Greenpeace vs Govt: Why NGO agendas and funding need a much deeper scrutiny

By Rupa Subramanya 

Last year, a much publicised leaked report by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) warned us that several NGOs, including Greenpeace India, were having a detrimental effect on India’s economic development. Writing on this last June, I had argued that the Indian authorities should scrutinise the activities and funding sources of such NGOs, given the likelihood that their activities may have a damaging effect on India’s economic prospects.

Since then, the government has blocked access to Greenpeace India’s foreign funding, a matter which is now still before the courts. And just recently, Greenpeace India activist Priya Pillai was offloaded from a flight bound to London where she was to make a case to British Parliamentarians that they should put pressure on London-registered Essar Energy to stop alleged environmental and human rights violation in their projects in Madhya Pradesh.

While the facts are still in dispute, it appears that Pillai was out on bail on a case still pending against her and a lookout circular was issued by the intelligence authorities. What is more, it is suggested that her air ticket was paid for by Greenpeace UK, which, if true, would be in violation of the law, as Greenpeace’s foreign funds at the moment are still frozen pending litigation.

 Greenpeace vs Govt: Why NGO agendas and funding need a much deeper scrutiny

Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai: ANI

The move to offload Ms. Pillai from her flight was widely criticised and likely didn’t accomplish too much since Pillai subsequently spoke to the MPs over Skype.

But the episode did highlight a larger question about the extent to which a government ought to be concerned about the detrimental effect on the nation’s economic well-being and security due to the militantly anti-development and pro-environment-at-any-cost stance of far left NGOs such as Greenpeace.

It should be noted that Greenpeace has fallen foul of governments elsewhere in the world.

India’s left wing intelligentsia will have you believe that it’s only authoritarian governments like China, Russia and, by inference, India who’ve clamped down on their activities. But in several thriving and mature democracies, such as Canada and New Zealand, Greenpeace at different points lost its charitable status because the governments of those countries deemed its activities to be political in nature and not really, or at least not principally, charitable.

At present, the Canadian tax authorities are once again auditing Greenpeace. In a 2008 report accessed in 2012, Canada’s intelligence agency Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS), very much like the IB, raised an alarm about the impact that “multi-issue extremists”, including Greenpeace, have on the nation’s “critical infrastructure” and that they may pose a threat to national security.

Canadian governments of all stripes, both Liberal and Conservative, have taken issue with Greenpeace’s activities. This is certainly ironic given Greenpeace originated in Vancouver, Canada, before spreading worldwide. It’s also ironic that the first time Greenpeace fell afoul of Canadian authorities for allegedly having a political agenda was under the Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Mulroney is widely considered Canada’s “Greenest Prime Minister” ever and certainly was no enemy in general of environmental groups.

In New Zealand, after revoking Greenpeace’s charity status in 2010 for having a political agenda, the country’s Supreme Court eventually determined, in August 2014, that it’s acceptable for a charity to also be politically engaged and restored Greenpeace’s charitable status. That reasoning is not likely to be echoed in other jurisdictions, which take a stricter view of what activities a charitable organisation may, and may not, engage in.

Even in the US, where much of the funding for these environmental groups originates, members of Congress, mostly Republican, have on more than one occasion raised similar concerns about the explicitly political agenda of well-funded and well-organised environmental and other far left NGOs. Greenpeace is no mom-and-pop, two-person NGO, but a multi-billion dollar enterprise with deep pockets and big operations in many countries around the world.

It looks like there’s a pattern here.

Of course, only in India will the left wing intelligentsia, which makes up the bulk of mainstream commentators, academics, journalists, etc, assert that Greenpeace and other NGOs are being harassed by the government and that their agenda and activities are all entirely legitimate and above board. But if Greenpeace’s activities have come into question in Canada, New Zealand and the US, to name just three countries, why do Indian commentators exclude it having a political agenda as a possibility in India?

After all, if you’re a Greenpeace activist like Pillai lobbying MPs of a foreign government on matters of domestic Indian policy, it’s hard to see how that can be described as anything other than political. Yet the mainstream commentariat have been almost uniformly on Pillai’s side in her dispute with the Indian authorities.

Bucking the trend, an editorial in Mint argued that it might well be legitimate for a government to curb an individual’s liberty, for example to travel abroad and make the case to members of a foreign government, to take a harder line on environmental issues in India.

There is perfectly legitimate ground to debate where the tradeoff between individual liberty and national security, including economic security, should be drawn. But to deny that such a tradeoff does exist as between liberty and any other aspect of the collective good, is intellectually dishonest.

Sure, for a libertarian purist even taxation is illegitimate because it constitutes theft. But few sensible classical liberals would take such an extreme view. All societies do curb individual liberty to some extent, whether it’s insisting that you pay your taxes in return for the goods and services the government provides, or insisting that you produce valid travel documents when you enter or leave the country.

Indeed, control over your borders is a defining feature of the modern nation-state. And for anyone who thinks it was an extreme measure for Indian authorities to offload Pillai, the United Kingdom uses anti-terrorism legislation, broadly defined to include the activities of environmental extremists. In 2009, a prominent British environmental activist was offloaded from a coach bound for Copenhagen using exactly this legislation. And what he was proposing to do was to take part in protests, presumably far more innocuous than lobbying foreign politicians.

While I do not myself think it was especially useful for the government to offload Priya Pillai, it is important to insist that the government of a sovereign nation such as India has the right to control the movements of people, including its own nationals, both in and out. Many people take the emigration check as you leave India to be a mere formality, but it is not. You could be offloaded for any number of reasons such as not paying your tax, or even having an old visa missing from your passport.

We’re distracted from the real issue by getting bogged down in the minute details of the Pillai case which remains murky and contested.

The real question is whether India has a right to be concerned about the potentially damaging effects that foreign-funded NGOs have on India’s development prospects.

The answer is most certainly yes. Governments are accountable to the people who elected them, but who exactly are the NGOs like Greenpeace accountable to?

So heavily reliant on foreign funding, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that an Indian NGO will do the bidding of its foreign parent and donor and, therefore, pursue an agenda that may not make sense from an Indian point of view.

While I would not go so far as to suggest that Indian NGOs be barred from receiving foreign funds, I do think it is crucial that any funds they receive are carefully scrutinised and the activities of the NGO also are put under the microscope to determine if funds that come under India’s Foreign Contribution Regulations Act actually are used as intended.

It’s high time we stopped giving large, well-funded and powerful NGOs a free pass and subject their agendas and their funding sources to the same scrutiny as we would any interest group such as an industry lobby.

The left’s implicit assumption that NGOs always occupy the moral high ground while businesses and governments are the bad guys needs to be directly challenged.

Rupa Subramanya is editor-at-large for Swarajaya. Follow her on Twitter @rupasubramanya . 

Updated Date: Jan 17, 2015 16:03:43 IST