Seeing red over green

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‘Five-star’ activist? Greenpeace India campaigner Priya Pillai with Adivasi women
‘Five-star’ activist? Greenpeace India campaigner Priya Pillai with Adivasi women, Photos: Sudhanshu Malhotra/Greenpeace India

The rather frenzied and strangely selective targeting of certain non-governmental organisations (NGOs) reached a crescendo when the Narendra Modi establishment debarred Greenpeace India from accepting foreign funds, alleging that the NGO has “prejudicially affected the economic development of the (Indian) State”. The government froze the bank accounts of Greenpeace, cancelled its registration under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) and issued it a show-cause notice.

This story is not new: From 1976, when the FCRA was first introduced, to now, many amended forms later, controversy and ambiguity have been a regular feature. The NGOs and the Central government have been at loggerheads ever since NDA-II under Modi took charge in May 2014. The NGOs have been at the receiving end of this tussle, especially after a leaked Intelligence Bureau (IB) report alleged that such organisations place hurdles in the path of the country’s development.

Many believe that the action against Greenpeace comes after the Delhi High Court slammed the government for not allowing activist Priya Pillai to travel to the UK. Social activist and anti-nuclear campaigner Praful Bidwai calls the government move “an attack on democracy”. “It was obviously very vindictive,” Bidwai tells Tehelka. “What the government is doing is guided by a very vengeful motive — maligning and punishing a perfectly legitimate organisation that has broken no laws. Some of this is based on the IB report, which itself is extremely suspicious. The Delhi High Court turned down the government’s plea in two cases related to Greenpeace. Yet, the government continues to hound the organisation. I think the only intention is to harass its activists.”

Elaborating on what could be the motive behind the government’s actions, Bidwai says, “Greenpeace is among the leading campaigners in the country against coal mining. Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel. The government is targeting precisely those NGOs that have been active on the coal front. By its actions, the government has made it clear that it will not tolerate any dissenting opinion on the issue. That is a dangerous message.”

Successive governments have found the FCRA handy as a tool to suppress the voices of dissent emanating from civil society. During its decade-long regime, the UPA government led by the Congress had also clamped down on civil society using the FCRA. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had also stated then that NGOs were not “appreciative of the developmental challenges that the country face”. By blaming civil society for stalling the development of the country, both the UPAand NDA regimes have tried to scuttle the right to protest, which forms the bedrock of a functioning democracy.

John Dayal, a social activist for the past two decades, tells Tehelka that this phase is even worse than the days of the Emergency. “The only difference is that they used to arrest the dissenters then. What is happening now is more terrible in a sense and reeks of fascism,” says Dayal. “They are hounding NGOs and activists, including me, by using the IB and other means. The ruling party is orchestrating hate campaigns against us on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms. They also threaten any individual or group that comes forward to support us. Democracy is under threat because of all this.”

Even as the government and its agencies hound civil society groups, the truth is that both the principal national parties — the BJP and the Congress — have been violating the law with impunity. In fact, the BJP, which has relentlessly raised questions on the legitimacy of Greenpeace and other NGOs by pointing fingers at their foreign funding, has been held guilty of FCRA violations by the Delhi High Court. In a landmark judgment in 2014, the court found the Congress and the BJP guilty of accepting foreign funds and violating provisions of the FCRA and the Representation of the People Act (RPA). The pil was filed by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a New Delhi-based civil society organisation, and the judgment was a major embarrassment to both the major parties of the country.

During the 2003-04 to 2011-12 period, while the Congress accepted over 10 crore from foreign companies, the BJP pocketed around 18 crore from overseas sources. The donations were made either directly by foreign companies or through electoral trusts formed by them.

The Section 3 of the FCRA states that political parties are not permitted to ­accept contributions from foreign companies or their subsidiaries in India. According to Section 2(1)(g)(ii), even the Indian subsidiary is to be treated as a foreign source. Similarly, Section 29B of the RPA bars political parties from taking donations from foreign sources or public sector companies.

The most generous donor to both the parties was the London-based Vedanta Resources, one of the largest natural resources companies in the world. Sterlite Industries (India) Ltd and Sesa Goa Ltd — both subsidiaries of the Vedanta group — together donated around 8 crore to the Congress between 2004 and 2012. Vedanta Group owns 58 percent shares in Sterlite, India’s largest diversified mining and mineral company, and 55.1 percent in Sesa Goa, India’s largest producer and exporter of iron ore.

Similarly, the BJP got over Rs 14 crore from the Public and Political Awareness Trust of Vedanta, Rs 3.5 crore from Vedanta Madras Aluminium Ltd and around Rs 2 crore from Sesa Goa Ltd during the same period.

In its annual report of 2012, the Vedanta group admitted that it had made donations to political parties in India. “During the year 2012, the group made political donations in India of US$2.1 million either through a Trust or directly in respect of Indian general elections. The board believes that supporting the political process in India will encourage and strengthen the democratic process,” reads the report.

In its petition, ADR had stated: “It is reasonable to infer that foreign companies which gave contribution to political parties have done so for quid pro quos. In addition to receiving undue favours, it might also involve violating other statutes relating to protection of environment and safeguarding the human rights.”

Who owns our forest? Adivasis stand up against great odds to save their habitat and livelihood
Who owns our forest? Adivasis stand up against great odds to save their habitat and livelihood

The bjp and the Congress had argued — unsuccessfully — before the court that Vedanta is owned by an Indian, so the funding was not from a foreign source.

An investigative report titled In Bad Faith by the London-based South Asia Watch revealed that the front organisations of the BJP’s parent body, the RSS, had received millions of pounds from British citizens. The funds were raised by the Leicester-based registered charity Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) and its fund-raising arm Sewa International. HSS and Sewa International are the UK branches of the RSS. Their connection with the right-wing RSS was not made known to the donors, who had donated money in good faith for a humanitarian cause in India.

The track record of successive governments on the issue has ensured that there is no reliable estimate of the money flowing into the NGOs and the end use of the funds is shrouded in mystery. The money involved is so huge that it can be compared with a state government’s debt. According to a 2013 report, Delhi-based NGOs received foreign funds close to Rs 6,000 crore, followed by NGOs in Tamil Nadu that received Rs 4,800 crore. Among the various generously favoured ones, the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) had received Rs 11.5 crore from abroad. This was revealed when a probe was ordered two years ago. The donors included the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and the IMF

Sources in the government say that it is not easy to keep tabs on mega funding agencies such as the Ford Foundation. The Modi government, however, has promised speedy action against Ford Foundation, the International Development Research Centre, the Ikea Social Initiative and several other foreigndonor agencies.

The BJP  regime’s uncommon zeal on the issue coincided with the publication of a controversial tract — a collection of essays titled NGOs, Activists and Foreign Funds: Anti-Nation Industry — by political commentator Radha Rajan. The author accused some of the most active civil society organisations of “de-Hinduising India”, although she could not empirically establish it.

A 2013 report by the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights alleged that over Rs 1,000 crore of government funding was largely decided by bribes and political influence, and objective criteria are simply given the go-by. While it is necessary to closely look at the NGOs blacklisted by government agencies such as CAPART (Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology), which functions under the rural development ministry, scandalous facts such as more than 4,000 “missing” files on NGO should also be taken up.

However, it is important not to conflate genuine concerns over how NGOs utilise their funds with a defence of the witch-hunt being carried out against a particular type of civil society activism — one that questions the model of development being pursued by the government. As the world’s largest democracy, we cannot afford to be seen as a country where the government finds all contrarian views on progress unpalatable.

ankush.vats@tehelka.com

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