New Delhi (AsiaNews) For India's Catholic Church, the bill on foreign funding for local organisations, parties and volunteer associations will strongly limit the activities of Catholic organisations. For this reason, "this new bill is cause for anxiety and the Bishops' Conference is examining it," Conference's chairman Archbishop Oswald Gracias told AsiaNews.
The Foreign Contribution Management and Control Bill, proposed by the ruling United Progressive Alliance, would replace the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act of 1976.
Should the bill become law it would require that all Indian organisations and individuals having "a definite cultural, economic, educational, religious or social program" receive clearance from the Ministry of Home Affairs, by either registration or prior permission, before accepting foreign contributions.
Specifically, the bill requires any organisation applying for registration not to indulge "in activities aimed at conversion through inducement or force."
The move to amend the existing law is not recent; it had started in 2000 under the then ruling National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The BJP-controlled administration alleged that non-profit and non-governmental organisations were using foreign money for illegal and anti-national activities, including religious conversions.
The new bill is raising however concerns among Christian advocacy groups and organisations.
Archbishop Oswald Gracias said that "the new bill would have a wide impact on the overall governance of the Church".
Speaking from the southern City of Bangalore last Saturday, the national president of the All India Catholic Union and secretary general of the All India Christian Council (an umbrella organisation bringing together India's Protestants and Catholics) John Dayal told AsiaNews that "[i]ndications are that the . . . government might use the proposed law against the church. We must not forget that the former ruling BJP used the law exclusively against the church and against non-profit groups that it did not like".
The new bill would give the Indian government more power to control foreign donations as well as the right to refuse or cancel the registration of non-profit organisations. It would especially:
grant the central government the right to define whether an organisation was of a "political nature" even if it were not a political party, thereby giving the authorities the power to prohibit that organisation from accepting foreign contributions;
require that any individual or organisation seeking permission to receive foreign funds that they do so on the condition of having a "meaningful project" to benefit "people living in the district". But It does not define what meaningful means and places an extra burden on non-profit organisations operating outside districts in which they based;
impose a five-year registration limit whereas the current law has no time limits.
An official with the Ministry of Home Affairs said that a ministerial committee is examining the bill, but decline to give any timelines.
Despite his strong misgivings, Archbishop Gracias said that the "Catholic Church accepts that the Government of India has a right to monitor and regulate funds coming form abroad, but there are issues in this bill that are causing anxiety."
"In the context of terrorism, it is advisable that foreign funds should be monitored, that there should certainly be more control but there is also need for more clarity [in the bill's] objectives," he stressed.
What is more, the chairman of the Bishops' Conference of India is still at a loss as to why non-profit organisations and associations would have to register for only five years.
"It would open the whole process up to corruption by public officials", he said. "The bill will not make it easy for genuine parties to receive foreign aid. The bill will have an impact on work in the area of social welfare since it focuses on the ambiguously worded phrase 'meaningful project', which is not defined. Social work involves tremendous administrative expenses; who will interpret administrative expenses, how will they do . . . these are serious concerns for the Church."
"The Church is also concerned about what the bill says about conversion, a very delicate issue," the Archbishop added.
"The bill raises several points and with so many issues at stake the Bishops' Conference will release a statement calling for amendments to the bill," he said.
The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act was adopted in 1976 when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister. At that time, she was concerned that her main political opponent, J. P. Narayan, might use funds raised abroad to built up opposition to her government.
According to Mr Dayal, Gandhi's Congress Party later used the law against the Church and minorities.
There are some 30,000 organisations registered under that law. Altogether they receive some 50 billion rupees (US$ 1.17 billion) from foreign donors.