Foreign Contribution Amendment Act, 2020
Foreign Contribution amendment act bill is introduced by Government of India on 29th September 2020. Although, the bill met with a stern opposition from the opposition the bill was passed in both the houses of Parliament despite the protest. The Government has claimed that the objective of the act is to strengthen compliance, enhance transparency and accountability in the receipt and utilization of foreign contributions and facilitating genuine non-governmental organizations or associations who are working of the welfare for the society.
The amendment Act has come into force due to various instances where organization have failed to ensure basic statutory compliances such as maintenance of proper accounts and submission of returns and it led to a situation wherein, the government had to cancel registration of various organization.
The new amendment of FCRA 2020 has come as a blow to the Indian Civil Society as it cuts down the foreign contribution for many an organization. Now this can be challenged in the highest court of law but herein lies the problem of the locus standi. Whether to challenge the law as a whole i.e. to decriminalize the law or whether to challenge the flaw in law laid down by the legislature.
Few years ago INSAF or Indian Social Action Forum had challenged the provisions of the law of FCRA. After years of fighting
“Courage to Go Deep.”
Need To introduce Foreign Contribution amendment act:
There was a need to regulate contribution coming into India post-independence when foreign funded NGO started booming. The Congress government enacted FCRA in the year 1976 but due to deficiencies in the working of the act it was repealed and FCRA was enacted by UPA government in 2010.Since the independence the NGOs have played a crucial role in India. They have reached out to the marginalized section of the society during any crisis. Even at the time of this pandemic the NGO’s were the relief giver. As per the Modi Government, the annual inflow of foreign contribution has increased over the last 10 years and many recipients have diverted the funds other than enlisted in the FCRA and for this registration of many NGOs have been cancelled.
However this is not the first time the government has cancelled registration. In the year 2010 UPA government has come down heavily on NGO’s protesting against the Kudankulum nuclear power plant.
Key changes to FCRA introduced:
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Prohibition on “public servant” from receiving foreign contributions
The Amendment Act has amended and widened section 3 of the Act to add the category of “public servants”, as defined in Section 21 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, to the list of certain persons that are prohibited from receiving foreign contribution. This will prohibit persons in the service or pay of the Government or remunerated by fees or commission for the performance of any public duty by the Government, from receiving foreign contributions.
It appears the reason for inclusion of “public servant” is to prevent those discharging public duty from being influenced through foreign funding and avoid any conflict of interest. However, this would preclude a section of altruistic individuals who fall within the definition of “public servant” from organizing finances for undertaking activities that are intended for public welfare.
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Prohibition on transfer of foreign contribution
The Amendment Act substitutes section 7 of the Act to prohibit persons authorized to receive foreign contributions under the Act from transferring such foreign contributions to any person. Earlier, non-government organisations (NGOs) registered under Act were permitted to transfer the foreign contribution received by such NGO to: (i) any other registered NGO; and (ii) any other unregistered person, with prior permission of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).
This seems to have been done to restrict NGOs from acting as fundraisers and channeling funds to other NGOs, as opposed to using the same directly for the object and purpose for which they were set up and for the purposes permitted under their registration under the Act.
FCRA registered NGOs will have to innovate the ways in which they collaborate for social projects to re-align with this new restriction to ensure continued funding for the ongoing plans.
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Lowering the cap on administrative expenses
The Amendment Act has amended section 8 of the Act to decrease the cap on using the foreign contribution for administrative expenses from 50% to 20%. The amendment seems to promote utilization of such funds towards the objective of the grant.
The 20% ceiling on spending on administrative expenses appears to be a respectable threshold and in line with market standard. It may be relevant that the Companies Act, 2013 makes it mandatory for companies to make contribution of 2% of average net profits to be spent on projects of corporate social responsibility. Such activity can be implemented through certain NGOs. However, permissible administrative expenses implementing the corporate social responsibility projects is capped at a meagre 5% of the corporate social responsibility contribution made by the companies.
This is a welcome change as a number of philanthropists do not prefer to support NGOs due to their heavy administrative expenses leaving aside less funds for the philanthropic objective.
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Opening of bank account in State Bank of India, Delhi
Earlier under section 17 of Act, the foreign contribution recipient was permitted to receive foreign contribution in an account opened in any of the scheduled banks. The Amendment Act substitutes section 17 of FCRA requiring the recipient of foreign contribution to receive such amount only in an account designated as “FCRA Account” opened in a branch of the State Bank of India (SBI) at New Delhi. However, it provides flexibility to the recipient to also open another FCRA Account in any of the scheduled banks in India for the purpose of keeping or utilizing the foreign contribution which has been received from its “FCRA Account” in the branch of SBI at New Delhi. The intent of the amendment appears to be to centralize the inflow and routing of foreign contribution, making it easier for the Government to supervise and monitor the funds received.
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Power to prohibit a foreign contribution recipient from utilizing/receiving its funds
Under the Act, if a person accepting foreign contributions is found guilty of violating any provisions of the Act, the unutilized or unreceived foreign contribution could be utilized or received, only with the prior approval of the Government. The Amendment Act has now added a proviso to section 11 to provide that the Government may also restrict usage of unutilized foreign contribution if, based on a summary inquiry the Government believes that such person has contravened provisions of the Act. This amendment appears to be preventive and to enable the Government to preclude receipt and utilization of foreign contributions when it finds that the recipient is prima-facie contravening the Act.
The summary nature of the enquiry however does not exclude the process adopted from the judicial scrutiny.
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The Amendment Act has introduced section 12A, enabling the Government to require any person who seeks permission or registration (or renewal) under the Act to provide Aadhaar cards of all its office bearers or directors or other key functionaries or, in case of foreigners, a copy of passport or overseas citizen of India card.
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Increase in the maximum limit for the period of suspension
Under the Act, the Government could suspend the registration of a person for a period not exceeding 180 days. The Amendment Act has now amended section 13 of the Act to give the Government the power to suspend the registration certificate of a person for up to 360 days. The rationale for this change, especially when the emphasis is on making timelines shorter in other legislations, is unclear. This will provide a tool to the Government to keep the registration certificates under suspension for almost a year when it may not have solid grounds to finally cancel the registration. Needless to say, that the power to extend the suspension will have to be exercised judiciously.
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Surrender of certificate
The Amendment Act has added section 14A allowing the Government to permit a person to voluntarily surrender their registration certificate, if it is satisfied that such person has not contravened any provisions of the Act and the management of its foreign contribution (and related assets) has been vested in an authority prescribed by the Government.