India Covid: How law stops NGOs distributing essential aid

Legislation brought in by the Indian government is preventing non-profit organisations from supplying oxygen concentrators to those who desperately need them, BBC Newsnight understands.

The Foreign Contributions Registration Act (FCRA) was amended at the height of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic last year.

The changes mean non-government organisations (NGOs) operating in India can’t distribute any foreign contributions to other groups, and all funding from abroad must be placed in a specific bank account in the capital, Delhi.

At the time of implementation, the Indian government said the new rules were intended to bring “greater transparency” and “stop the misuse of foreign funds by some people”.

Jennifer Liang is a co-founder of NGO The Ant, and says the legislation is costing lives.

She told Newsnight the legislation had stopped her organisation from distributing oxygen concentrators from foreign donors and supplying them to the government, because they were unable to open a new bank account in Delhi.

image copyrightReuters
image captionHospitals across India have faced severe oxygen shortages

India is in the midst of a medical crisis as the death toll from coronavirus continues to climb.

The official figures say more than 250,000 people have died from the virus but some experts believe the real figure could be up to 30 times higher. Many hospitals are overwhelmed, and oxygen is in short supply.

The FCRA rules include:

  • NGOs and charities having to register under the FCRA before they can function
  • Any funding coming from abroad must be put into specific branches of the State Bank of India in Delhi, as notified by the government
  • NGOs can no longer distribute foreign contributions (money and supplies) to other charities, so subcontracting is forbidden

Newsnight has spoken to 10 organisations that say the legislation is causing unnecessary delays to Covid relief aid, due to additional form-filling and complex rules around distributing funds.

Aakhar Patel, director of Amnesty India, says the law criminalises the acceptance of aid by NGOs.

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