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NGO organisers and relatives have to file assets and liabilities under the Lokpal Act

The implications of falling under the ambit of the Lokpal Act have discomfited many non-governmental organisations.
Two years after the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, 2013 was enacted by the UPA government, the Centre’s decision to operationalise a couple of provisions has set off alarm bells among a large section of the NGO sector.

Three notifications from the Department of Personnel dated June 20, 2016, and an official memo on June 24, laid down the procedures and timelines for filing returns of public servants, the definition of which in the Lokpal and Lokayukta Act includes office bearers of NGOs.

Section 14 (1) of the Act includes directors, managers, secretaries and other officers of societies, trusts and associations of persons that receive more than Rs 10 lakhs under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) under its ambit. It does the same in the case the organisations wholly or partly funded by the Central government if they receive an annual grant above a limit that may be fixed by it. (This has been set at Rs 1 crore.)

July 31 deadline
Earlier, Central government employees had been asked to file their assets and liabilities under the Lokpal Act. But what the June 20 notifications did was extend this to those working in NGOs and set the deadline for submissions of their returns to a designated authority by July 31.

Ironically, the Lokpal Act’s definition of senior employees of NGOs as ‘public servants’, thereby bringing them under the Lokpal and making them prosecutable under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 (PCA), went through Parliament without a murmur. These were inserted at the insistence of civil society activists such as Arvind Kejriwal, now Delhi’s Chief Minister, who were campaigning for the legislations.

“As the Act was passed in Parliament and defines those who work in NGOs as public servants, the rules are the same and they are expected to follow it,” said K.S. Dhatwalia, spokesperson for the Home and Personnel ministries.

Specific target
But the notification which makes it mandatory for senior staff of NGO’s to provide details of cash, bank balances, immovable properties and loans of themselves, their spouses and dependent children has caused a deep discomfort within a section of the NGOs.

Refusing to buy the Centre’s argument that it is merely implementing what is prescribed already in the Act, there are some who believe that this is a part of the Centre’s strategy to target NGOs. The Home Ministry’s cancellation of the registration of 10,020 associations for violation of the FCRA is cited as evidence of this.

Says Aakar Patel, executive director of Amnesty India: “The present notification needs to be seen in the context of the actions of the government over the last two years, which has combined targeting of specific human rights NGOs and wholesale cancellations of FCRA registrations.”

Uniformly applicable
Privately, some members of NGOs admit they were blinkered in failing to notice the implication of being declared public servants under the Lokpal Act. Moreover, that it is also somewhat self-serving to continue to demand that disclosures be made by bureaucrats while seeking exemptions for themselves.

But what triggered the June notifications? According to official home ministry sources, it was the large amount of funds sent from foreign donors to Christian missionaries and Islamic organisations. On March 28, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) put two foreign donors — U.S.- based Compassion International and South Korea’s Family Federation for World Peace and Unification — under the “watch-list” after adverse reports from security agencies. A senior government official said these two associations were sending money to NGOs in India who were involved in proselytisation.

The issue found an echo in the Rajya Sabha last week when nominated MP Anu Aga pointed out that while “NGOs and charitable institutions work for the public, they are voluntary and regulated by several laws including the Charity Commissioner and the Registrar of Societies and Income Tax and FCRA. Trustees of these NGOs are not public servants because they give their time and some also give their financial support on a voluntary basis.”

Senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh, NCP leader Sharad Pawar wanted the Centre to have a relook at the provisions of the Act.

Several NGO representatives have petitioned senior officials in the Prime Ministers Office (PMO) asking for a respite from the order. The Centre is considering withdrawing the notification and making amendments to the Lokpal Act.

(News source: Vijaita Singh and G. Sampath : The Hindu)