Compassion International says nearly 150,000 children will be worse off unless restrictions on foreign funding are relaxed
By Michael Safi
Homeless children in Mumbai, India. Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters
An international donor has said nearly 150,000 Indian children will be worse off if restrictions on foreign funding force it to cease its operations in the country next month.
Lobbying by US politicians including the former secretary of state John Kerry has so far failed to convince the Indian government to relax financial restrictions on Compassion International, a Christian charity that says it sends about $50m in humanitarian aid to India each year.
The group, which funds charities that operate more than 500 child development projects in the country, says it has had $3.5m of aid blocked each month since March, when it was placed on list of organisations requiring “prior permission” to bring in funds from overseas.
It is scheduled to pull out of India by 15 March, at which point many of its child development centres – which have already scaled back services such as a free meals programme – will shut.
Compassion, which has been operating in India since 1968, says it has been given no explanation for the funding restrictions, but Indian media has reported that local affiliates of the charity have been accused accused of conducting “religious activity” without permission.
The number of foreign-funded organisations operating in India has reportedly shrunk by nearly half in the past two years amid a crackdown by the government of Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party.
Twenty-five organisations were denied the right to receive foreign funding in November because of “activities not conducive to the national interest”, India’s home ministry said, and more than 11,000 failed to renew their licences.
The previous Congress-led government passed the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), which regulates overseas funding of organisations. But critics, including three UN rapporteurs, have accused the Modi government of aggressively using the legislation to target human rights, environmental and other groups whose advocacy clashes with its agenda.
Using foreign money to propagate religion is permitted by the Indian constitution, but “coercing” conversions is banned in many states and Christian and Muslim proselytising is a sensitive issue in the Hindu-majority country, particularly among supporters of Modi’s party.
“It is part of the colonial civilising mission still continuing,” said Madhu Kishwar, an academic and journalist who has been critical of the work of Christian groups. “They use health and education as outreach, but harvesting of souls is their primary activity.”
Compassion International’s mission statement describes its commitment “to the demonstration and the proclamation of the gospel” and its goal to enable children “to become responsible and fulfilled Christian adults”. Supporters and critics of Modi alike speculated that such open advocacy might be behind the group’s scrutiny by Indian officials.
“The issue is that the present government is one that has a Hindutva agenda,” said Indira Jaising, a lawyer and activist, referring to the ruling party’s ideology that Indian culture and civilisation is inherently Hindu in nature. “So for them, any kind of propagation of religion, even if it is lawful, takes away from that agenda.”
Jaising’s own NGO, the Lawyers Collective, had its funding licence temporarily suspended in May last year in a move Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said “appeared to be politically motivated because of their work in routinely representing people in cases against the current government”.
Compassion International has been lobbying US officials to try to persuade Delhi to take it off the restricted list but told its child sponsors in an email in January that there was “very little hope” its status would change.
“Since we can no longer distribute funds to our field offices, we have just had to notify our India country staff that we must formally close our field offices in India by March 15,” it said in the email.
The group’s president, Santiago Mellado, wrote in December that the “blockade” against its funding was being enacted for “no other reason than that Compassion is founded on and demonstrates Christian values”.
He said: “As of today, most of the Compassion centres in India have run out of funds. If a resolution is not reached immediately, Compassion will no longer be able to fund any work in India, extinguishing a beacon of hope and opportunity for the 145,000 children currently in these programs and countless others who would enrol in the decades to come.”
Donald Trump’s new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was asked about the charity’s problems in India during Senate confirmation hearings this week and said he would “look into the issue”.