Monday, February 16, 2015

Checking dissent

This piece came in Himalmag, a Nepal based journal on February 16, 2015

Web link: http://himalmag.com/checking-dissent/

In September 2006, during the release of NGOs, Activists & Foreign Funds: Anti-Nation Industry, edited by Radha Rajan and Krishen Kakbook, the then-Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi criticised the “wealthy” and “influential” class of NGOs, accusing them of hiring public-relations (PR) firms to build their image with money coming from abroad. The leaked Intelligence Bureau (IB) report submitted to the Prime Minister’s Office in June last year echoed that sentiment quite closely. In an almost word-to-word rendition of some portions of the speech, which was included in the second edition of the book, the IB report went on to add, “in some cases it is observed that in a cyclical process, an NGO is set up, funds are obtained from abroad, a few articles are commissioned, a PR firm is recruited and, slowly, with the help of the media an image is created. And then awards are procured from foreign countries to enhance the image, after which Government machinery finds it more difficult to act against the awardee.”
The 21-page classified report, titled ‘NGO activism against development projects in India’, generated considerable debate in the civil society and media. The conclusion of the report was clear enough: “A significant number of Indian NGOs (funded by some donors based in US, UK, Germany or the Netherlands) have been noticed to be using people centric issues to create and environment, which lends itself to stalling development projects.” Without much in the way of economic analysis, the report later added that activism against various projects, ranging from use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to mega industrial projects from Vedanta and POSCO, had negatively impacted the national GDP by 3 percent.
Activist groups condemned the report in unequivocal terms, arguing that it was essentially an attempt to intimidate the groups and muzzle dissent. The report had accused certain NGOs – like Greenpeace International, Action Aid, Amnesty International ­­– of using foreign funds and scuttling India’s economic development. Some thought that IB had overstepped its jurisdiction by focusing on ‘development’. Clearly, the IB report was promoting a certain model of development, one driven by extractive industries and GDP growth – a view that closely parallels the agenda of the current political dispensation.
The IB’s probe into foreign funding of NGOs started during the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) regime. In 2012, the UPA government had ordered a probe into the activities of the NGOs during the heightened protest against the Russian-built Kundankalam nuclear plant. Publicly citing the role of ‘foreign hands’ behind the protests, the then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “The atomic programme has run into difficulties because these NGOs, mostly I think based in United States, don’t appreciate the need for our country to increase energy supply.” In a similar vein, he noted the role of NGOs funded by the US and Scandinavian countries in opposing GM crops and food.
The submission of this report and its leak to the media is interestingly timed, as it occurred a month after Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office. Unsurprisingly, based on the report, the government started issuing notices to some NGOs, including one to Greenpeace asking why its permission to receive funds under FCRA (Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act) should not be withdrawn.
Undermining democracy
The leaked report is clearly aimed at reinforcing suspicion towards NGOs, and one way it tries to achieve this is by ignoring the deliberations of the legislature and the judiciary. In 2010, when the environment minister Jairam Ramesh imposed a moratorium on the field testing of Bt transgenic, a genetically modified breed of Brinjal, he added that the moratorium would continue “till such time independent scientific studies establish… the safety of the product from the point of view of its long-term impact on human health and environment.” Two years later, both the Parliamentary Standing Committee (2012) and the Technical Expert Committee (2012), appointed by the Supreme Court, went on to recommend a moratorium on all open-field testing of transgenic crops.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee in its 2012 report on ‘Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops – Prospects and Effects’ found that (in agreement with past findings of activists and journalists) Bt cotton cultivation had also contributed to farmers’ suicides. The standing committee members visited Vidarbha, Maharashtra, and found that despite the initial rise in production due to the use of Bt cotton seeds, small and marginal farmers eventually suffered losses due to the high input costs and yield loss. It also caused the wiping out of traditional local cotton varieties. These factors, combined with farmers’ debts, led to 7992 suicides in the region between 2006 and 2011. The committee also recommended the complete overhaul of the existing regulatory systems, which it noted had a pro-industry tilt.
But the report doesn’t engage with such findings or recommendations of these committees beyond casually inferring that the “NGOs were active facilitators of news articles… and social media activism, which contributed to the three-year old moratorium on Bt Brinjal and the ban/moratorium regimes” recommended by them. Along similar lines, the report uncritically assumes that the findings of the pro-GM lobby and the GM companies is accurate, without adequate explanation or verification. It ignores the specifics behind the death of hundreds of cattle after ingesting Bt cotton leaves in Warangal district in 2006 and 2007. However, the report mentions accusations made against anti-GM-food activists by Dr Ronald Herring of Cornell University, who has consistently taken a pro-GM position in the past. The report adds, “Pro-GM researchers, bio-tech companies and other filed enquiries have not been able to verify any such deaths, raising questions on the credibility and integrity of the reports generated by these activists.”
‘Foreign funding’
Another important concern for the IB report is the activism against projects of steel giant Pohang Steel Company (POSCO) and mining group Vedanta in Odisha. Ever since POSCO signed a USD 12 billion agreement with the Odisha government in 2005 for a steel plant which requires 2900 acres of forest land, there has been a popular grassroots movement against it. The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of MoEF, based on the works of the N C Saxena and Meena Gupta committee, appointed by the central government, had recommended a temporary withdrawal of clearances for the project. Despite this, and local protests, the project eventually got all the necessary clearances in 2011.
Not only this, central and state governments have unleashed police brutality on people peacefully protesting in Odisha. The criminalisation of dissent has been appalling: about 360 police cases have been clamped against 2500 people, including 500 women in the area. About 400 people have been arrested in last nine years of struggle, though courts eventually granted them bail. Several people have not ventured out of village for years now due to fear of arrest.
None of this is made clear in the IB report, however, which only looks at the funding of groups like Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF) and attempts to portray them as purveyors of foreign interest that attempt to “internationalize” cases of human-rights violations. Similarly, the report also names NGOs and activists who purportedly campaigned against the Vedanta alumina project in Lanjigarh, Odisha, and took the issue to international level. Here too several government and Supreme Court-appointed committees and commissions have pointed out that the mining of the area will not only destroy the unique flora and fauna of the Niyamgiri hills but also affect the lives and livelihood of the local Dongria Kondhs people. The expert committee headed by Dr N C Saxena made important observations in 2010 regarding the violation of environment protection acts and the Forest Rights Act. Based on the report the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), which is a statutory committee affiliated to the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF), recommended the withdrawal of all clearances given to Vedanta for mining in Niyamgiri. Eventually, MoEF withdrew the forest clearance given for mining the hill in 2010, a project worth USD 1.7 billion worth in FDI from the UK-based Vedanta group.
Yet the report ignores one of the most dubious areas of foreign funding: undisclosed donations to political parties. For instance, the Vedanta Company in its annual report in 2011-12 has admitted to have donated about USD 8.3 million to political parties in India since 2003-04. But it hasn’t disclosed the names of the recipient parties. In March 2014, the High Court of Delhi ruled that foreign funds received by Congress and BJP were illegal. Interestingly, this line of thought is completely absent from the report whose sole focus is in maligning NGOs for their ‘anti-developmental’ and ‘anti-national’ activities, without establishing either of these. Its antipathy towards foreign funding to NGOs is untenable but perfectly in line with the current government’s economic agenda. Evidently, the intelligence agency has been used by the government to make a case against the NGOs.
~Pradeep Baisakh is a journalist based in New Delhi.
- See more at: http://himalmag.com/checking-dissent/#sthash.EhvYoGfL.dpuf

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