.

Campaigns such as abolishing death penalty, against repressive terrorism laws, against torture and encounter killings, or protecting rights defenders, to name just a few, have existed for decades. The commitment of people involved with these campaigns is organic and independent, irrespective of sponsorship. Human rights movements in India have been most successful when they're broad-based, voluntary, and political.

The human rights struggle is long, hard and demanding. The scale of human rights abuse could make many of us pessimistic or cynical.  But across India, every day, a thousand mutinies are being launched by ordinary citizens who fight a principled battle, not because they are funded, but because they have a larger vision for democracy, for development, for India. These valiant, non-funded battles of a million ordinary dalits, adivasis, agricultural labourers, informal sector worker, students, women, and sexual minorities inspire me, and many others like me to continue the fight to reclaim democracy.

As told to Rohini Mohan