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How the government is smothering dissident NGOs

June 20, 2014 18:10 IST

Muzzling NGOs is unbecoming of a democracy. Self-confident democracies encourage, indeed applaud, the involvement of citizens’ associations, including NGOs, in social and political decision-making and development planning. Instead, our paranoid government bullies and terrorises them, says Praful Bidwai.

A journalist isn’t generally expected to comment on news items in which s/he personally figures as an actor. But I’m compelled to do so in respect of a leaked report prepared by the Intelligence Bureau, which received wide coverage, and which names me as part of a conspiracy by ‘foreign-funded’ non-governmental organisations to ‘take down’ Indian development projects, set the country’s economy back, and halt this society’s forward march. 

The report, submitted on June 3, has impelled the Prime Minister’s Office to write to all the ministries asking for the details of the NGOs working with them. The IB has since written one more report, based on which the home ministry has initiated action against Greenpeace-India. One can only hope that this isn’t a prelude to a campaign to discredit NGOs and then muzzle and immobilise them, in order to ram through projects with harmful environmental and human consequences.

The report is essentially a figment of the IB’s paranoid imagination, which levels serious, indeed grave, allegations against numerous NGOs and individuals. But it’s based on cock-and-bull stories, flimsy evidence and wild speculation about the ‘subversive links’ of foreign-funded NGOs, especially those opposed to nuclear and coal-based projects and genetically modified crops.

The report’s basic premise is that the hundreds of Indian NGOs and tens of thousands of activists who oppose these out of conviction and passion have no mind or agency of their own; they need to be instigated by ‘the foreign hand’ which doesn’t want India to prosper.

The premise is fundamentally wrong. Nuclear power has become deeply unpopular globally and in India, particularly after Fukushima. The Indian government, no less, admits that burning fossil fuels like coal is the greatest driver of climate change, itself the gravest threat to humanity’s survival. Opposing nuclear power and coal while demanding a shift to renewable energy and energy conservation is the most sensible and sustainable pathway to India’s prosperity. 

Thus, ‘taking down’ projects which cause pollution, displacement, ill-health and environmental destruction would be eminently in the national interest! The report fantastically claims, without any supporting calculation, that NGO activities inflict a loss on the economy equivalent to two-three percent of India’s GDP, or a huge Rs 3 lakh crore.

However, a far more credible figure is available for the even greater loss wrought by environmental destruction and degradation. Even conservative sources like the World Bank estimate this at 5.7 percent of GDP. The Energy and Resources Institute, whose director R K Pachauri heads the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, estimates the loss at an even steeper seven to 10 percent of GDP, which is higher than India’s current growth rate!

So environmental NGOs perform a valuable public service by contributing to a reduction of this loss. Instead of recognising this, the IB report accuses them of forming ‘territorial networks’ in different states in league with ‘foreign-funded NGOs’; these in turn are controlled by ‘one superior network’ guided by international campaign groups like Greenpeace and ‘renowned activists’. It does not cite an iota of evidence in support of this convoluted conspiracy theory.

The report charges the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy, which has been campaigning against the Koodankulam nuclear power station, with illegally accepting foreign funding. But PMANE’s accounts were scrutinised by the income-tax authorities, who found no irregularities. Its convenor S P Udayakumar even put all its bank statements and other transactions on a website. These showed PMANE to be squeaky-clean.

The IB weaves another conspiracy theory. It says a German ‘contact’ (Hermann Rainer Sonntag) sent Udayakumar and four others an email with a map of India showing nuclear plant and uranium mining locations, and the contact details of 50 anti-nuclear activists, comprising ‘eminent persons including Praful Bidwai, Achin Vanaik, Admiral Ramdas (former navy chief), Medha Patkar…etc’.

Now, these maps are available on the websites of the Nuclear Power Corporation and Uranium Corporation of India. Udayakumar has known many of us well-established anti-nuclear activists for years and didn’t need to get our contact details from Sonntag, whom he denies is a ‘contact’ of his. Udayakumar also denies receiving the email in question. The IB gives no evidence that he’s wrong.

The Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, with which many of us -- me included -- are associated, was set up as a campaign organisation in 2000. It accepts no foreign, corporate or government funding. Greenpeace-India too is registered here and gets 61 percent of its funds from three lakh Indian supporters. The rest is subject to strict official scrutiny.

The IB report similarly makes colourful, wild, but unsubstantiated allegations against a number of other NGOs and activists who oppose rampant expansion of coal mining and coal-based power generation, other extractive industries, promotion of GM crops, destructive projects like POSCO and Vedanta Aluminium, and hare-brained schemes like the interlinking of rivers and the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor.

Going by the information and dates it contains, the IB report was evidently commissioned by the Manmohan Singh government, which made no secret of its antipathy towards the opponents of the Koodankulam nuclear plant and GM crops. Indeed, not just V Narayanasamy, minister of state in the PMO, but Dr Singh himself, repeatedly accused them of acting at the behest of Western interests, in particular, Scandinavian and US-based NGOs -- without providing a shred of evidence.

The Singh government summarily deported or refused visas to more than half-a-dozen foreign nationals, including Sonntag. But if it had evidence against Sonntag, it should have prosecuted him.

To please the new government, the IB sycophantically plagiarised a part of an anti-NGO speech that Narendra Modi made in 2006. For good measure, it also added the names of Gujarat-based NGOs protesting against Special Investment Regions and the Adani group’s power and port projects, and supporting groups working for the rights of Adivasis, cattle-herders and people who face submergence from canals.

Remarkably, the report fails to show that any of the NGOs named committed a single illegal act or breached norms applicable under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010. FCRA’s origins lie in the Emergency (1975-77), imposed by Indira Gandhi partly out of her paranoid belief that ‘certain foreign powers’ were out to destabilise her by instigating domestic political groups. FCRA originally banned funding for political parties, election candidates, trade unions, the media, etc. All applicants for a permit to receive foreign funding would have to be registered for at least three years and would be closely screened by the IB, no less.

Getting an FCRA permit has never been easy. The process usually takes a couple of years, if not longer. Only 39,000 out of India’s two million-plus NGOs have such permits. The permits were originally granted for an indefinite period. But in 2010, FCRA was amended and new rules were introduced. These restricted permits to five years and debarred groups from ‘political actions’.

Under Rule 3(vi), the government arrogated to itself the power to define such ‘actions’ and punish any group that ‘habitually indulges in bandhs, hartals, rasta roko, rail roko, or jail bharo.’ These are all non-violent and democratic forms of protest, which emerged from India’s freedom struggle, and are recognised around the world as legitimate. Banning such activities is self-evidently discriminatory.

This rule can be used against almost any organisation which supports rights-based mobilisations of women, landless farmers, Adivasis, Dalits, students, religious minorities, or people affected by industrial, mining and irrigation projects. By contrast, profit-making activities, even shady ones like the Saradha scam, are encouraged.

Having failed to find any grounds for legal, procedurally well-defined action against NGOs under FCRA, the IB has now resorted to spinning fairy-tales based on innuendoes, guilt by association, and imagined conspiracies. The report was deliberately leaked to malign and discredit NGOs.

This is linked to the government’s declared intention to fast-track industrial projects and placate big business by subverting environmental regulations. This reveals blatant double standards: opposition to NGOs, but reliance on imported reactors and plans for 100-percent FDI in defence production.

Besides, millions of dollars have been allowed to be poured into Sangh Parivar coffers by organisations like India Development and Relief Fund (US) and Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (UK).

Muzzling NGOs is unbecoming of a democracy. Self-confident democracies encourage, indeed applaud, the involvement of citizens’ associations, including NGOs, in social and political decision-making and development planning. Instead, our paranoid government bullies and terrorises them.

This raises serious issues about the IB’s status and role. It was set up in the colonial period to serve the imperial government, without a clear legal framework or a charter of duties. After Independence, it continued to maintain close links with its British parent, the MI5. Recently released documents show that the IB’s first director cooperated with the MI5 to spy on V K Krishna Menon, India's High Commissioner to the UK.

The IB has been abused by successive Indian governments to further their narrow political agendas. This must end. The IB should be brought under parliamentary supervision in keeping with the practice in more accountable democracies. Its restructuring brooks no delay.

Praful Bidwai