The media was abuzz with conspiracy theories yesterday (11 June) after The Indian Express published two stories on two consecutive days quoting Intelligence Bureau (IB) reports which had flagged the role of non-government organisations (NGOs) in halting several development projects.
Among other things, the IB report mentioned Greenpeace as a key player in this anti-development agenda, accusing it of using popular agitations to “change the dynamics of India’s energy mix”. Greenpeace, says the report, has launched “massive efforts to take down India’s coal-fired power plants and coal mining activity”. More ominously, it said Greenpeace would target the Indian IT industry on the growing menace of e-waste.
Thanks to the sensational nature of the IB’s conclusions, the TV channels held even more angry debates on the subject – shedding more heat than light.
It’s time to step back and take a deep breath.
First, IB reports are an input to the government, not settled facts. They may bring a “fact” to the government’s notice, but their reports do not constitute a call to action. So scare stories on how the Modi government will clamp down on NGOs and dissent are premature — to say the least.
Second, all governments are suspicious of NGOs leading protests against big projects. In the wake of the Kudankulam anti-nuclear plant protests, as Firstpost noted at that time, the Manmohan Singh government got the “licences of suspected NGOs cancelled, investigations ordered into their activities and a German national traced and deported.” So this is not about the Modi government, which wants to revive investments, wanting to hold a whip to NGOs.
Third, development is not tripped only by single-issue NGOs that want to oppose greenhouse gases or big dams or save forest lands for tribals. Politicians, too, are part of the process. Take the case of Mamata Banerjee, who stopped the Tata Singur project. In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena, the BJP’s oldest ally, is stoutly opposed to the Jaitapur nuclear project. And then we had Rahul Gandhi, who stopped the Sterlite project in Odisha and told the tribals there: “I am your soldier in Delhi.” Adversarial politics and political grandstanding are other retardants to development projects. The Aam Aadmi Party went out of it way to rope in the anti-Kudankulam protestors into its growth plans.
Fourth, wrong policies can also be anti-development. For example, administered pricing in petro-fuels has hampered the discovery of new oil and gas fields and stalled production. The Land Acquisition Act of 2013, which makes it even more tiresome to put up new projects, is probably the single most important policy-driven deterrent to development today (Read all about it here). Some aspects of the law clearly will have to be changed if growth is to revive.
However, one thing about the IB report is important: the foreign funding received by various NGOs needs to be monitored for the simple reason that we can never know when money comes in with an agenda. It may also be a good idea to restrict such fund flows. After all, if thinking green is good, Indians should equally be keen to fund such protests. By seeking foreign funding, we cannot know when protests are being orchestrated for collateral interests.
For example, the US political lobby would be happy to slow down our IT industry which is taking away some of their lower-paying jobs. Australia and Indonesia would be happy if our coal production is down, since they can then export more to us. The US nuclear industry would be happy to us slow down here in order to wangle concessions on the nuclear liability bill. Moreover, ever since we signed the Indo-US nuclear deal, it is not the US, but France and others who benefited from this.
Moreover, the development versus ecology needs a different script here. The west can afford to be more eco-friendly at this stage in their development – where their populations are shrinking and their energy needs flat. Imposing their ecology standards on us without accounting for our needs and demographic imperatives can have negative consequences on the social front: if no jobs and livelihoods are created, we are going to see social chaos. It suits Naxals and Naxal-linked NGOs to stop development because social chaos is vital to their ability to gain power. If society breaks down, the Naxals will get a walkover.
In other areas, the anti-GM crops lobby — most of it based in Europe — has been instrumental in slowing down our agricultural progress. If we have to create a supply side revolution in various crops and bring down food inflation, GM crops are unavoidable. More so when we have to grow more food on less land — as more land is given up for industrialisation and urbanisation. True, we need safeguards for our farmers, but we can’t simply bottle up all progress under pressure from well-funded NGOs.
The real problem with NGOs is something else: they tend to have a one-dimensional view on development and are largely one-issue belligerents. In this, they are just like corporate lobbies. If the latter sometimes prefer to pursue profits at the cost of people, the green NGOs are headstrong about pursuing esoteric goals to the exclusion of development.
There are vested interests clearly on both sides. It is pointless to pretend that NGOs are the problem, or that they are not. They are both.
The way forward is for government, corporates and NGOs to sit together and work out compromises in specific development projects. If trees have to be cut, ways have to be found for genuine compensatory afforestation. The NGOs cannot say all forests have to stay as they are, or that no GM crops, Full stop.
It is only if NGOs refuse compromise that one should consider them anti-development.
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Updated Date: Jun 12, 2014 17:50:47 IST