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PM's statement on foreign hands unites NGOs, divides govt

Ramesh clarifies freeze on BT brinjal done not under influence of NGOs

Sreelatha Menon  |  New Delhi 

A finger of suspicion that Manmohan Singh pointed at non-governmental organisations last week for pushing foreign agendas has united such bodies in the country, while leaving the government itself divided.

The prime minister’s remarks that foreign-funded NGOs were pushing alien agendas to thwart nuclear enterprises and biotechnology research in India have found the most vocal protests and denials coming not just from such not-for-profit organisations, but even from union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh.

Ramesh, while responding to the matter, said yesterday that a moratorium he imposed on BT brimjal was not under the influence of NGOs. It was done, after taking into account the views of states, scientific opinion and the community, he added.

The remarks have created a wedge between the government and the civil society, while indicating that the country’s administration is itself split on key issues.

Foreign funds received by NGOs in last 10 years
Year No of NGOs Total contribution
(Rs  cr) 
Funds from US
(Rs  cr)
1999-2000 13,986 3,402.90 1,085.56
2000-01 14,598 3,924.63 1,492.63
2001-02 15,598 4,870,52 3,637.25
2002-03 16,590 5,046.51 1,685.77
2003-04 17,145 5,105.46 1,595.80
2004-05 18,540 6,256.68 1,932.14
2005-06 8,570 7,877.57 2,427.23
2006-07 198,271 1,351.31 2,979.13
2007-08 19,700 9,759.71 2,947.73
2008-09 20,875 10,856.30 3,433.23
Information received from ministry of home affairs in response to RTI query by Business Standard

It seems that one arm of the government is receptive to dissenting views from the NGOs, when many activists are themselves part of the national advisory council. Even so, the other arm, now represented by the prime minister, has been blaming the same set of organisations for stalling development.

According to NGOs, such comments divert the attention of the nation from issues and don’t help achieve anything.

Kerala-based Thanal defends Ramesh while attacking the prime minister. The NGO’s Sridhar Radhakrishnan, who is also convenor of the Coalition For GM Free India (an umbrella network of 400 NGOs), says the remarks about NGOs is a ploy to take to a frivolous level the debate on issues like GM crops and nuclear plants. “On GM, the prime minister has a huge body of evidence including those given by scientists, including (the iconic) M S Swaminathan,” he notes. “So, how can a few NGOs be blamed?”

The parliamentary standing committee has heard about 5,000 petitioners. Shortly, it is to give a report on GM crops. Sridhar says a public debate that Jairam allowed led to a moratorium on GM trials and the formation of a standing committee. “Now let the parliament debate it. We have full faith in it,” he says. “Let not ministries and prime minister’s office decide the matter.”

Funding, Sridhar says, is a government policy. “It was there during the Emergency (1975-77) too. It is like blaming foreign funds for farmers’ suicides,” he says. “If an NGO is giving out statistics about suicides, should the government target the organisation or stop the suicides?”

Further, If Monsanto is indulging in bio piracy, and an NGO takes it up with the state biodiversity board, should the government blame the multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation or the Environment Support Group that has filed a petition, he asks.

Forest rights activist Shankar Gopalakrishnan notes NGOs back S P Udayakumar, who has been leading the anti-koodankulam protests. “Mere money won’t motivate people to risk their lives,” says the volunteer who campaigns for the dignity of tribals and local residents who have been resisting mining projects in the forests of Orissa and other states.

The NGOs claim that the prime minister’s attack “only seeks to cover up” the issues and “exposes the government’s double standards” on them. For instance, as one of them notes, “we are united”, be it on the anti-nuclear plant protests by activists of prominent mass movements like the National Alliance of People’s Movements led by Medha Patkar or the campaign for the survival of local people affected by developmental projects or the GM crops.

The question, Shankar says, is to address whether or not nuclear plants are safe. “If they are safe, why did the government agree to free the companies of liability for safety of people,” asks Shankar.

“This kind of a clearly double standard echo in the rest of the cases too.”

Activist Sabu George, who has been part of a movement against female foeticide and a campaing to free alleged Naxal activist Binayak Sen, claims the government’s stance on such issues would lead the country to lawlessness. “It is a question of morality. The right of the weaker sections of society must be heard,” he says. “If the government wants to suppress it by blaming NGOs, it is on the road to anarchy. People would be forced to resort to violence.”

George notes that the government, on the one hand, wants FDI and foreign technology. “On the other, it wants the poor who are crying of injustice to not get any support from NGOs -- with or without foreign aid.”

The activists, pointing at the nuclear protest history of countries like the US, say American respected dissent on the matter for decades -- and allowed no plant to come up in that country. “Now,” chimes in Shankar, “the US wants a liability cap for investing companies in India. And our government has bent backwards to accommodate the demand in its nuclear law.”

Some go even further. The credibility of the people of Tamil Nadu’s Koodankulam is being challenged by men who have earned their life’s savings from the IMF and World Bank, besides MNCs like Vedanta and Monsanto, adds the NAPM.

“When people protest, the nuclear plant is said to be safe. But when companies don’t want to take liability for damage, the government gives them a liability cap,” says one of the. “What kind of a dichotomy is this?”

The government had lately been sharpening its claws against the people’s movements. Last year, it amended the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act in an alleged bit to keep them out of all foreign assistance. Recently, there were income-tax notices slapped against NGOs like Helpage India and Eklavya, inviting criticism where many termed it as witch hunt.

Even so, massive campaigns have been happening regularly on the issue of human rights, land displacement, biotechnology and nuclear power plants. The first of these in recent years was seen when Dr Sen was kept in a Raipur jail for over two years on charges of helping Maoists. The campaign spread, crossing states and national borders, while the source of the money continued to remain mysterious. The activists denied there was any funding.

As for the movement against BT brinjal, that also spread in a massive manner. Ditto was the case with the anti-endosulfan movement. All these had ends favourable to the NGOs that led them.

The last of these in the series was an anti-corruption movement. That, again, was riddled with accusations of a foreign agenda. Not different was the allegation that forest rights activists faced while fighting alongside villagers against displacement and loss of resources in Orissa and Jharkhand.

Many of these issues are also of significance to the local communities -- with or without a foreign agenda. The sympathisers across the borders only help amplify the voice of the communities, say NGOs. As an instance, they quote the fight of the communities against the loss of an entire mountain rich in biodiversity for a bauxite mine of Vedanta in Orissa. The protests in India echoed by similar campaigns abroad served to put pressure on the government to listen to the tribals in Niyamagiri and set up at least two panels for review.

The NGOs conceded that the some of the government’s concerns may be valid. “But,” asks one of the activists, “what about the foreign partnership or ownership of the power plants or mines that are in the centre of various protests?”

Adds Rajesh Tandon, founder of PRIA: “The NGOs’ money may be foreign, even the food given to protesters may be videshi, but the people are from the community? The power plant itself is a foreign entity. It is a Russian plant in koodamkulam. So whose interest would it serve?”

Posco is a foreign company, while the people protesting there are villagers of Orissa, Tandon points out. “Even if some foreign agency is funding their protest, people won’t protest risking their lives if they don’t want to. They also won’t protest if the government were to listen to them,” he adds. “If you don’t do either, then we are headed for anarchy.”

NGOs are joining forces online and otherwise.

The National Fishworkers Forum has sent out a mail to other NGOs, raising questions on Manmohan Singh’s remarks. “The prime minister says that these NGOs are against such self-sufficiency of nuclear electricity in India. Since 1962, after enacting the Atomic Energy Act, how much Nuclear Energy India has produced?” says forum head Thomas Kocherry. “What is the total investment in the atomic energy establishment in India since then? Who has disturbed the self-sufficiency in nuclear energy in India?”

Fr Kocherry’s forum is also keen tothe know the total output. “You can defend Indo-US deal. Then America is good for you, but now America is bad for you. Please make your statement specific. We are as loyal to India as you are,” the missive adds.

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First Published: Mon, February 27 2012. 00:40 IST