The report of the Intelligence Bureau on the “impact” that non-government organisations have on India’s “development” is a case of extreme paranoia on the part of a section of the country’s establishment.
This section believes that those who are opposed to their notions of development — which include the proliferation of nuclear energy and widespread use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture — are not just anti-national but also acting at the behest of foreign powers who do not want India to develop.
Interestingly, many of those opposed to the activities of foreign-funded civil society organisations as well as those who actually run such NGOs belong to the country’s elite. One group which spares no effort in extolling the virtues of foreign direct investment, also conjures conspiracies when it comes to ascribing motives to those who speak up for those displaced by mining, irrigation and industrial projects.
The first group firmly believes that growth is the mantra for the country’s economic problems. The other section espouses environmentally-friendly policies and believes that inequalities must come down if sustainable development is to take place.
The two groups represent contrasting worldviews. To use simplistic catch-phrases, one is Right-wing, neo-liberal and market-friendly while the other is Leftist, Luddite and emphasises redistribution before growth. One believes that encouraging the private sector is the best way forward while the other is in favour of government-sponsored welfare schemes for the poor. Both sections want to engage with the West and the rest of the world, but on different terms.
The current debate on the role of NGOs is reminiscent of the polarised discourse on Christian missionaries who “convert” tribals and poor Hindus by “alluring” them. The anti-missionary viewpoint can be found in the books written by Arun Shourie, including one entitled Harvesting Our Souls. The contrary view is that if the Indian elite have been less than fair to society’s underprivileged, why should they grudge the activities of those (including missionaries from India and abroad) who have tried to organise the poor. Many missionaries are perceived as activists. One such individual named in the IB report is Thomas Kochherry, who fought relentless to safeguard the interests of Kerala’s traditional fisherfolk and who passed away recently.
By criticising NGOs allegedly opposed to the “Gujarat model of development”, the IB — which one of the world’s oldest internal security agencies — may have sought to please Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In fact, one paragraph in the report seems to have been inspired (if not plagiarised) from a speech that Mr Modi made in September 2006 during the launch of a book with a rather revealing title: NGOs, Activists and Foreign Funds: Anti-Nation Industry.
On that occasion, Mr Modi had lashed out against those he described as “five-star activists” by remarking: “Funds are obtained from abroad; an NGO is set up; a few articles are commissioned; a PR (public relations) firm is recruited and, slowly, with the help of the media, an image is created. And then awards are procured from foreign countries to enhance this image. Such a vicious cycle... no one in Hindustan dares raise a finger, no matter how many the failings of the awardee...”
Mr Modi is in illustrious company. His predecessor Manmohan Singh was suspicious of NGOs using foreign funds who were opposed to the establishment of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant. Dr Singh and former agriculture minister Sharad Pawar were both opposed to NGOs who were resisting field trials for genetically-modified food crops. In January 2013, speaking at the centenary session of the Indian Science Congress in Kolkata, Dr Singh described the issues of nuclear energy and GM foods as “complex issues” that “cannot be settled by faith, emotion and fear but by structured debate, analysis and enlightenment.”
The tone of the IB report is not very different from the raving and ranting against an unseen “foreign hand” during the Emergency regime of Indira Gandhi between June 1975 and March 1977. It was during this period that the government enacted the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, which was amended during the second UPA government in 2010.
While there are more than a million NGOs operating in the country, roughly 50,000 are currently registered under the FCRA. After the law was amended, the permission granted to some 4,000 NGOs to receive foreign funds was revoked.
It is nobody’s case that all foreign-funded NGOs are run by bleeding-heart activists who only have the welfare of the deprived and the indigent on top of their minds. There is no dearth of people who abuse their association with international civil society groups to go on expensive junkets across the world and live a rather good life. Such individuals can be found across different strata in Indian society.
If anyone, including those who run NGOs, is found to be violating the law of the land, the law should be strictly enforced against such people and organisations.
But why is the voluntary sector being targeted at present? The IB report appears to have been written and deliberately leaked with a specific purpose — to create an atmosphere that would encourage some in the government to come down hard on dissenters and those whose views and activities they don’t like. It’s as simple as that.
This writer’s name figures in the IB report for having produced and directed a 45-minute documentary film in English and Hindi entitled Coal Curse/Koyla Ya Kala Shaap in 2013 which was financially supported by Greenpeace India. Both versions of the film are available for free viewing on YouTube. The film juxtaposes the Coalgate scandal (which was, incidentally, highlighted by the ruling party) with the larger socio-political and economic issues surrounding the use of coal.
It includes a case study of the Singrauli region in central India, often described as the country’s “electricity hub”. The film argues that what represents an investment opportunity for both public sector and private corporate entities is a “resource curse” for local populations whose livelihoods have been devastated together with the ecology of the region. It is a separate matter altogether that I have been writing about and making documentary films on this subject for many years now.
In conclusion, one must assert that there are always certain exceptions to the rule and no action will ever be taken against particular NGOs. These are the now-defunct National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi and the nearly-90-year-old Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
There are also two other organisations that have received funds from foreign sources (including the Vedanta corporate group) whose activities are unlikely to be scrutinised by the ministry of home affairs, under which the IB operates. These are the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The writer is an educator and commentator