Expert Comment

Expert Comment

Regressive anti-education Bill

he proposed new foreign contributions
Regulation Act (FCRA) Bill, introduced in Parliament during the last session, will have serious ramifications for educational institutions. For a variety of reasons, this Bill is deeply retrograde. It signals the reality that while India has considerably liberalised in many areas, it is still regressing in areas particularly relevant to education.

Why is this Bill a retrograde step? First, it will be an institutional and administrative nightmare. Under its provisions, no permanent FCRA accounts will be approved; each institution will have to reapply every five years. As those who have run tax exempt non-profit institutions know, even under the best of circumstances, the process of getting government approvals is inordinately long. There seems to be no logic for subjecting institutions to a recurring approval process.

Second, the Bill gives the government wide latitude over education and research institutions. For instance, there are clauses to the effect that no institution will be given approval if amongst other things, it might prove to be "detrimental to friendly relations with other states". The implications are enormous. Suppose you are a research institution that for some reason criticised the Indo-US nuclear deal, or did research to show that Saudi Arabia has an unsavoury regime, it could be construed as detrimental to relations with foreign states. This is only an outlandish example. But each of the categories that could lead the government to abridge FCRA status, like "detrimental to public interest", remain undefined. Consequently institutions will be at the mercy of any government that decides to target them. The potential threats to academic freedom contained in this Bill should not be taken lightly.

Third, the Bill is patently discriminatory. Why is it that if you are a for-profit private sector company, you are not required to get government clearance every five years before you can do business with foreign companies? Why subject non-profits to the presumption that they are guilty until proven innocent? Similarly currently if a private sector company wishes to invite a foreign consultant, it is free to do so without prior permission. But if an Indian university wants to hold a conference or invite foreign academics, it is subject to tedious approval requirements from the Union home and external affairs ministries. Why the discrimination against not-for-profit institutions in general, many of whom are central to education?

Fourth, the Bill will not achieve its stated objectives. Ostensibly the Bill is about security. The intent is to regulate FCRA contributions so they are not used for unsavoury purposes like disseminating hateful ideologies or for money laundering. But government is already armed with powers to deal with these two potential dangers. Like all entities, non-profits, have reporting requirements, so their accounts can be audited. And in case there is evidence of subversive activity, the State can always intervene.

Indeed, there is a strange congruence of forces supporting this Bill: Hindu nationalists like it because they think it will target Christian missionaries, who are among the largest beneficiaries of official FCRA flows; secularists are for it because they think it will target outfits like the VHP pumping in money; the security establishment likes it because it is paranoid about the wrong people, and statists are in favour because it gives them one more handle to exercise power. But no one is asking the pertinent question: What will this Bill actually prevent? As with so many statist measures, it will not prevent the bad guys from doing what they want, but will make life very complicated for the well meaning.

Lastly, the Bill has to be read in wider context. Notwithstanding liberalisation, government stranglehold over the education sector has increased rather than decreased. Recently there was the shocking revelation that the UPA government has rejected more visas for foreign scholars from abroad than any other administration. In fact, the irony is that under the NDA government not a single visa application submitted under the Fulbright scholarship programme was rejected, while under the UPA it is becoming very difficult for foreign social scientists to get research visas. The point is simply this: our restrictive regimes on academic exchange, easy tolerance of abridgements of freedom of expression, and the irrationality of so much that happens in the name of security, are all of a piece. They reveal just how fragile our identities actually are, just how little we are willing to liberalise in sectors that matter most, and just how much hostility to intellectual exchange unites rather than divides political parties. Our fear of foreign capital has diminished greatly, but fear of the greater flow of research, ideas and personnel, it seems, lives on.

To be sure, there are legitimate security concerns, and every government ought to worry whether the privileges it has given its citizens are being abused. But there are more rational, more effective, less invasive, and less discriminatory ways of achieving this objective. The new FCRA bill is a manifestation of our insecurity, not our confidence. The only good clause in the Bill is one that repeals the previous FCRA legislation.

(Pratap Bhanu Mehta is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi)