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Government should not try and control the India story

Business Standard Editorial Comment  |  New Delhi 

There are some disturbing signs emanating from the Union government - indications of a desire to control the narrative about economic development. The fear is that this may get in the way of doing real work, and even of basic liberties and rights. It was reported, for example, that a Greenpeace activist was forced to leave a flight to London that she had boarded. She was scheduled to address British parliamentarians on the effect of coal mining in India. It has also been reported that the rules governing studies carried out by multilateral agencies like the World Bank have been changed; now, any surveys that gather primary data even on subjects like education and health will need state permission to start off with, with a concept note to be submitted to the Union government first.

Both the recent attempts appear to be part of a larger pattern, in which organs of the state act to stifle other voices that reveal information about any problematic effect of government policy. It is not just the National Democratic Alliance that has this attitude, either; it started under the last dispensation, when the home ministry cracked down on funding sources for several non-governmental organisations (NGOs), especially for church-run charities that it accused of being involved in the agitation against the Kudankulam nuclear plant. But the focus in such cases was on activists, not also on those merely disseminating or collecting information. In some cases, it appears even basic rights are being infringed on. Every Indian citizen has the right to freedom of movement, including across borders - unless they have been convicted of a crime, or their passport has been judicially confiscated. Priya Pillai was, like many activists, involved in legal proceedings - but there is no indication that she should have been debarred from leaving the country. If everyone accused of a crime had their movement restricted, many members of Parliament would not be able to travel overseas. Worse, there is no information as to exactly who forced Ms Pillai to deplane. Was it India's intelligence agencies? Under whose instructions? And what gives them the right to do so? The government needs to answer these questions. As for the multilateral agencies being prevented from collecting data freely - and being required to use government data if available - if they are indeed only allowed to publish reports subject to approval by New Delhi, then Indians among others will lose a valuable source of information. What is the point of reading a "doing business" ranking that will merely regurgitate government propaganda?

If the government tries to control information in this manner, then it is India's reputation that will suffer. India is not China. It is not even Russia - which owes its current negative reputation in the world community and among investors to, among other reasons, attempts to coerce civil society organisations. Some people believe that some NGOs work in the interests of the West. But the truth or otherwise of this claim is irrelevant. It is neither right nor wise to stop the free flow of information.

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First Published: Wed, January 14 2015. 21:38 IST
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