If you ever wondered why the Indian government has been skeptical about non-governmental organizations, you don’t have to beyond this story to clear your doubt. The facts are in black and white.
This is not an effort to paint all NGOs black. Some have done and continue to do remarkable work in their area of proficiency, be it health, education, conservation. But there is one particular NGO that has constantly been in the news for the good and wrong reasons.
You must have certainly read or heard about Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS), the brainchild of Dr Ullas Karanth, a wildlife biologist. Ullas Karanth is a tiger specialist who has done laudable work. He was the first to radio collar tigers in India, specifically Karnataka.
It is a different story that the Karnataka government banned him from radio collaring tigers, after eight felines died in the process of understanding the nuance of radio-telemetry. Despite his uncanny ability to lobby with the political establishment, Ullas Karanth has had regular run-ins with the Karnataka Forest Department (KFD). They stare daggers at each other!
KFD had raised a clamor when it stumbled upon documents relating to CWS’ funding. The expose irrevocably damaged Ullas Karanth’s reputation. There has always been a niggling doubt about his genuine intent, a reason why many conservationists don’t see eye to eye with him.
The files that have appended with this story augment this suspicion. As you read through, you will understand that CWS was given complete customs exemption when Wildlife Conservation Society (New York) gifted a Mitsubishi Pajero to the Bangalore-based NGO.
The adhoc exemption, made under special provision by the ministry of finance, was valid until 31st January 1999. The conditions laid out clearly specify that the vehicle “shall be used only for the purpose for which it was imported.”
It also implies that “the vehicle cannot be sold, disposed of, gifted, loaned or parted away except as stated above without prior permission of the Department of Revenue, Ministry of Finance, New Delhi.
An undertaking to this effect was given by the importer before the commissioner of customs concerned at the time of clearance of goods. “In the event of any default detected subsequent to the import, full duty will be leviable and penal action taken as per law.”
Contrary to the clauses drafted by the Ministry of Finance, Revenue Department (30th July 1998), Karanth has succeeded in transferring the vehicle to his personal name from Centre for Wildlife Studies.
Interestingly, Ullas Karanth, as managing trustee of CWS, has himself transferred the vehicle into his name. Intriguingly, the address provided by the CWS managing trustee and the beneficiary (Ullas Karanth) is the same. Perhaps, the RTO did the transfers without going through the documents of the imported vehicle.
Did the government give Ullas Karanth permission to transfer the customs duty-wavered imported vehicle in his name?
If Karanth has been given special exemption by the government to import and then transfer the vehicle in his name, then it has to give the same benefit to trustees of all other NGOs. If the government has not ceded clearance for such a transfer, then it has to take action.