An interior ministry order banning several top institutions, including the University of Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University, as well as major research bodies such as the Indian Council of Medical Research, from receiving foreign funds has raised questions around the autonomy of these institutions, as well as the future of foreign-funded projects.
Some 65 universities and institutes, including several Indian Institutes of Technology, Panjab University, Banaras Hindu University, Savitribai Phule Pune University and Indira Gandhi National Open University, appeared on a list of those banned from receiving foreign funding issued by the interior ministry on 14 September.
They were among several hundred organisations, including professional associations, voluntary groups and non-governmental organisations, to be banned from receiving foreign funds for reportedly failing to file annual returns under the country’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, or FCRA, which lays down strict rules on the reporting of foreign funding.
Other affected institutions and research organisations based in the national capital include the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the School of Planning and Architecture, the Gandhi Peace Foundation and the Escorts Heart Institute and Research Centre.
Rajat Datta, professor of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University or JNU, said if the ban is enforced and no time allowance given for compliance, it could affect joint projects funded by foreign institutions, even if temporarily.
Others said the ban could impact in particular on donations from alumni based overseas and on other philanthropic contributions – the Japan Foundation and Korea Foundation, for example, have provided generous funding for Delhi University, or DU, to hold international conferences in the past few years.
Fellowships for international programmes could also be affected, and there are fears it will hamper international collaboration and other plans to internationalise universities.
Science funding from overseas, however, is less likely to be provided directly to the universities by overseas research agencies; rather it is usually disbursed by Indian government agencies such as the Department of Science and Technology.
A home ministry official, who cannot be named, said the ban applied only to institutions that had neglected to file annual returns with the home ministry under the FCRA for five years or more.
“Once these formalities are completed and the concerned institutions have submitted their annual income and expenditure statements, as required, there should be no further restrictions,” the official said.
But a number of the listed institutions said the ban was contradictory and confusing and no appeal procedures had been outlined.
The ban comes at a time when the government has stated that it wants increased autonomy for top universities.
Rajiv Ray, the president of the powerful Delhi University Teachers' Association, said: “If this is a policy decision of the government affecting [university] autonomy then you can be sure that we are going to oppose this tooth and nail.”
Ray, however, said it was still not clear if the ban arose out of “lackadaisical attitudes by the finance departments of institutions, which could be readily cleared up in a month or two”.
Confusion over exemptions
JNU’s Datta said: “This is clearly the work of the bureaucracy which has always mistrusted institutional autonomy.”
Some universities said they believed their FCRA registration was being wrongly cancelled, or they had received no notice from the interior ministry, or they had already complied, or were FCRA-exempt.
The general understanding, Datta said, is that statutory bodies are exempted from FCRA clearance.
Ramgopal Rao, director of the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, one of India’s most prestigious institutions, told the Press Trust of India news agency his institution had been filing its returns according to the deadlines and had been doing so even though it was FCRA-exempt.
There appeared to be “certain procedural lapses in cancellation of the licence and we will take up the issue with the home ministry,” Rao said.
Promila Kumar, acting principal of Gargi College, Delhi University, told local media: “We have filed our returns. In fact, we got a reminder about filing returns recently and we informed the government that we have already complied. I’m not sure why this has happened.”
Panjab University said it had its FCRA licence revoked two years ago, and it had then submitted the annual returns of previous years to the ministry of its foreign contributions in 2009-10 and 2010-11. However, the university said it had received no foreign funds during the three subsequent financial years.
In 2015, when similar notices were issued, DU, JNU and others were told by the interior ministry at the time that they could accept foreign donations without FCRA registration.
Exemptions exist for bodies “constituted or established by or under a Central Act or State Act requiring to have their accounts compulsorily audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India”.
As statutory bodies both DU and JNU are subject to the discipline of the Comptroller and Auditor General. But the ban also enforces rules that all organisations receiving funds from abroad must additionally submit financial statements to the home ministry.
FCRA has been used in the past to hinder the operations of some foreign-funded NGOs. Over the past three years the registrations under FCRA of more than 10,000 NGOs were cancelled for failure to file annual returns and more than a thousand were disallowed from renewing their registrations.
Major NGOs, such as Greenpeace, have approached the courts to have the cancellation of their FCRA licences rescinded.
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