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Bloomberg charity under scanner for anti-tobacco funding, lobbying in India

India has stepped up scrutiny of NGOs registered under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act

Reuters  |  New Delhi 

Michael Bloomberg
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg

has been investigating how Philanthropies, founded by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, funds local non-profit groups for anti-lobbying, documents show, making it the latest foreign non-organisation to come under scrutiny.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's has since 2014 tightened surveillance of non-profit groups, saying they were acting against India's national interests. Thousands of foreign-funded charities' licences have been cancelled for misreporting donations.

Critics, however, say the has used the foreign funding law as a tool to silence non-profit groups which have raised concerns about the social costs of India's rapid economic development.

The intelligence wing of India's home ministry last year drafted a note on Philanthropies, raising concerns that the foundation was running a campaign to "target" Indian businesses and "aggressively" lobby against the sector.

Though the three-page note, reviewed by Reuters, said the initiative's "claimed intention to free of cannot be faulted" given the known risks from tobacco, it highlighted the sector's importance, noting it brings in nearly $5 billion in annual revenue for governments and provides a livelihood for millions of people.

"Foreign interests making foreign contributions ... for purposes of lobbying against an established economic activity raises multiple concerns," the note said, including, it said, an "adverse economic impact" on 35 million people.

The June 3, 2016 note, marked "SECRET" and circulated to top officials, including in Modi's office, has not previously been reported. The probe continued until at least April this year, another document showed.

Rebecca Carriero, a spokeswoman for Michael and New York-based Philanthropies, declined to comment as they were unaware of any investigation.

A home ministry spokesman said "queries which relate to security agencies cannot be answered." Modi's office did not respond to an email seeking comment.

The ministry's note was one of the factors behind the rejection of a foreign funding licence renewal of at least one Bloomberg-funded charity last October, said a senior official aware of the investigation.

Michael Bloomberg, one of the world's richest people and a former New York City Mayor, has committed nearly $1 billion to support global control efforts. One of his focus countries is India, where kills 900,000 people a year.

Other than funding Indian NGOs, Bloomberg's charity has in the past worked on improving road safety and supported federal tobacco-control efforts. In 2015, Modi called Michael a "friend", and the two agreed on working together on India's ambitious plan to build so-called smart cities.

Bigger warnings, different views

The home ministry note said the charity successfully lobbied for the introduction of bigger health warnings on cigarette packs, "contrary" to the recommendations of a parliamentary panel.

While the panel called for the size of warnings to be more than doubled to 50 percent of a pack's surface area, the health ministry sought a higher figure of 85 percent. Despite protests from India's $10 billion cigarette industry, the Supreme Court last year ordered manufacturers to follow the more stringent health ministry rules.

That, the note said, was the first of the three-phase campaign targeting India's industry. It did not explain how exactly the charity lobbied.

While the note mirrored some of India's lobby's positions - such as how anti-smoking policies could adversely impact farmers - the official said the investigation was not done at the behest of the industry.

"Anti-lobby wants to kill revenue generating activities," the official said.

A health ministry official, however, said: "We don't see as an economic activity." He added that the health ministry was unaware of the home ministry's note on Philanthropies.

Broader crackdown

has stepped up scrutiny of NGOs registered under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA).

In 2015, the home ministry put the Ford Foundation on a watch list and suspended Greenpeace India's FCRA licence, drawing criticism from the United States.

Earlier this year, the banned foreign funding for the Public Health Foundation of India, a group backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, saying it used foreign donations to "lobby" for tobacco-control policy issues, "which is prohibited under FCRA."

In the case, the home ministry note included a chart showing how funds flowed from Philanthropies to its partner, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which was then funding five local FCRA-registered NGOs. These NGOs, the note said, were being used by the charity for "anti-lobbying activities."

The FCRA licence of at least one of them - the Institute of Public Health (IPH) Bengaluru - was not renewed in October, in part due to the home ministry's note, the official said.

The IPH said it was told by the home ministry that its licence was not being renewed on the basis of a "field agency report", but no details were given. It was unaware of the investigation on Philanthropies.

In April, the home ministry wrote to the health ministry, citing an "inquiry into foreign funding" for lobbying to change laws in The letter, seen by Reuters, mentioned the initiative and directed the health ministry to report on anti-lobbying by foreign donors in other countries where is widely used.

The health ministry has not yet sent that report, another official said. The health ministry did not respond to questions.

First Published: Wed, August 30 2017. 01:30 IST