736 Sangh Parivar NGOs qualified for government funds, subsidised rations during the COVID-19 lockdown

Members of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh distribute ration in Lucknow, in Uttar Pradesh, during the lockdown to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic. The RSS has a documented history of mobilising its volunteers for relief interventions during disasters, as a means of sewa, or service. According to the Sangh’s literature, sewa is essential for “nation building,” as it would generate goodwill and acceptability for its foundational aim—the establishment of the Hindu Rashtra. Pramod Adhikari
10 July, 2020

As of 13 May, at least 736 NGOs affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh featured among a list of organisations enlisted by the central government for relief interventions during the ongoing lockdown to control the novel coronavirus pandemic. All these entities come under the umbrella of the Rashtriya Sewa Bharati, which is a registered trust, and works in the fields of education, health and “self-reliance,” according to its website. The RSB’s NGOs are among the 94,662 NGOs which are working as “COVID warriors” with district administrations across the country since the first week of April, and are being monitored by a group of bureaucrats, constituted by the home secretary. Owing to this enlistment, the RSB’s NGOs became entitled to funds from the State Disaster Relief Fund, or SDRF—set up under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 for states to use during a crisis—and for buying subsidised foodgrains from the Food Corporation of India, a central government body.

In an ongoing series, The Caravan tracked the RSS’s relief interventions since the beginning of the lockdown. As demonstrated in the first report, the Sangh, a three-time banned organisation, employs disaster-relief interventions, such as the ongoing pandemic, to gain influence and acceptability for its foundational aspiration—the formation of the Hindu Rashtra. Consequently, the RSB’s organisations’ use of government funds and resources to carry out relief work is significant because the RSS has never publicly acknowledged financial support from any government for its disaster-relief work.

As of 2014, the RSB’s roster included 57,000 social and economic projects which were being executed by at least 928 NGOs registered under its domain. All these organisations are listed on the RSB’s website. The central government’s list of enlisted NGOs is collated on a portal called NGO-Darpan, run by the Niti Aayog, the central government’s planning body. The RSB’s website claims that all its organisations are voluntary and independent, and it is only ideologically attached to the RSS. However, the RSB’s own five-yearly report, last published in 2014, has a section by Bhaiyyaji Joshi, the RSS’s sarkaryawaah, or second in command. Joshi wrote that these sewa bharati units “are independent but being supported and inspired by RSS.” He further noted, “The workers of these organisations are connected with the local RSS pattern … None of the service programmes work with RSS banners though these works are directed by swayamsevaks.” Senior members of the RSB’s organisational hierarchy have held similarly high positions in the Sangh, too.

According to Sankar Das, a bauddhik pramukh—intellectual head—of Assam, the Sangh has “46 national platforms,” which include the RSS’s labour wing, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh and the student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad, among others. It should be noted that there seems to be no consensus among scholars as to the exact number of organisations which come under the ambit of the Sangh. Since the Sangh is neither a registered organisation nor does it pay taxes, this has helped it avoid scrutiny of its finances and those of its affiliates, collectively referred to as the Sangh Parivar. Instead, the mythos of the Sangh is based on its voluntary nature—the RSS’s own literature and outreach has meticulously created and projected an image of an organisation that is “self-reliant” and does not take money from external sources. An oft-repeated refrain is that the RSS raises its money from voluntary members, called swayamsevaks, in the form of a donation known as “gurudakshina”—a gift given to honour a guru.

I spoke to around two dozen RSS members, including those associated with the RSB, from 11 states. Speaking about the Sangh’s funding, one of the RSB’s members gave me a response that the rest of them echoed: “Khud se kartey hain ya kabhi kabhi samaj ke logon se madad mil jati haiWe do it ourselves or sometimes we get help from people in the society. There was no mention of any funding from the government.

In addition, the RSB’s website offers its NGOs to private corporations as “avenues” to spend their CSR funds. In fact, a week into the second phase of the lockdown, the Niti Aayog had “urged” private companies to consider the NGOs registered on the NGO-Darpan portal for their CSR spending. Under the existing law, a private corporation has to spend two percent of its profit on social projects, either through its own non-profit foundation or independently registered non-profit organisations. Earlier, on 23 March, the ministry of corporate affairs had allowed spending on COVID-related activities to be counted as CSR. Consequently, all of the NGOs on the Niti Aayog portal, including the RSB’s, qualified for these CSR funds.

According to a notification by the ministry of home affairs, the decision to engage NGOs and support them with government resources and money was formulated four days after the lockdown began on 25 March. The lockdown, enforced without any assurances on food, wage and shelter security, forced thousands of migrant workers living in the cities to return to their homes on foot, and severely impacted the most vulnerable segments of Indian society. By 28 March, at least 12 lakh migrants were grounded at various state borders after the ministry of home affairs ordered the director generals of police of all states to stop all movement of migrants. On 29 March, to deal with the situation, the government formed 11 “empowered groups” headed by bureaucrats attached to the central government to prepare a “well planned and coordinated emergency response” system against the outbreak. One of the empowered groups, EG 6, was headed by Amitabh Kant, the chief executive officer of Niti Aayog. The mandate of the group was “coordinating with the private sector, NGOs and international organisations for response related activities.”

The EG 6’s first meeting, on 5 April, was chaired by Kant, and the subsequent press release said, “CEO NITI Aayog has written to over 92000 NGOs/ CSOs registered on the Darpan portal of NITI Aayog, appealing them to assist the government.” The assistance sought was wide-ranging and included delivery of essential services to vulnerable populations, awareness drives, and community kitchens, among others. The notice also said that Kant had written to “all Chief Secretaries urging them to instruct the local administration at the district level to utilise the physical and human resources made available by NGOs and CSOs.”

Five days later, the prime minister Narendra Modi chaired a review meeting of all the empowered groups, which was also attended by the national security advisor, Ajit Doval, and the principal secretary, PK Mishra. According to the update on Modi’s website, Mishra had suggested that “coordination with NGOs at district level be done to avoid overlaps and ensure efficacious utilization of resources.”

A day after Modi’s review, on 11 April, the Food Corporation of India, which comes under the ministry of consumer affairs, food and public distribution, released a circular on supplying foodgrains to NGOs. The notice stated that “in view of the extraordinary situation … it has been decided that as an one time measure, charitable/non-governmental organizations running relief camps/providing food to needy people may be provided foodgrain … without the need for registration/empanelment with FCI or the need to participate in e-auction.”

Two weeks later, on 25 April, a group of ministers, the highest executive body set up by Modi to monitor the administration’s response system, also held its review meeting. This GoM was formed on 3 February, and was headed by Harsh Vardhan, the union minister for health and family welfare. According to a press release, Kant told the GoM, “These NGOs are supported by the States by allotting funds from SDRF funds and by FCI who is providing the foodgrains at subsidized cost.”

The very next day, Akhilesh Yadav, the president of the Samajwadi Party and a former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, accused the RSS of receiving food from the government but distributing it as its own relief material. “BJP governments are doing politics instead of working honestly. There is no difference between community kitchen and the storage of RSS in the state. The RSS is claiming the food items received from voluntary organisations and government institutions as its own and then distributing them in the Modi bag to some BJP families.” Yadav is one of the few senior politicians who have publicly criticised the RSS’s relief work during the lockdown. When I posed this allegation to Ramashish Singh, an RSS pracharak—full-time member—based out of Varanasi, he evaded it. He is also a member of the Prajna Pravah, a Sangh affiliate that describes its mission as “incorporating the theme of nationalism in spiritual terms.” Instead, Ramashish told me, “What credibility or legitimacy does Akhilesh Yadav have?”

However, a senior central tax official, who chose to remain anonymous, told me that even though the RSB organisations can recruit volunteers of their choice, including swayamsevaks, to execute their COVID-related programmes and their regular social projects, one cannot rule out the possibility that the government funds given to sewa bharati units were used by the RSS. The RSB’s own annual report of 2014 categorically states that the sewa bharti’s projects are designed and supervised by local RSS administrators, and executed by swayamsevaks, among other members. 

On 4 May, Kant chaired another meeting of EG 6, which included details of the entire plan implemented by the group. A press release about the meeting said, “The EG 6 is monitoring and coordinating with NGO and CSO networks in all State / Union Territories and with 700 District Magistrates in the country on a real time basis to fight the spread of COVID-19. The mobilisation of these 92000 NGOs has resulted in commendable outcomes.” It had details of foodgrains and their prices, for NGOs to procure and distribute. According to the statement, the EG 6 had requested all the chief secretaries “to appoint State-level Nodal Officers to coordinate with all NGOs and resolve their issues apart from leveraging their resources and networks.”

Currently, there is no way to quantify the actual transaction of money between the SDRFs and the government-enlisted NGOs since the disbursals of SDRFs during the lockdown are not in the public domain. The data on the amount of subsidised food sold to these NGOs during the pandemic is also not public.

When I spoke to the national general secretary of the RSB, Shrawan Kumar, and asked him about the funds coming from the government, he denied taking any money from the administration. He said, “I do not know about SDRF.” Kumar said that “all our state units function independently. It’s possible that the state unit knows about it and they are doing it on their own, since all our units work independently.” He agreed that “yes, we got the FCI circular and we told all our state units to use this scheme.” In addition, Kumar said that while he himself had not enlisted the RSB’s NGOs with the government but “RSB is an umbrella organisation. Each state works at its own level. They keep doing things independently; maybe one of them did this.”

While Kumar denied any knowledge of SDRF, D Vijayan, the president of the Kerala unit of the RSB, told me that they had availed of both, the FCI’s subsidised foodgrains and the SDRF. He said “we are waiting for the [SDRF] funds” and had submitted the necessary documentation for the funds to be released to them.

Kumar also insisted that “we are a registered trust and follow all the legal requirements.” Since it is registered, as per the law, RSB units can raise funds from people and private corporations. Its website states: “In order to promote its CSR activities, the company needs to identify social entrepreneurs, self-help groups or an individual from an impact and influence area and support them by impact investment. Rashtriya Sewa Bharti is an impactful avenue for channelizing the corporate CSR resources.”

It should be noted here that in its 95-year history, the RSS has never registered itself. In September 2018, during an  address at the Vigyan Bhawan in the national capital, the RSS chief, or sarsanghchalak, Mohan Bhagwat, gave a rather convoluted reason for why the Sangh is not registered or does not pay taxes. “When the Sangh started, the government was not of independent Bharat. It was 1925. It started and went on like that,” he said. “After Independence also it went on like that. In all the laws after Independence, there was no such law that every organisation has to get itself registered. And by law, the Sangh has a status—Body of Individuals. As per this status, by law, we don’t have to pay tax.”

Irrespective of the lack of a money trail, it would not be amiss to say that the RSB and the RSS are conjoined at more than an ideological level. Rishipal Dadwal, the current vice-president of the RSB, is also a rashtriya sangathan mantri, or national organisational secretary, of the RSS. In February 2019, when the former Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh donated a part of his family property to the RSB, Dadwal was present during the registration of the property in Lucknow. Until 2018, Parag Abhyankar, the present sampark adhikari, or communication liaison of the Rashtriya Sewa Bharati, had been a prant pracharak –a full-time member who handles state-wide activities—for the RSS’s Malwa prant. The RSS’s state boundaries are different from the union map. An RSS publication titled, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh: Ek Parichay, says that as per the Sangh’s administrative divisions, India has 41 states and seven union territories. 

Kumar told me that his organisation implements social-welfare projects because it is in the “interest of the nation” and part of “Indian culture.” All the two dozen office-bearers of the RSS and the RSB that I spoke to used a similar vocabulary when questioned about the Sangh’s role during disasters. All of them invoked the concept of “sewa”—service—as an essential pillar of the “nation” and “nation-building.” Their notion of “nation” was unerringly conflated with being “Hindu.” Most of them studiously avoided any reference to fundraising for the RSB’s nine-hundred plus NGOs, insisting that “people from the society” chipped in with whatever money and resources they could.

The Caravan compared the database of NGOs enlisted by the government, which is available in the Niti Aayog-run portal, NGO-Darpan, with the list of organisations registered under the Rashtriya Sewa Bharti. The RSB’s website has the details of at least 928 NGOs. Duplication or repeating entries were eliminated by cross-matching emails and mobile numbers from the NGO-Darpan database. A total of 736 RSB’s organisations, spread across 25 states, were found on the Darpan database. Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Kerala accounted for the maximum number of RSB’s NGOs enlisted with the government.


This is the second report of a series on the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s relief interventions during the COVID-19 lockdown. You can read the first and third report, here and here, respectively.