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Advocacy pat after punch

New Delhi, June 10: The government implicitly acknowledged the work of an organisation it was accused of targeting last week when health minister J.P. Nadda told a UN meeting on AIDS in New York yesterday that low-cost generic medicines produced by Indian companies had helped increase access to treatment.

"Who fought that case?" Anand Grover, a trustee of Lawyers Collective (LC), asked at a news conference here today called by several civil society groups to protest what they described as "the shrinking space" for NGOs in the country.

The Centre last week suspended all foreign funding for LC, which has been campaigning for Indian pharmaceutical firms' right to produce inexpensive generic versions of drugs sold at higher rates by multinational firms.

The government claimed violations of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) by LC, one of India's prominent public interest advocacy groups that had fought and won the landmark Novartis case which facilitated access to cheaper cancer and HIV drugs in India by ensuring local firms could make them.

Today, having made his point, Grover said he and LC would continue to work with the government because "it was the elected representative of the people". "My politics may be different but I will continue to work with the government. I gave up my British citizenship to come and work here".

Asked about allegations that those behind LC's financiers set its agenda, Grover shot back saying: "We are not dictated by either our financiers or the government."

While the action against LC was the trigger for the civil society groups to come together today, most pointed out that the Narendra Modi government was not the first to use the FCRA to rein in NGOs. "It began with the UPA but it has become more intense since the BJP came to power," an activist present at the briefing said.

Others called for a level playing field. Grover and Venkatesh Nayak, from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, sought to highlight an irony: while NGOs were discouraged from taking foreign funds for advocacy, the government was openly wooing foreign investments from corporate houses which were also allowed to lobby at will. "The government rhetoric now is that India is a trade partner, not an aid partner," an official from another NGO said.

Mathew Cherian of the Voluntary Association Network of India pointed out that even "FDI (foreign direct investment) can be used to destabilise countries".

Nayak stressed the need for an "enabling" atmosphere. "What we are asking for is an enabling environment. We are not saying there should not be any regulatory framework but is the FCRA an enabling law? We are keen to discuss these issues with the government."

Others pointed out that neither the Prime Minister nor the home minister had responded to NGOs' letters after the licences of 10,557 such organisations were cancelled last year. "We think this is an organised way of weeding out organisations they are uncomfortable with," said Cherian.

While 80 per cent of LC's funding is from foreign sources, Cherian said such resources for civil society organisations had nearly halved from Rs 14,000 crore in 2013-14 to Rs 750 crore last year.

Sexual health activist Mona Mishra warned the foreign cash squeeze was affecting advocacy work. Others pointed out that such large-scale action against NGOs had a chilling effect on donors, international and domestic.

Among local sources, corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds formed the bulk of the kitty. "CSR funds have gone up because of the new law but the lion's share goes to foundations set up by the companies themselves. Also, CSR is a percentage of their net profit....," another activist said.


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