India blocks foreign funding for health group backed by Gates Foundation

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation team of Bill Gates, with Bill Gates Sr. and his sisters, Libby and Kristi, during their visit to a polio site in Seemapuri, India in November 2008. (Credit: Prashant Panjiar / RIBI Image Library / Flickr)

In its latest bid to crack down on foreign funding of civil society, the Indian government has revoked the license of one of the country’s largest public health organizations to accept foreign contributions.

Largely funded by the government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Delhi-based Public Health Foundation of India is a public-private partnership launched by the government in 2006.

According to a spokesperson, the organization received a letter of notice last week alleging that funds from the Gates Foundation were diverted from its original purpose. Doing so violates registration rules for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive foreign funding, the government said.

“Certain observations have been made by the Ministry [of Home Affairs]on utilization of funds related to [the Public Health Foundation of India’s] projects on tobacco, HIV/AIDS and its financial reports,” the health group said in a statement to the Indian Express.

A spokesperson for the organization told the New York Times that the Gates Foundation supplies most of the financing for tobacco and HIV programs.

But the government is alleging that funds for these programs were used for anti-tobacco lobbying with parliamentarians and media, according to the Indian Express. In addition, the government said the health group “misreported” foreign contributions received over the last three years, transferred significant sums of money outside India without notifying the ministry and opened bank accounts that were not disclosed to the ministry.

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“We have submitted all relevant documents and information to the ministry and are now waiting for a response,” the President of the Public Health Foundation of India K. Srinath Reddy told Press Trust of India on Thursday.

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, more than 11,000 NGOs have lost their licenses to receive foreign contributions. Many of them are small organizations, but Compassion International recently captured headlines when it was forced to shutter its doors in India last month. The government accused the Christian charity of disguising religious conversions as charity work.

The Chinese government under President Xi Jinping is also carrying out a similar crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs. But there, the Gates Foundation was one of the first to successfully register under the new foreign NGO law.

In India, however, the Gates Foundation is currently under scrutiny. A nationalist group called the Swadeshi Jagran Manch recently accused the foundation of business connections to Big Pharma, while “influencing” health policies to expand immunization. The group is preparing a report on the alleged conflicts of interest.

“We have met the Union Health Minister and raised the matter regarding funding of [the Public Health Foundation of India]by [the Gates Foundation],” Ashwini Mahajan, a senior member of Swadeshi Jagran Manch, told the Indian Express.

In a statement, the Gates Foundation responded by citing its close collaboration with the government for more than 13 years.

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“The foundation funds a variety of partners to undertake charitable objectives and requires these partners to comply with all applicable laws, including the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, Rajiv Chhibber, media relations director for the Public Health Foundation of India, denied any lobbying of the government by the group, according to the New York Times. He said that the government works with the organization on its tobacco program, which largely includes research on the health effects of tobacco.

“Our work is fully in confluence with the ministry of health and India’s national health policy,” Reddy said, according to News18. “Regarding the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, most of our funding is to provide technical support to the ministry on projects that the ministry itself wanted.”

“We do not act on behest of the foundation. If the government wants to fund us or wants us to provide technical assistance through other funding, we will do so.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.