Two days after the Intelligence Bureau submitted a report calling Greenpeace all but anti-national, on May 5, Finance minister Arun Jaitley and Union commerce and industry minister N Sitharaman were sitting across a table with the NGO’s executive director Samit Aich. The IB may have questioned the credentials of the Indian branch of Greenpeace, but the group was invited by the NDA government along with a dozen odd other civil society representatives to have a pre-budget discussion.
The invitation was sent to Greenpeace on May 31. The intelligence Bureau report was sent to the Prime Minister’s officer, the home minister and the finance minister, besides others, three days later on June 3. Two days after Aich was attending the meeting with the two ministers and days later getting reimbursed for his flight tickets from and back to Bangalore. The Indian Express reported the contents of the IB report first on May 11.
The government has been holding such pre-budget discussions with NGOs for the past five years and Greenpeace has been invited in the past too.
The absurdity of events may reflect the way governments sometime works cloaked in their splayed-out ignorance, but it sets up a question – how much does the government or the country know what Greenpeace does in India?
If one was to go by the IB report, the government does know the end product of Greenpeace India’s actions – protests against nuclear power, GM crops and new coal projects. But the government could have easily turned to some of its bureaucrats who have dealt with Greenpeace India, its parent organisation and other multi-national NGOs, to get a better understanding.
Greenpeace set up operations in 2001 but it turned in to a partially indigenised Greenpeace India around 2009-10 after the Copenhagen climate convention where the results left the international NGOs shocked by the diplomatic power and influence displayed by BASIC countries (China, India, South Africa and Brazil) along with the US in an arena that the EU had so far considered its own. Their focus shifted to emerging economies such as China and India.
Greenpeace’s funding to India and China went up substantially as the South African Kumi Naidoo took over as head Greenpeace International. Other international NGOs soon followed.
Greenpeace International’s climate agenda differed fundamentally from that of emerging countries such as India and China. Its India offices advocated this agenda through its enhanced funding. India and China pushed the principle of equity as stated in the UN climate convention which requires the developed countries (historically the largest emitters of greenhouse gases) to first deliver strong emission cuts and enable developing countries by providing financial and technological support.
Calling the continuing debate on equity as ‘quibbling’ Aich explained the contrasting Greenpeace position, “The position which the governments have been taking has been from the equity perspective. We see it substantially differently. We can while away time in the political negotiations of equity the fact of the matter is that we need to address this issue in a more holistic manner, where we move away from our national positions.” This is a view that incidentally, the US and EU are also advocate – it shifts the burden more towards countries that emit more today and are expected to go higher in future, India contends. Greenpeace now demands that the provisions of the UN convention be re-written to permit international discussions and decisions on equity within nations and not just between nation-states – again an idea India and China vehemently oppose.
In real terms for Greenpeace it translated in to campaigning that countries such as India should not wait for action from the West but shift away rapidly from emissions from coal projects. Strategically Greenpeace began demanding India should not undertake any new coal projects. Other international organisations also collaborated on this view pushing international funding agencies such as World Bank and ADB to stop providing loans for coal thermal projects.
Aich said Greenpeace would focus on countries with potential future emissions. He added that the organisation continued to work as much in the US but said their effectiveness could be much better there.
Somewhere along the line the organisation devised the strategy to localise the argument in India and began working closely with local environmental groups – some at local levels and others spread well such as Amnesty. Climate change was too obscure to fight a ground battle on. Aich defends the move as an eco-system approach to environment in India and the use of people-power to tilt the debate in its favour. Greenpeace raised concerns of tribal rights, displacement, human rights and destruction of forests by coal projects. Typical of Greenpeace operations it sought iconic existing cases to pick up – Mahan coal project being one. A person who once worked with Greenpeace told Business Standard on condition of anonymity, “Strategically Greenpeace decided to identify specific targets – projects - where it could show results.”
Aich did not deny or confirm this, saying, “I cannot at the moment elaborate on what our other projects are. I am saying that Mahan is a perfect example of what is wrong but it hit controversy long before we came in to the picture. Jairam Ramesh talked about it himself. It’s just common sense. As an organisation we pride ourselves on our strategic approach because our resources are inversely proportional to the opponents we have right now. It’s clearly evident now (with the IB report).”
All international NGOs face questions about the independence of their units operating in countries that are not financially independent. So does Greenpeace. It has begun gathering more funds domestically as it gains support especially in metropolitans but it still depends substantially on funding from its mother organisation. Aich accepted that international organisations could do with greater transparency but defended the independence of the Indian operations. “We agree (with Greenpeace Internationally) on the mission and are quite strategic about our organisational future. But we do not need approvals from Greenpeace International. We discuss and co-agree. We have a robust Indian board and understand the Indian conditions,” he said. On their campaign on climate change and coal Aich could not elucidate any principle differences but on GM crops he noted how the India operations had strategically focused on brinjal rather than rice.
Greenpeace India is unequivocally against GM crops and nuclear power plants. And it claims credit for having got a strong liability law legislated in India, in fact setting up a successful example for the NGO elsewhere.
It has networked with Indian groups as well as other international NGOs on issues it agrees and it’s not difficult to find such groups and individuals, which disagree with Indian policies on energy, climate and food security.
On the other hand, there are other NGOs that also get substantial international funding but differ with Greenpeace’s approach. Centre for Science and Environment is one such prominent one. It pushes the government for greater deployment of renewables, argues over a more positive approach to climate change but also nuances between domestic environmental issues and over what it terms as ‘global warming in an unequal world’. If India has 32 lakh NGOs it is bound to have a few thousand differing views too.
Debates, protests and arguments and litigation over hundreds of industrial projects that redistribute natural resources have run countrywide during the UPA government’s tenure and continue to singe as NDA gets in to saddle. Greenpeace is party to only a handful. The leaked IB report may just have played in to ratcheting up media focus on these. It has not helped spark a healthier debate. Aich hopes for one instead of this muck-raking.
“I am inclined to accept that we could be proven absolutely wrong in time but I would like to ask a fundamental question. How has the current model been successful if currently 300 million Indians who don’t have access to electricity. We have to do something very different to give electricity and also cut down on carbon. You cannot be making investments that lock us in to future emissions,” Aich says.
This concludes the 4 part series on NGOs in India
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