The atomic energy programme has got into difficulties because these NGOs, mostly I think based in the United States, do not appreciate the need for our country to increase the energy supply.... There are NGOs often funded from the United States and the Scandinavian countries which are not fully appreciative of the development challenges that our country faces.
Coming from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is known for his mild temper, economy with words, pro-NGO social philosophies and, allegedly pro-west political philosophies, the statement has been unleashing a political storm and, perhaps, a litigational tsunami. Home Minister P. Chidambaram has ordered the CBI to probe the accounts of two NGOs who have received foreign funds for humanitarian purposes and allegedly diverted them to anti-nuclear protest. The cases of two other protesting NGOs have been referred to the Tamil Nadu Police.
Chidambaram has declined to reveal the names of the organisations, but THE WEEK learns from home ministry sources that the agencies being probed are Rural Uplift Centre (RUC), Kanyakumari; Tuticorin Diocesan Association (TDA), Tuticorin; Good Vision, Kanyakumari; and Trinity Rural and Urban Empowerment Trust (TRUE), Nagercoil. Their accounts have been frozen and account books are being scrutinised. The cases of RUC and TDA have been referred to the CBI, while those of Good Vision and TRUE have been given to the state CID.
Ministry sources say that nine more NGOs are under the scanner, including People's Education for Action and Community Empowerment (PEACE), said to be associated with S.P. Udayakumar, convener of the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) which has been spearheading the campaign against the Russian-assisted Koodankulam nuclear power project. PEACE has received foreign funds worth 02,64,05,409 in 2010-11. Another organisation, the Tuticorin Multipurpose Social Service Society (TMSSS), is run by Bishop Yvon Ambroise who is fairly active in the protest movement. However, no evidence of fund diversion has so far surfaced against these two bodies.
Soon after the Prime Minister's statement to Science magazine was published, Udayakumar sent a legal notice to him. Within hours, the state police, alerted by the Intelligence Bureau, zeroed in on German national Sonnteg Reiner Hermann, who was staying in a rundown Nagercoil hotel. The authorities cancelled his tourist visa, and put him on a flight to Frankfurt. "He had visited India in the past, and we have evidence that he has been closely associated with the anti-Koodankulam protest," said Chidambaram.
All the same, Chidambaram was at his cautious best at his monthly press briefing, the day after Hermann was deported. Not only did he refuse to name the NGOs under scrutiny, but he also did not link the charge of dollar diversion and the anti-nuclear movement. "I have not said Koodankulam," he said. "These are cases where, on inspection of accounts and other information available to the government, there is reason to believe that funds have been diverted and not used for the purposes for which the foreign funds were received.... Prima facie, there is evidence to register cases."
Home ministry sources say, the minister was being legally cautious in both cases—that of Hermann and the probe into NGO funds. Being a conscientious objector to nuclear power is not an offence, but, according to Chidambaram, Hermann should not have taken part in the movement if he had come on a tourist visa. Secondly, as it turned out, Hermann's movements had been under the home ministry's scrutiny even during his last visit, and a lookout notice had been put out against him. But he had obtained his current visa before the lookout notice was issued.
Now THE WEEK learns that the home ministry was not acting after the PM made his explosive statement. On the contrary, the PM made his statement only after the home ministry had presented him with details of suspected fund diversion by certain NGOs. The scrutiny had begun in January, after it became clear that the anti-nuclear protest was refusing to die down despite the best efforts of the government and the scientific community to convince the local people that the plant was safe.
There had also been insinuations that the protests had been egged on by vested interests in the west who have been campaigning against Russian nuclear programmes. "We have been suspecting this all along," said Russian Ambassador Alexander Kadakin. "Because it was very strange [that] six months after the Fukushima tragedy, all those protesters raised their voices. They were sleeping for six months, and then, all of a sudden, they raise their voices against the most secure, the best and the safest station in the world.”
The problem was that Tamil Nadu is the state with the largest number of foreign funded NGOs. As many as 3,218 NGOs in Tamil Nadu have got 01,663.31 crore in 2009-10 alone. Of them, 958 groups each have received 01 crore or more, the biggest recipient being World Vision (0233.74 crore). The US was the biggest donor with 03,105.73 crore in 2009-10, followed by Germany which gave 01,046.30 crore.
The scrutiny was not easy. "It is not always the biggest recipients who are suspect," said a home ministry official. In fact, some of the biggest recipients are reputable institutions, such as Christian Medical College (023,71,69,674) or Auroville Foundation (013,06,47,521), whose accounts are above board. "Fund diversion is resorted to by those who received small amounts in several tranches and from diverse sources, which makes it difficult for us to track," said an officer.
Originally, accounts of seven NGOs in southern Tamil Nadu, which are involved directly or indirectly in the protests, were probed to check whether they had misused funds received for humanitarian work, and thus violated the provisions of Foreign Contribution Regulations Act (FCRA). Once it was clear that a good part of the funds was coming in the guise of church funds, most of which are intended for genuine humanitarian work, church-related organisations in Tuticorin-Tirunelveli belt were scrutinised.
They were the Salvation Army India-South Eastern Territory (08,45,68,057), Socio-Economic And Educational Development Trust (04,41,37,616), Tuticorin Diocesan Association (03,60,11,592), the Congregation of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (02,74,92,194), People's Education for Action and Community Empowerment (02,64,05,409), Dohnavur Fellowship (02,59,06,292), South India Assemblies of God (02,55,27,464), Tuticorin Multipurpose Social Service Society (02,44,37,807), Tirunelveli Diocesan Trust Association (02,31,44,407), Tirunelveli Social Service Society (01,97,82,052), Nirman Centre (01,79,91,323), and Kings World Trust for Children (01,54,64,697). Finally, the inspectors zeroed in on the four, against whom they are convinced that there is a prima facie case of diversion of funds.
NGOs have to take permission before they receive foreign funds and are supposed to file detailed accounts with the FCRA division of the home ministry. TDA's accounts show that it had received funds from nine countries in 2010-11, besides donations from within the country. In all, TDA received 03,60,11,592. Of this, French funders gave 01,42,23,406; Germans gave 0 84,13,619; Italians 061,55,843, and the Dutch 045,54,572. The NGO claims to have spent the money on priests, construction, repair work and holding free medical camps.
RUC's accounts for 2010-11 show that it has received 02,37,97,404.73, of which 042,90,757 came from Indian sources. Organisations in the Netherlands have been the biggest donors to RUC, contributing 01,81,91,145; German organisations gave 09,90,267.73, and Luxembourg groups 07,62,410. Among the self-declared activities of the organisation are working for the marginalised sections of society and helping protect their human rights and their rights to life and livelihood.
Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office V. Narayanasamy has alleged that Christian NGOs like People's Education for Action and Liberation (PEAL), Good Vision and TMSSS are using various church channels to organise protests against the nuclear project. Suspension of licences to these three NGOs has infuriated the national Catholic bodies.
Sanjeev Kumar of the University of Delhi wrote a paper titled Dynamics of State and Civil Society in Post-Tsunami Tamil Nadu under a project on 'Democracy in South Asia' from Centre for the Studies in Developing Societies. He says the role of the church in Tirunelveli district is well known and even the government uses the good offices of the church to serve the locals. "So it is only natural for the church to be involved in local affairs and in this case, too, the role of the church is clear." According to home ministry sources, TMSSS received 042 crore in the last five years, while TDA received 022 crore.
A. Maria Stephen, programme coordinator, RUC, whose case has been referred to the CBI, denied any link to the Koodankulam protests. "We are neither supporting nor giving any money to the agitation," he told THE WEEK. However, Stephen admitted that officials from the FCRA division had travelled to Tamil Nadu in January to inspect the books of the organisation. "They inspected our accounts for three days. We got a letter from the home ministry two weeks back saying our accounts have been frozen in public interest."
Father William Chandanam of the Tuticorin Diocesan Association told THE WEEK that his outfit had received a communication from the Union home ministry in February stating that its FCRA account was being frozen. "There was no specific reason cited," said Chandanam. "They only said they have evidence of violation of FCRA conditions against the association. We feel victimised. We feel unjustly dealt with."
Chandanam contended that the association had always maintained its accounts, and had never funded the protests. "Some of the protesters belong to the Catholic fishermen community and we have been giving them moral support," he admitted. "The government is connecting the two to say that we have diverted funds to the protest." The association is planning to file a writ petition in the Madras High Court once "the facts of the matter are put straight." Attempts by THE WEEK to contact TRUE and Good Vision did not yield results.
All the same, officials in the home ministry also say that it does not seem to be a case of western-funded NGOs targeting a Russian project, as it used to happen in the Cold War days. In fact, the anti-nuclear movement has been active in Tamil Nadu since 2007, around the time when the Indo-US nuclear agreement was being discussed. In fact, the fishermen in the area had even staged a one-day hunger strike on February 15, 2007.
Who, then, did the PM have in mind?
with Kallol Bhattacherjee