Indian government sanctions Greenpeace to send a menacing message

28 April 2015

Prime Minister Modi's government has frozen the bank accounts of Greenpeace India, part of a wider campaign against 'anti-national' movements that challenge India's development policies based on the aggressive exploitation of coal, minerals, big hydro and nuclear power.

The Indian government has launched an all-out attack on Greenpeace India by freezing its bank accounts, suspending its registration under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act and unleashing a smear campaign which accuses the group of "anti-national" activities aimed at preventing India's 'development'.

The blocking of bank accounts since 9th April means that Greenpeace India cannot pay salaries to its staff or fund their work and travel. Nor can it receive donations from overseas sources or from the more than 75,000 domestic members or supporters who fund 70% of its budget.

These actions are part of the Narendra Modi government's unfolding plans to intimidate numerous civil society organisations and bully people's movement activists who protest against industrial, mining and irrigation and power generation projects that are wreaking havoc on India's forests, rivers, wetlands and other fragile ecosystems, as well as poor people's livelihoods.

The actions carry a clear message: the government will tolerate no dissent on 'development' projects, and in particular, on the mining and burning of coal - no matter how harmful the climate impact.

To dissent is our patriotic duty!

The government's moves against Greenpeace India have provoked strong protests from civil society activists and public intellectuals, more than 180 of whom have signed a letter to the home minister. The letter highlights the government's violation of democratic freedoms and its profoundly negative consequences.

The protest letter, delivered to the home minister on 21st April, says: "Civil society organisations in India have a long and credible history of standing up for social justice, ecological sustainability, and the rights of the poor.

"When certain government policies threaten these causes, civil society has a justified ground to resist, and help affected communities fight for their rights. This is in fact part of the fundamental duties enjoined upon citizens by the Constitution of India."

The letter deplores the government's anti-Greenpeace measures as attempts "to divert attention from the serious issues" that people's movements have raised regarding the rights of those who depend on forests, wetlands, coastal areas, and other ecosystems, and the need for "policies that are ecologically sustainable and do not cause further climate change ...

"Dissenting from the government's development policies, helping communities who are going to be displaced by these policies to mobilise themselves, and generating public opinion for the protection of the environment can by no stretch of imagination be considered anti-national, or against public interest.

"Quite the contrary, any reasonable policy of sustainable development (which the government claims to adhere to) will itself put into question quite a few of the mining, power, and other projects currently being promoted."

The measures, it says, are "a blatant violation of the ... freedom of expression and association ... These are dangerous signs for the future of democracy in India."

The latest in a series of hostile moves

These actions against Greenpeace India are only the latest in a series of recent hostile government moves against the group, including prohibition on accessing funds legitimately sent by Greenpeace International, income-tax demands for past years amounting to more than Rs 90 million, and most notoriously, preventing campaigner Priya Pillai from boarding a flight to London this past January.

Pillai was scheduled to visit London to make a presentation to an all-party group of British MPs on human-rights violations at a coal-mining project at Mahan in Madhya Pradesh, operated by Essar, a London-based company.

She was stopped in an "arbitrary, illegal and unconstitutional manner", ruled the Delhi High Court when Greenpeace approached it. The court also overturned the order blocking its access to funds sent by Greenpeace-International.

The High Court dismissed the government's contention that Greenpeace India has been working against the "public interest" and the "economic interest of the state", allegations that were repeated in the April 9 order.

It said NGOs "often take positions which are contrary to the policies formulated by the government of the day. That by itself ... cannot be used to portray [the] petitioner's action as being detrimental to [the] national interest."

The court also held that "contrarian views held by a section of people ... cannot be used to describe such section or class of people as anti-national."

The High Court's admonitions did not deter the Modi government's Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) from launching its third and latest attack on Greenpeace India, based on a series of charges, some of which defy credulity. The group responds that

"The MHA's repeated moves to restrict our funding and the movement of our personnel are clear attempts to silence criticism and dissent. Instead of pursuing such diversionary tactics, the Government's commitment to' sustainable and inclusive development' is better met by actually engaging with different viewpoints and solutions that are being offered."

It's all part of a wider intolerance and anti-environment policy

The Modi government's attack is in keeping with its generally muscular, intolerant approach to all dissent, rooted in its hardline Hindu-Right politics. This intolerance has been in evidence right since the government took office last May.

So has been its zeal in dismantling India's already weak environmental regulations, diluting forest protection laws, and ruthless 'fast-tracking' of industrial projects without proper scrutiny or appraisal. It sees these measures as key to boosting business confidence in official policies and raising GDP growth.

This government views protests against destructive projects with even greater hostility than its predecessors. It regards such protests as "anti-development" and "anti-national", even if they are legitimate and peaceful.

Earlier this month, Narendra Modi addressed a conference of the higher judiciary and advised it not to be guided by what he derogatorily termed "five-star" NGO activists. Such maligning of NGOs, who have a legitimate place in democracy and some of whom have done work of great integrity on life-and-death environmental issues, does little credit to the office Modi holds.

This caps a number of hostile anti-NGO moves by the Modi government. Last June, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) leaked a 'secret' report to the media which accused more than 100 NGOs and individuals of indulging in "anti-national activities", which it claimed, are calculated to "take down" development projects. At the top of the list were groups opposing coal-based and nuclear power projects and genetically modified crops.

The IB's charges were based on flimsy evidence of the NGOs' alleged "subversive links". The report fantastically claimed that their activities inflict a loss on the economy equivalent to 2% to 3% of India's GDP.

The report caused a furore. Therefore there was no investigation into these charges. But these groups were effectively maligned.

The report's basic premise is that Indian NGOs and grassroots activists who oppose projects out of conviction and passion have no mind or agency of their own - they need to be instigated by "the foreign hand" which doesn't want India to prosper. Yet, the government itself zealously courts foreign investment by offering investors all kinds of incentives.

Another clampdown on mainstream environment groups

Yet again, in December, the Indian home ministry clamped down on four North American-origin NGOs: Bank Information Centre (which monitors the World Bank group's lending programmes for their ecological consequences), Sierra Club (a mainstream environmental organisation), (active on climate change), and Avaaz (a human rights and environmental campaign group), all concerned with climate issues, with a particular focus on coal.

This past January, the government put ten international organisations / foundations on a list of agencies that need "prior permission" for donating money to Indian NGOs - many of them concerned with climate change.

They include Catholic Organisation for Relief and Development Aid (Cordaid), the Dutch HIVOS and IKV-Pax Christi, the Danish International Development Agency, and the US-based Climate Works.

Two factors seem to have played a special role in the government's recent vindictive actions. The first, minor, factor is the paranoid xenophobia typical of India's intelligence agencies. The second, major, factor is extreme official hostility towards those who question the state's 'development' policies, to which the mining and burning of coal is pivotal.

India's Intelligence Bureau, set up in the colonial period, remained subservient to MI-5 even after Independence. The IB is not accountable to Parliament and has been used to parochial political ends by the government of the day. It tends to exaggerate "threats" to "national security" from NGOs with a foreign link, as distinct from multinational corporations.

The IB's espionage-based reports have been the main inspiration behind the home ministry's recent actions against environmental groups.

Even former intelligence officials have publicly criticised the IB for allowing itself to be abused to spy on NGOs, for example V Balachandran wrote of Greenpeace that "Though they are sometimes accused of pulling foolhardy stunts as part of their campaign to highlight environmental issues, they cannot be accused of anti-national activities. Amateurish attempts by Indian agencies against Greenpeace will only bring disrepute to our nation."

The importance of the second factor is revealed in extensive recent changes in project clearance norms, and proposed amendments to environmental laws. The changes in norms include:

  • doing away with clearances for industries inside Special Economic Zones, Investment Zones and ports;
  • restricting the powers of statutory expert appraisal committees; allowing mining and other disruptive activities in forests;
  • and undermining environmental impact assessment processes.

Don't believe the solar hype - Modi is for coal all the way!

All this acquires great salience as the government is busy auctioning away dozens of coal-deposit sites (called blocks) for corporate exploitation.

Mahan, where Greenpeace India is active, is one such. Mahan is part of Singrauli, India's coal and power heartland, where huge private corporations like Reliance, Hindalco and Lanco, besides Essar, are entrenched. So is the public sector company NTPC. Singrauli has since the 1960s been quintessentially about coal-mining and burning, which have played havoc with people's health.

Cracking down on NGOs that oppose coal - the dirtiest, most climate-destructive fossil fuel - sends out an unmistakable message. India may talk of promoting renewable energy. But that's just talk.

In reality, the government intends to rely on coal to generate electricity that powers 'development'. Coal's share in power generation is 70% and unlikely to fall for the next few decades.

As India's finance minister Arun Jaitley put it at a recent meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, India is prepared to play its part in combating climate change provided the world recognises the need to reconcile the poor countries' energy needs with the objective of restricting greenhouse gas emissions.

Coal will remain India's most important source of energy, he insisted: "Unless coal can be greened and cleaned, it may not possible to reconcile development and climate change goals. The international community needs to therefore go on a war footing to generate greener technologies especially technologies that can help green coal."

It is doubtful if coal can ever be greened. But meanwhile, the Indian government will brook no dissent on coal. It will continue to bully, ban, obstruct and malign environmental NGOs, making a particular example of Greenpeace India.


photo by Salvatore Barbera