Changing the climate of apathy

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As Greenpeace completes 10 years in India, it chalks up its successes and faces some flak. Kunal Majumder looks at both sides of the story

WHEN GREENPEACE India listed 33 successful campaigns to celebrate its first decade in the country, the Copenhagen meet on climate change held two years ago was missing from that list. That’s because Minister of State for Rural Development Agatha Sangma was refused permission by the Prime Minister’s Office to be present on one of Greenpeace’s six ships, Arctic Sunrise, for an alternative summit. Reason? There is no precedent for Indian ministers to attend events of ‘foreign’ NGOs.

Thus the government struck where it hurt the most. Since its inception in 2001, Greenpeace India has been struggling to get rid of the ‘foreigner’ tag — it prefers the word ‘international’. It doubled efforts to ‘Indianise’ itself — releasing press notes in Hindi, with a Hindi logo. So where does it stand now?

When Greenpeace International asked environment campaigner and columnist Devinder Sharma to prepare a note on why its presence is required in India, his argument was it could bring in the kind of push that the entire movement on environment in India could do with. “We needed someone to make our presence felt on environmental issues,” he explains.

Indeed, in the last 10 years, Greenpeace India has been involved in some of the major environmental debates in the country — nuclear, genetically modified (GM) crop, Bt brinjal, e-waste, etc. Bringing in its expertise of campaigning and fundraising, Greenpeace India has managed to create a community of environmentally sensitive individuals in urban India.

Greenpeace does not accept donations or funding from corporates or government, so it reaches out to mostly young professionals and college students to raise funds.

Action replay corporate greed
Action replay corporate greed

Anti-GM crop activist Kavitha Kuruganti who collaborated with Greenpeace on the food campaign, says this outreach is a phenomenon in itself. “Most of the environmental struggles and movements so far have taken place in rural areas. Greenpeace made urban India rethink about environment, their own lifestyle and extend support to causes which are not immediate to them,” says Kuruganti.

Greenpeace’s unique campaigning style was evident in December 2006, when it raided the aircraft carrier Clemenceau carrying asbestos, which was to be sent to Alang in Gujarat for ship-breaking. The French president recalled the ship. A month earlier, fed up of the inaction of the Odisha government in preserving Olive Ridley turtles, the team hauled 30 dead turtles from the shores of Paradip to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s house in Delhi. The team was charged with transportation of wildlife and spent a week in Tihar Jail!

In spite of such activities, activists like Sharma and Nityanand Jayaraman feel Greenpeace India could have done much more. Sharma says he appreciates the work done by the NGO but says it hasn’t met his original expectations. Jayaraman, who has been part of many environmental campaigns, often on the same side as Greenpeace, says the organisation has matured but “old habits die hard”. He points to a recent incident in Gahirmatha, Odisha, where fisherfolk clashed with Greenpeace over a survey claiming that maximum number of fisherfolk in the area wanted an alternative livelihood and thus there should be a complete ban on fishing in the Gahirmatha Marine Wildlife Sanctuary. Various fishworkers’ organisations came out in protest. “We were asked a misleading question: whether we wanted an alternative livelihood. Currently, when we are already barred from fishing, we of course said we do,” says Pradip Chatterjee of the National Fishworkers’ Forum.

It is because of this tension between livelihoods and conservation that Jayaraman says, “The question is not if they have created impact. Even RSS and Bajrang Dal have impact. The question is whether their perspective is broad enough to include social justice as an inherent and integral part of environmental sustainability.”

Sharma too wonders who sets the agenda. “A lot of times I find their activities are not decided here.” He points towards the ‘ban the bulb’ campaign. “There are many more serious issues in India for them to take on,” he is convinced.

Greenpeace India Executive Director Samit Aich begs to differ. “We have an international heritage but our campaigning is absolutely focussed to the local context. We always come to the table with data, facts and a certain pragmatic approach. We tell the political class what the issues are. Last year, we were invited to be Parliamentary sub-committees on agriculture and nuclear liability.”

A HANDFUL OF observers, including a former member of the team who did not want to be named, says the main problem with the organisation is its structure. “Following its structure, Greenpeace in India refuses to showcase an individual as a leader and that does not work in a country that loves hero worship,” says the former member.

Jayaraman says instead of a leader, the Greenpeace brand is promoted. “There are a couple of plus points: they attract committed youngsters and source of funds is clean. But it becomes difficult to enter into partnerships with ground-level organisations,” he avers.

A case in point is activist V Pugazhenthi, with whom Greenpeace had joined hands to campaign against nuclear energy in Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu. “They promised a lot of things but never got back to me,” he says. But in Greenpeace’s defence, Kuruganti says, “I think grassroots and campaigning organisations have their own but different roles to play.”

Corporates are often at the receiving end of Greenpeace’s activities. In 2001, Greenpeace and a local environment group exposed Hindustan Lever for dumping mercury-bearing waste glass at a scrapyard in Kodaikanal. The company stopped manufacturing immediately and two years later exported all the waste to a recycler in the US. The company refuses to comment on Greenpeace’s role or approach to the issue but does acknowledge the role of activists in pointing out the problem.

In 2010, Greenpeace was sued for use of the Tatas’ logo in a spoof computer game highlighting the threat to turtles by a port built by the company. Greenpeace called it an attempt to divert attention from the real issue. Tatas refused any comments due to the matter being sub-judice.

The NGO’s most recent targets have been companies such as Monsanto, Mahyco and Dow that are promoting GM crops. Ram Kaundinya, chairman of ABLE-AG, an association of bio-technology companies, says Greenpeace’s campaign against GM is “motivated by concerns other than science and safety”. He says the NGO lacks any scientific credibility and exploits lack of awareness among people on biotech crops to infuse a sense of fear and insecurity. But Aich, of Greenpeace India, says they work with facts, and consider the moratorium on Bt brinjal as a major achievement.

“Many may not appreciate or like what we do. But it is not about liking or not liking. It is about saving our planet. We have only one,” says Aich. He is satisfied that India is now playing a huge role internationally on environmental issues.

Kunal Majumder is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka. 
[email protected]

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