Overarching NGOs impinging upon National Security

Col Satish Singh Lalotra
“National security is the fig leaf against freedom of information”—- Ralph Nader.

A recent news item in the various national dailies of India concerning the overarching tendency of NGOs to overstep their mandate and now making forays into national security should make every Indian sit up and take note of. The said NGO ”Citizen for green Doon” has I suppose inadvertently stepped into an area which will have far reaching consequences if not checked in its tracks. The NGO by questioning the practicality of widening the 900 kms ‘Chardham project” worth 12,000 crores to provide all weather connectivity to the 4 holy towns has by default tried to put a spanner in strengthening the national security grid. The “Chardham yatra” route is a dual purpose highway catering to the both the religious and national security concerns of the country. The NGO had stepped up the heat by asserting way back in 2018 and raising concerns that the felling of trees, slicing of hills and dumping of excavated material endangered the fragile ecology of the Himalayas. In September 2020 , citing the MoRTH (Ministry of road transport and highways) guidelines the apex court of India mandated that the expansion of the Chardham highway couldn’t exceed 5.5 meters in width asking the government to comply the same.
But the matter took a turn in November last year when the MOD (Ministry of Defence) got involved filing an application in the apex court that called for a double lane road having a carriageway width of 7 meters with 8- 10 meters formation width to meet the army’s special operational requirements in that sensitive sector. In fact in response to the above impasse with the recent Sino -Indian standoff looming large on the psyche of an average Indian, the apex court ordered the formation of a HPC-High powered committee led by the famous environmentalist Ravi Chopra to investigate the issue. It soon emerged that there wasn’t any Consensus in the HPC itself leading to submission of two reports in July 2020 -one which recommends widening the road to 5.5 meters (based on March 2018 guidelines framed by the MoRTH) and a second one backed up by the majority of HPC members which endorsed the expansion of the road width to 12 meters. In August 2020, Ravi Chopra one of the backers of the report penned a letter to the environment ministry in which he alleged that the said project was being undertaken by utter violation of rules of the law,but with the MOD jumping into the fray the entire matter has taken a different hue altogether .As per the army it wants to transport Brahmos missiles ,heavy guns ,equipment etc on to the borders of Indo -Tibet region in the wake of uncertainty unleashed by the intransigent behaviour of our northern neighbour.
In fact as per the latest arguments made by the attorney general of India Mr KK Venugopal in the apex court the Brahmos missiles are 42 feet long and needs large vehicles to carry its launchers and hence it needs disaster -resilient roads. Now here comes the most vital question which a right thinking nation ought to answer – what and which makes it top priority -A nation’s security & safety or the environmental concerns which could be taken care of also when the nation survives the onslaught of enemy country? Regardless of the above GOI has been fighting a” war of control “with the nation’s NGO sector tooth and nail. There have been government crackdowns on several NGOs, some of which have been perceived as too critical of center’s official policies. This has been going on for quite some time now. In January 2015, the apex court of India struck down an order that restricted the flow of foreign funds to NGOs in India. Importantly some organizations funding has been cut short because of alleged involvement in anti -India /anti- national activities.
In the same year, the GOI also restricted the activities of other international NGOs of foreign origin such as Bank information center, Sierra club, SJO.org and Avaaz with similar practices. The root cause of the whole problems is the FCRA(Foreign contribution regulation act) which was initially formulated in 1976 with the sole aim of controlling the sector’s influence in politics by regulating the influx of foreign funds to the NGOs. Way back in 2004, India enacted proposals via legislative means such as the RTI,RTE and the Rural employment guarantee scheme . The NGOs apparently played a strong role in swaying the public opinion in favour of these policies. Though the NGOs have played a yeoman’s service in furthering the cause of social engineering but then at the same time certain sectors like the Defence etc should be kept out of the purview of such NGOs who are unscrupulous to the core. Has the GOI found out who are the financial sponsors of this NGO ‘Citizens for green Doon” and from where does the money get channelized into the coffers of this NGO AND has the gumption of putting spokes into a matter which has direct security implications for India in the present live situation developed at the LAC?
With Doon valley’s close proximity to the UP-Tibet border it stands to logic and justification that the recent Sino-Indian standoff will definitely have a cascading effect on the security of that area too. Well if that be the case doesn’t the NGO know in all its sincerity and employ its sense of discretion to weigh environmental concerns vis-à-vis national security in its right perspective? Or does it still want to follow the rule of expediency unless given a rap on its knuckles by the sudden change of security situation wrought about by the yellow race? Will the valley of Doon be safely ensconced if the PLA comes rampaging down the Himalayan slopes due to no preparedness undertaken by the IA in its war efforts? Will the NGO then be the arbiter of nation’s pride and safety? Before all these questions are answered in their entire entirety some important information about the FCRA/Foreign contribution regulation act, 1976 should be known to us.
Four fundamental changes have been affected into the FCRA amendment act which was carried out recently. Firstly it introduced restrictions on the transfer of foreign contributions /money to other organisations seriously restricting collaborations between organisations. Secondly it restricts the administration expenses to 20% of a NGOs budget, potentially affecting the salary component of its employees. Thirdly, it mandates that every organization must have FCRA account only in a SBI branch at New Delhi which the NGOs think is a regressive step. Fourth but not the least it says that GOI has formulated certain ethical guidelines enshrined under the recently proposed (National council of social work- education & practice) bill which regulates social and ethical behaviour when it comes to the functioning of the NGOs in India.
Herein lays the rub of the entire issue for the NGO fraternity of India. As can be seen from most of the NGOs of our country, in the garb of promoting development in not-so developed region in India these entities are fanning anti -India agenda and acting as a front organization for forces inimical to India’s interests . Leave alone following the ethical rules /regulations some of the NGOs do not even wear that veneer of decency as demanded by propriety of society. In fact GOI should enact / legislate in the parliament to make sure certain subjects are kept outside the purview of these organization’s ambit rather than being a helpless spectator to the legal parleys between the Attorney general, the attorney of the concerned NGO and the apex court each justifying their respective stands. Time to stymie the relentless growth of these unscrupulous NGOs who might be acting as a Fifth columnist for our country.
(The writer is a retired army officer)