Gates Foundation award to Modi will demoralise India’s civil society, say South Asians in US Image Credit: Image Credit: Pankaj Sharma/Gulf News

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is facing criticism from prominent South Asian lawyers, human rights activists and philanthropists in the US after it announced that it would honour Indian Prime Minister with an award later this month.

The Global Goalkeeper award recognises Narendra Modi’s flagship (Swachh Bharat) Clean India programme, through which the government has built millions of toilets and publicised the benefits of sanitation and hygiene.

According to a report by The Guardian: “The award comes amid growing criticism of the disenfranchisement, detention and deportation of Muslims in Assam and Kashmir. Alleged human rights violations in the two states under the governing Bharatiya Janata party have made front pages around the world."

In an open letter on Tuesday, the group of South Asians claimed that under Modi’s leadership, religious minorities were facing “heightened levels of violence, exclusion, and discrimination”. They said the organisation’s decision contradicted its own stated mission of seeing “equal value in all lives”.

“For over a month now, PM Modi has placed 8 million people in Jammu and Kashmir under house arrest, blocked communications and media coverage to the outside world, detained thousands of people including children, and denied basic benefits. Reports of torture, including beatings and the murder of a young child by Indian security officers, are emerging as well,” said the letter.

The award will be the latest addition to Modi’s growing haul of prestigious international prizes.

Last year, the UN gave Modi the Champions of the Earth award, in spite of objections that his government has not only green lit projects that threaten to cause huge deforestation, but also allowed India’s capital, New Delhi, to become one of the most polluted cities on Earth.

While Modi’s government has said that the scheme has provided 90% of Indians with access to clean toilets. Press reports which closely studied the programme suggest that many of the newly-built toilets remain unused because of poor access to water and caste rules that restrict many people from cleaning them.

The Gates Foundation said in a statement that Modi was being recognised for “the progress India is making in improving sanitation, as part of its drive toward achievement of the UN sustainable development goals”.

“Globally, sanitation-related diseases kill nearly 500,000 children under the age of five every year,” said the statement.

"Before the Swachh Bharat mission, over 500 million people in India did not have access to safe sanitation, and now, the majority do. There is still a long way to go, but the impacts of access to sanitation in India are already being realised. The Swachh Bharat mission can serve as a model for other countries around the world that urgently need to improve access to sanitation for the world’s poorest," said the statement.