Red Taping the Civil Society in Azad Kashmir

PFP EXCLUSIVE

By Jalaluddin Mughal

The AJK civil society sector banned in 2015

In June 2015, the government of Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJ &K) commonly known as Azad Kashmir, imposed a ban on all kinds of activities of civil society organizations including local, national, and international organizations. A significant number of civil society organizations were working in the region. The government decided to establish an NGO Monitoring and Regulatory Cell where all NGOs, local and foreign, were required to submit their proposals and obtain approval from the cell before starting any kind of new projects in the state.

In the period of over two years, the cell was not able to issue a single NOC in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) resulting in the closure of several ongoing projects and shifting of multi-million dollar funding to other parts of Pakistan. A major chunk of those funds was shifted to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa-considering it the most conflict-hit region of Pakistan.

Although local, national, and international organizations are allowed to operate in different parts of Pakistan, the AJK is considered a no-go area for these organizations. Currently, the voice of civil society organizations has been silenced on certain issues such as transparency, accountability, and political empowerment of communities. 

AJK – a disaster-prone region

Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) is a region that has often witnessed natural and human-made disasters such as earthquakes, floods, landslides, and colossal firing from across the Line of Control (LoC). Due to these calamities along with the rapidly growing population, a huge number of people live below the poverty line.  

Why civil society organizations are needed?

Historically, overlooking of the needs of the population created a void that was addressed by the community organizations particularly in the fields of education, health, environment, etc. The history of non-governmental organizations goes back to the pre-inception of the tiny state of Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

However, after the establishment of the AJK government, most of the community work in various districts was being carried out by local and small-scale organizations that focused mainly on education, healthcare, or orphan support programs funded by community or AJK nationals working abroad.

The establishment of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), commonly known as Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), or more recently as Non-Profit organizations (NPOs) is a recent phenomenon in the region.

NGOs’ major interventions

The history of an active engagement of civil socieyt sector in AJK goes back to the decade of the 1990s when a significant number of displaced people from Indian held Jammu &Kashmir migrated to AJK.

In this background, a few organizations started relief and rehabilitation operations in the region.  Most of them were obtaining financial support from the Gulf States through their affiliated organizations and individuals from religious and political parties or remnant of the Afghan War (1979-1989).

In September 1992, AJK was hit by a massive flood and the Government of Pakistan declared a state of emergency in the region. Over 2000 people died in Pakistan out of which around 300 people were reported to have lost their lives in AJK. Moreover, most of the roads and bridges were damaged and crops were badly affected. Therefore, the United Nations, donor agencies, and international organizations turned towards AJK for help and support.

Some of these organizations took up service delivery projects such as building community physical infrastructure, providing financial support to needy people while others worked for the capacity building of communities and provided them with hard and soft skills.

Cross-border shelling at the Line-of-Control in AJK

Since 1989, the exchange of fire along the Line of Control (LoC) has been a regular occurrence. A significant number of people live in the conflict-hit region where their houses and agricultural lands are very close to the LoC. Consequently, they become a convenient target of the cross-LoC firing from both sides.

Therefore, the International Committee of Red Cross, Red Crescent, and several religious charity organizations such as Islamic Relief, World Assembly of Muslim Youth, and Muslim Hands had been working to provide medical facilities, food, shelter, and physical safety training to people affected by the LoC shelling which happened regularly till 2003 ceasefire announcement between India and Pakistan.

Earthquake Rescue, Relief and Rehabilitation Process

On October 8, 2005, AJK was hit by an enormous earthquake. As a result, dozens of national and international NGOs turned towards the affected districts i.e. Muzaffarabad, Bagh, and Poonch to join hands in the rescue, relief, and rehabilitation process along with the Pakistan Army and other government agencies. These NGOs remained active for several years and did a remarkable job in the different sectors; notably in education, health, and small-scale physical infrastructure building sectors.

The post-earthquake relief activities paved the way for the national and international non-governmental organizations to make inroads into AJ&K which was previously a no-go area for civil society organizations (CSOs). Some local organizations emerged and partnered with international organizations in the field of service delivery.  During the process, a number of new Community Service Organizations, aiming to support local people to earn livelihood or skill development, were founded.

The government of AJK also acknowledged the contribution of the NGOs in the rehabilitation and development of AJK. Then-Prime Minister SardarAttique Ahmed Khan stated that the non-governmental organizations played a vital and significant role in rebuilding the earthquake-devastated Azad Kashmir.

Although the number of registered NGOs in Azad Kashmir runs in hundreds, those that are making worthwhile contributions are only a few.

Pakistan’s National Action Plan

The NGO’s role in the region came under strict scrutiny when the Government of Pakistan adopted National Action Plan (NAP) to check terrorism in January 2015. Subsequently, the NAP was extended to AJK. Under this project, the Ministry of Interior demanded a re-registration of all the INGOs and NGOs working in Pakistan.

In this connection, the Security Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) and the Economic Affairs Division (EAD) devised a mechanism for the registration of international and local NGOs.

In a survey conducted by this author, around 80 percent of the civil society activists in AJK said that they were motivated and eager to work in the development sector to ensure human rights and fulfill of the needs of the local people. However, the circumstances in AJK were not favourable for the professionals working in this sector.

The survey found that government officials, instead of supporting and encouraging innovative ideas, discouraged new projects and ideas, especially the youth-led initiatives.

Increased Monitoring

Following the directives of the Federal Government, the AJK Government established an NGO Monitoring and Regulatory Cell in May 2015 which remained operational till May 2017 and aimed to regulate the NGO sector, comprising the Department of Social Welfare and Women Development, Home Department, and concerned intelligence agencies

Soon after the formation of the cell, a circular was issued by the Government wherein all registered local and national NGOs were asked to immediately stop their operation in AJK and apply for re-registration and obtain NOC from NGO Monitoring and Regulatory Cell.  However, the procedure and time frame to carry out the task had not been mentioned.

As a result; all ongoing projects of local, national and international NGOs had to stop. Besides this, several NGOs after failing to obtain NOC, either rolled back or shifted their operations to other areas of Pakistan.

Although the local non-governmental organizations working in AJK approached the concerning authorities several times and requested them to simplify the cumbersome procedure and  ensure that the NOC is issued within a specific time limit, yet no solid decisions were taken to settle down the issue. Some of the NGOs continued their activities under verbal consent of the Government authorities but none of the NGOs got NOC from the NGO Monitoring and Regulatory Cell till May 2017.

In February 2016, after AJK NGO Forum filed a writ petition in AJK High Court against undeclared bane on NGO, the Government of AJK, through a letter, issued a conditional permission for those local NGOs who have already applied for NOC in Monitoring and Regulatory Cell to continue their activities till they obtain the NOC.

The Legal Battle of NGO sector

In December 2016, the Government of AJK once again imposed a ban on all kinds of activities by NGOs in Muzaffarabad Division through a notice published in the newspapers till further orders.

Responding to the decision; Azad Jammu and Kashmir NGOs Forum, an apex body of the civil society organizations, filed a writ petition in AJK High Court seeking resumption of the activities as well as requesting for the simplification of NOC process in AJK.

Meanwhile, the Government withdrew its previous directives and issued new instructions allowing only those NGOs to work who have already applied for NOC. The court dismissed the writ petition by NGOs without any clear decision after the Government of AJK ensured to simplify the NOC process in their response submitted to the worthy High Court.

The new regulatory system for NGOs in AJK

Due to a battle going on in the High Court and lobbying efforts of the NGOs, the Government came up with another regulatory system.

The government has now made a prerequisite for NGOs to obtain NOC from the Economic Affairs Division and Social Welfare Department if they wanted to work in AJK. Meanwhile, all NGOs who are funded through local donations are also required to obtain permission from the Social Welfare Department and Deputy Commissioners of the relevant districts to start or continue their activities.

The Role of the Federal Government Agencies

The Economic Affairs Division has recommended a cloddish process to apply for NOC.  In fact, the majority of local NGOs have little capacity and skills to cope with this criterion. . Especially the organizations working at community-level or village-level do not have the capacity and resources to maintain a standard record of their activities, finances, and other matters.

It is hard for those CSOs to pay and maintain TAX records, conduct an annual audit,s and to prepare monthly quarterly, and annual progress reports of the last few years. Hence, these specifications made by the concerned authorities have made it very challenging and hard for the NGOs and CSOs to remain functional in the region.

Additionally, The Economic Affairs Division clearly forbids work in the areas of advocacy, survey, and research. It stated: INGOs shall not take part or assist in any kind of political activities, conduct research or surveys unrelated to their TORs.

Shutting the doors for civil society

Hence, due to the restrictions and limited space for work in AJK, most of the NGOs have rolled back their projects and activities. Many donors have canceled their ongoing projects, funding agreements, and MoUs with the local organizations for not being able to obtain NOC from authorities.

As a result, more than five unfinished projects were suspended while several funding agreements were canceled and millions of funds were shifted to other areas of Pakistan or abroad. Hundreds of people working for local NGOs have lost their jobs and are currently unemployed.

Surprisingly, none of the religious charities, whether they were collecting donations locally or receiving foreign aid, have applied to obtain NOC from any of the Government body including NOG Monitoring and Regulatory Cell, and Economic Affairs Division but they are still working in the region without any interruption from the authorities.

Since the beginning of the process, a one-sided and security–cantered approach was adapted to shrink NGOs’ space in the region. A Government circular states, “NGOs are working on different projects in different locations without any check and balance mechanism. Most of these projects are neither of public interest nor state interest and contain the hidden agenda of the NGOs.

Major Issues and Challenges

NGOs Monitoring and Regulatory Cell seems not to be capable enough and empowered to deal with the situation. It doesn’t have any specialized officer who could understand the different types of NGOs, CSOs, and Think Tanks, and to strategize how to regulate different types of organizations. As a result, the Government is trying to deal with and judge all NGOs through a single yardstick and expecting all organizations to act alike according to the authorities’ directions. Over the period of two and a half years, the Government has not been able to devise a transparent and time-bound strategy to issue NOC to NGOs to enable them to carry on their activities in the region. The lengthy verification process and frequent changes in the strategies have created huge confusion and ambiguities in the process. As a result, national NGOs now avoid heading AJK even if they have funding available for certain projects. Therefore, donor agencies have started excluding AJK from the list of target areas of their projects even when the funding is available. The NGOs raise issues of public interest; emphasize the supremacy of merit and transparency in the governance. Therefore, NGOs who are engaged in advocacy work or are trying to empower communities to conduct social work are the ones most unwelcomed in AJK. It was also noted that the Donors (INGOs) are not allowed to visit AJK even to monitor their funded projects which curtailed the efficiency and effectiveness of the CSOs. It also prevents international organizations and donors to work with the CSOs of AJK.

The Conclusion and Recommendations

The NGOs, working in Azad Kashmir, are of the view that most of the actions taken by the Government are politically-motivated and meant to clip the civil society’s voice through increased bureaucratic control over the NGO sector. The new regulatory system ostensibly insists on good governance, transparency, empowerment of marginalized segments of the society, particularly women and youth but in reality, it is the mockery of the civil society sector.

The AJK’s image as a politically empowered region can only be enhanced when it is open for public scrutiny, promotes best democratic practices, and allows civil society organizations to work independently and without fear of state coercion. During a survey conducted by the author, the representatives of civil society organizations emphasized on structural, infrastructural, and behavioral changes in the government departments and their officials dealing with CSOs in AJK.

The Civil Society Sector asked the government to simplify the verification and NOC issuance. They also recommended that the NOC process should be localized and it should not be referred to the federal government at least up to a certain limit of funding.

The district administration of the relevant district should issue the NOC for the projects involving funding below that limit.

There should be an NGO monitoring and regulatory cell under the Prime Minister’s office which should establish a centralized online database of all NGOs.

The government officers, engaged in the verification of NGOs and issuance of NOC process, need capacity building training to understand the dynamics, dimensions, and functions of civil societies and CSOs, especially with reference to the Jammu and Kashmir conflict.

The government should enhance the capacity of the relevant department and officials besides providing them with the required infrastructure as well as human and financial resources.

There should be a joint forum of the AJK Government, CSOs, and development professionals where all mutual issues could be discussed and resolved. This forum should hold meetings on a monthly or quarterly basis to evaluate the performance of the CSOs and to discuss their issues and challenges as well as the priorities of the AJK Government.

The author’s introduction

Jalaluddin Mughal is a bi-lingual investigative journalist, storyteller, and peace activist. He hails from Neelum Valley, a conflict-ridden area of the Kashmir region, and has been involved in peacebuilding activities for more than 15 years now. Jalal is among the founder members of the Press for Peace. He has contributed to several research studies about socio-economic and security challenges for youth across the region. Jalal is a frequent contributor to several regional print and online publications. His work appears in The New York Times,  Dawn, The Rising Kashmir, The Friday Times, Independent Urdu, and other Urdu and English publications. He writes about civil rights in the conflict zone. He tweets on his account, @jalalmughal, and can be reached at jalaluddin.mughal@gmail.com

From the editor: this article is an abridged version of a briefing paper. Some details and academic references have been removed for the purpose of clarity.