NEW DELHI: US Ambassador to India Richard Verma slammed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration on Wednesday for the “potentially chilling effects” of the regulatory steps taken against NGOs in the country.
Mr Verma’s comments coincided with Greenpeace India announcing closure of its offices if its bank account were not unlocked within a month.
The comments also came against the backdrop of the regulatory action taken against several NGOs, including the Ford Foundation and Greenpeace India.
“Both of our countries are home to vibrant and vocal civil society organisations seeking change in every conceivable area,” Mr Verma said.
“India is home to a vibrant community of over two million legally registered non-governmental organisations.
The United States also has a robust civil society community though I doubt the number is two million. With so many voices engaged in the debate, there are sure to be some whose views others find objectionable.
That is part of the beauty of the vibrant, thriving democracies we have chosen. I read with some concern the recent press reports on challenges faced by NGOs operating in India.
Because a vibrant civil society is so important to both of our democratic traditions, I do worry about the potentially chilling effects of these regulatory steps focused on NGOs.”
Mr Verma was making a prepared speech at a think-tank. Recently the US government had frowned on the issue in its public comments.
Analysts said the issue was certain to create some controversy as the parliament is in session.
Greenpeace India said on Tuesday it was staring at an ‘imminent’ shutdown within a month in the absence of funds for staff salaries and accused the government of ‘strangling’ it by stealth after the freezing of its funds.
In his address to the Greenpeace India staff, Executive Director Samit Aich asked them to prepare for the imminent shutdown.
“Greenpeace India has one month left to fight for its survival,” a statement said.
The organisation asked the home minister to stop using ‘arbitrary penalties’ and admit that he is trying to shut Greenpeace India down because of its successful campaigns”.
It said that the home ministry’s decision to block its domestic bank accounts could lead to not only the loss of 340 employees but a ‘sudden death’ for its campaigns which strove to represent the voice of the poor on issues of “sustainable development, environmental justice and clean, affordable energy”.
It said that following allegations over foreign funding, Greenpeace India has been the subject of a string of penalties imposed by the ministry, all of which have been overturned by the Delhi High Court.
The latest is blocking access to domestic bank accounts funded by donations from over 77,000 Indian citizens.
This is the fourth time the US government is taking up the issue of strictures against NGOs in the past couple of weeks, ever since the ministry froze accounts of environmental NGO Greenpeace and directed Ford Foundation to submit all its funding for clearance.
In April, the US State Department had criticised the decisions in a public statement, saying that it “was seeking clarifications from the government” over the actions against Ford Foundation and Greenpeace.
Last week Ambassador Verma had met his counterpart in the Ministry of External Affairs to express his concern, and subsequently visiting US Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman raised the issue with Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar during her meetings with him in Delhi.
In his speech, Mr Verma also seemed to defend the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, which is reportedly under the government’s scanner for funding a health NGO, in India.