In April, as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's clampdown on donors deemed to be "meddling" in domestic politics, the foundation was placed on a list of organizations that are not allowed to fund Indian nonprofits without government permission. A top official at the foundation — which has donated more than $500 million to organizations in India since opening its first overseas office in Delhi in 1952 — told Reuters that the fallout from the restrictions has affected projects aimed at discouraging child marriage, providing clean water in slums, and feeding pregnant women. "We don't want to move ahead until [such a time as] we are clear about the rules and nothing we do is viewed as illegal," the official, who requested anonymity, said.
The restrictions stem from a $250,000 grant the foundation awarded in 2009 to Teesta Setalvad, who at the time was pursuing legal cases against Modi, accusing him of failing to stop anti-Muslim rioting that killed at least a thousand people when he was chief minister of Gujarat state. Earlier this week, federal investigators raided Setalvad's home after filing a criminal case against her for allegedly misusing the grant.
The government also has accused foreign nongovernmental organizations of trying to block industrial projects that Modi sees as essential to economic growth. Under proposed legislation, foreign-funded NGOs will face more regulatory hurdles and be required to agree that their work will not be "detrimental to the national interest." B.K. Prasad, the official overseeing the home ministry's new approach to NGOs, told Reuters the government had no intention of forcing charities to close. "But we have every right to streamline their work," said Prasad. "This attitude that nobody can question influential foreign donors must be put to an end."
According to U.S. Ambassador Richard Verma, the United States is in dialogue with India on the matter, and he warned that the tougher approach may have a "chilling effect" on civil society and democratic traditions in the country. Indeed, there are signs that may be happening already. At a meeting in New Delhi a week ago, the foundation told grantees to avoid words like "governance," "advocacy," and "human rights" in their reports and proposals, one attendee told Reuters.
Among the nonprofits hit by the funding freeze is the Joint Women's Programme, which works to empower women and children. Last year, it received $30,000 from Ford to set up a computer training center and hire three teachers for a hundred and sixty children in a slum near Delhi. But because scheduled funding from the foundation has been put on hold, the organization has had to halve the number of children it looks after and can no longer afford to give the remaining children fruit and milk. "I have told the parents there is a possibility we have to close down," said JWP director Jyotsna Chatterji. "It is a shame that the children are the ones having to suffer."