[More than 11,000 nongovernmental groups have lost their licenses to accept foreign financing since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014. Many are small organizations, but the government has taken action against some whose activities it has deemed against the national interest.]
By Nida Najar
Melinda and Bill Gates in the Indian state of Bihar in 2011. The Gates Foundation
provides most of the financing for a major health group’s tobacco and H.I.V.
programs. CreditAgence France-Presse — Getty Images
NEW DELHI — The Indian government has blocked one of the country’s largest nonprofit public health organizations from accepting money from foreign donors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The cancellation of the health organization’s license to accept international financing is the latest move in an aggressive government crackdown on nongovernmental organizations that receive money from outside India.
More than 11,000 nongovernmental groups have lost their licenses to accept foreign financing since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014. Many are small organizations, but the government has taken action against some whose activities it has deemed against the national interest.
The public health organization, the Public Health Foundation of India, is a public-private partnership that was started by the government in 2006. It receives considerable income from both the government and Gates Foundation.
The organization was notified by letter last week that the government had canceled its license to accept international donations, Rajiv Chhibber, a spokesman for the group, said on Thursday.
“The letter says that we have utilized funds from tobacco and H.I.V. projects for lobbying amongst media and parliamentarians,” Mr. Chhibber said. The Gates Foundation provides most of the financing for the tobacco and H.I.V. programs, he said, and both operate in partnership with the Indian government.
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.
Kuldeep Singh Dhatwalia, a spokesman for the Ministry of Home Affairs, confirmed the cancellation of the public health organization’s license to receive foreign financing. He declined to specify the grounds for the cancellation, aside from what he called “irregularities” in some of its programs.
The Gates Foundation said in a statement that it “funds a variety of partners to undertake charitable objectives and requires these partners to comply with all applicable laws.”
Responding to the criticism that it had a conflict of interest in its public health work in India, the foundation said that “ensuring the adequate production and affordability of vital and safe vaccines for the world’s poorest populations is of the utmost importance.”
To bring less-expensive vaccines to people in India, the Gates Foundation said, it has been working “to support increased Indian local capabilities in vaccine development.”
Under an Indian law that governs nongovernmental organizations that accept foreign money, that money must not be used to lobby the government.
Mr. Chhibber, the public health foundation’s media relations director, said that 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.
He also said the organization was not involved in any lobbying of the government.
Among the other organizations that have been blocked from accepting international financing is Compassion International, a Christian charity based in the United States that provided meals and tuition subsidies to needy children in India.
It was shut down last month after the government accused it of masking religious conversion as charity work.
As part of the government crackdown, some high-profile groups like George Soros’s Open Society Foundations have been required to clear their contributions with security officials before transferring them.
The Public Health Foundation of India has long been a giant in the public health sphere here. When then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh created the organization in 2006, he used seed money from the ministry of health.
The majority of its money comes from foreign sources, Mr. Chhibber said. 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.
The programs cited by the government in its letter are run in coordination with the government, Mr. Chhibber said. After receiving the letter, the foundation sent an explanation of its programs to Indian officials.
Mr. Chhibber said the organization hoped India would reconsider its decision. “We’re still in conversations with the government,” he said. “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.”
Follow Nida Najar on Twitter @nidanajar.