A crisis so immense is afoot that governments at all levels in India seem to have abandoned lakhs of citizens who need emergency medical attention. Answering the distress calls emanating from society, it is NGOs and private enterprises that are delivering a significant chunk of the emergency services like oxygen cylinders, ambulances, food kitchens and plasma, day and night. The NGO response isn’t surprising: They have a track record of decades of work in healthcare, education, social upliftment, food security and charity in areas poorly serviced by governments.
Reports that Union home ministry is considering relaxations in last year’s unwarranted amendments to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act suggest that Centre has recognised the utility of allowing NGOs to tap foreign aid at this critical juncture. Passed despite the pandemic, the amendments were also poorly timed. Foreign aid was being constricted even as the economic crunch at home denied NGOs avenues to tap domestic donors. Provisions requiring NGOs to meet administrative expenses with just 20% of the foreign contributions, curbs on seeding money to smaller NGOs, and greater compliance costs severely impacted their viability.
An immediate fallout was that many NGOs were forced to let go of thousands of social workers on their rolls, many with skills that would have helped local communities in the present crisis. Meanwhile, good sense is evident in the quiet policy shift after 16 years towards accepting aid in cash and kind from foreign nations and allowing state governments to also receive donations. A crisis of this magnitude has never befallen India since Partition and the damage could be long lasting. FCRA curbs that prevent NGOs from mobilising more resources for local communities may be endangering more lives and livelihoods. Treat them as partners in Covid relief, help NGOs help people.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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