By Adbar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

April 20, 2017; New York Times

The Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) is one of India’s largest public health organizations. Yet, this public-private partnership started by the Indian government in 2006 now joins the list of more than 11,000 other Indian NGOs that have lost their licenses since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014. The move is indicative of what many perceive as the Indian government’s aggressive, continuous crackdown on the foreign funding of major NGOs. As was reported in the New York Times, these foreign donors include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—a notable financier of the PHFI.

The Times confirms that the PHFI “has long been a giant in the public health sphere” in India. In 2006, former prime minister Manmohan Singh used seed money from the Ministry of Health to create the organization. In coordination with the government, most of its funding comes from foreign sources: “The foundation received more than $30 million in grants from various sources in the fiscal year ending March 2016, according to financial documents on its website.”

PHFI spokesman and media relations director Rajiv Chhibber spoke to the Times about a letter the organization received a week or so ago. Chhibber said, “The letter says that we have utilized funds from tobacco and HIV projects for lobbying against media and parliamentarians.” He further explained, “The Gates Foundation provides most of the funding for the tobacco and HIV programs [and] both operate in partnership with the Indian government.”

Kuldeep Singh Dhatwalia, spokesman for India’s Ministry of Home Affairs, confirmed the PHFI’s foreign funding block and license cancellation. The only explanation he gave was that there were “irregularities” in some of its programs. Though he declined to specify any other reasons for the cancellation, the Times offers the following:

A right-wing group known as Swadeshi Jagran Manch has accused the Gates Foundation of having a conflict of interest in its efforts to expand immunization in India. The group claims the foundation is connected to pharmaceutical companies, said Ashwani Mahajan, a senior member of the organization, which is putting together research detailing its assertion to present to the government and to request government action against the Gates Foundation.

The New York Times reminds us that foreign-backed NGOs are not allowed to support any anti-government lobbying activities. However, Chhibber argued that the PHFI was not involved in anything of the sort. On the contrary, “a large part of the organization’s tobacco program involved research on tobacco’s health effects. He said the foundation worked with the government on this program.” In fact, Chhibber said that all the programs the government cited in the letter are ones run in coordination with the government.

After receiving the letter, the PHFI sent an explanation of its programs to Indian officials. Hoping for reevaluation, Chhibber states that they are “still in conversations with the government…We’ve also given them supporting documents to show that whatever was done was done on the behest of the ministry or to carry forward the tobacco policy.”

Meantime, in a statement, the Gates Foundation assured the public that the foundation supports a “variety of partners to undertake charitable objectives and requires these partners to comply with all applicable laws.” In what reads as a direct response to criticisms from the Indian government, the foundation said, “Ensuring the adequate production and affordability of vital and safe vaccines for the world’s poorest populations is of the utmost importance.”

The Modi-led government continues to tighten the reins on NGO activity across India. Shutdowns escalate with only vague explanations from the administration and few details. The New York Times states that organizations such as Compassion International, a U.S.-based Christian charity “that provided meals and tuition subsidies to needy children in India,” have been shuttered. NPQ has reported on charitable organizations that suffered the same fate because they received foreign funding, such as Navsarjan, and other Indian NGOs are still losing their licenses because they get funding from prominent foreign organizations such as the World Health Organization and International Red Cross. This reflects a larger trend (covered by the NPQ Newswire) of countries constraining nonprofit organizations, particularly those that do advocacy.

India touts itself as being a growing global democracy, but many of us remain shocked at the disturbing paradox presented. NPQ will continue to keep an eye on these trends.—Noreen Ohlrich