If PHFI’s FCRA renewal cancelled, it signals victory for Big Tobacco

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For one, over decades, government policy, including the sharp hike in taxes each year, has been geared towards discouraging tobacco—penalising PHFI, PPI. (Reuters)

If the home ministry has indeed cancelled Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) FCRA renewal—this is critical to get foreign donations from charities such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—for lobbying the media, parliamentarians and the government on tobacco control, it is strange. For one, over decades, government policy, including the sharp hike in taxes each year, has been geared towards discouraging tobacco—penalising PHFI, a public-private-partnership (PPP) in the health space launched by Manmohan Singh when he was prime minister, is then laced with irony. PHFI is an integral part of most government programmes such as on tobacco control as well as AIDS control, and even has the secretary of the health and family welfare ministry on its governing body and executive committee for this reason.

After research, PHFI’s job includes training of government officials so that various aspects of the law such as on anti-tobacco can be implemented, on creating a cadre of public health officials, etc. Sensitising MPs and the media, naturally, is part of this larger outreach programme. While the government has not made its charges public, it is likely the outreach work is being confused with lobbying which, in the strictest sense, implies making campaign and other donations to MPs and the media to get them to either legislate or write in favour of the issues PHFI stands for.

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If indeed such a charge is being made, this needs to be clearly stated, and proved—it is not just illegal under FCRA, it is illegal under other laws as well. If, however, the government is saying even an outreach programme is illegal, it should keep in mind various government departments including DONER—which funds PHFI for work in the north-east—have such awareness and outreach campaigns.

Other charges, such as payments to BBC World Services Trust also look odd—but are easily verified—since the organisation is known for making educational videos. While giving anyone a fair hearing is part of natural justice—and PHFI, as a PPP, is an integral part of the government system—this will also help clear the air over whether it was targeted over its anti-tobacco work or, as rumour has it, as part of a larger campaign against foreign donors.