India’s War on Activists

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Thirteen of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India, according to the World Health Organization, and a recent study found that more than half of India’s population lives in places with such polluted air that each person loses an average of 3.2 years in life expectancy. Rivers are contaminated, groundwater is dangerously depleted and polluted, and forests are rapidly being destroyed.

At the same time, the Indian Government is devoting ever-increasing time and resources to stifle dissent and cripple the ability of environmental defenders and activists to work in India.  Since taking office, Prime Minister Modi has pursued an aggressive economic development agenda, accompanied by significant roll-backs in hard-won environmental protections and protections from land-grabs. Corporations seen as furthering economic development increasingly act with impunity, while activists and NGOs advocating for environmental protections and the rights of people have become the enemy. According to the government, they engage in activity that is against the public interest. They’re anti-development, unpatriotic, and even a threat to national security.

Last June, a leaked report by the Indian Government’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) identified a number of NGOs that receive foreign funding as “negatively impacting economic development.” The report stated that “a significant number of Indian NGOs … have been noticed to be using people centric issues to create an environment which lends itself to stalling development projects.” The government has fought back against this perceived threat by using the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), a law that governs how NGOs can accept and use foreign contributions, to restrict funding to environmental, civil and human rights NGOs and thereby grease the wheels for controversial development projects to go forward without opposition.

Of these illicit organizations allegedly trying to destroy India by focusing on “people”, the government appears to have most aggressively targeted Greenpeace India. The IB report called Greenpeace “a threat to national economic security,” citing protest activities against nuclear and coal plants and the funding of “sympathetic” research.  Shortly after the report was leaked, the Ministry of Home Affairs accused the organization of running deliberate campaigns to hurt the economy and took action to block foreign donations to Greenpeace India.  According to the government, contributions to Greenpeace from “certain foreign donors… is used for agitations and campaign, thereby adversely impacting national interest[.]” Greenpeace challenged the account freeze in the Delhi High Court, which ultimately ruled in its favor in January 2015, stating that the freeze on funding was “arbitrary, illegal” and “unconstitutional.”

In another incident earlier this year, the government prevented a Greenpeace campaigner from boarding a flight to speak to British Parliamentarians about the impacts of a proposed coal mine in India because her visit would be  “prejudicial to the national interest” and hurt India’s image abroad. In March, the court ruled in her favor and ordered the government to remove her name from an official list of people who must be checked at immigration.

Undeterred, the Indian government took action again in April, this time suspending Greenpeace’s registration and freezing all of its accounts, alleging it was misusing foreign funds for anti-national activities in violation of the FCRA. On May 27, the Delhi High Court again ruled against the government, unblocking two of the local accounts to allow Greenpeace to continue its work. Though it provides only temporary relief, the ruling came just as the organization was nearly out of funds  and on the verge of shutting its doors. Accounts used to receive foreign donations remain frozen, and further court hearings are expected later this year.

The good news is that the courts have largely refused to condone this politically motivated crackdown so far. The bad news is that this appears to have had no effect whatsoever on the government’s resolve. Over the past week alone, Greenpeace India’s offices have been searched and inspected and a Greenpeace International campaigner was barred from entering India, despite holding a valid visa.

Greenpeace isn’t alone. The government has canceled the registration of nearly 9,000 Indian NGOs, stating they had failed to declare details of donations from abroad.  Other groups like Sierra Club, 350.org, and Bank Information Center as well as the Ford Foundation, one of the world’s largest charitable funds, and even a wing of the Danish government, have been added to the watch list. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is said to be under investigation. In a recent interview, Modi defended the crackdown, stating that “no action has been taken against the law and no patriotic citizen can object to it.” Even the U.S. government, which has gone to great lengths to befriend Modi and support his pro-development agenda, recently raised concerns about the “potentially chilling effect” of these actions against NGOs.

Smaller NGOs without the resources of Greenpeace face even greater obstacles in fighting back. With the government leading the war against activists, powerful corporate actors have similarly grown bolder in their own efforts to stifle dissent and minimize public opposition to their activity.

We have had the privilege of working with a number of brave activists, communities and organizations in India in connection with our case against Union Carbide for continuing pollution around its former operation in Bhopal, and our case against the International Finance Corporation (IFC) for its role in the destructive Tata Mundra coal-fired power plant in Gujarat. We’ve seen the immense obstacles and personal risks environmental defenders face in standing up for the rights of vulnerable communities and we’ve seen just how important their struggle is. Pollution and environmental destruction has reached a crisis point in India and human lives are on the line.

Despite the dire state of India’s environment and the health of its people, the Indian government has continued to prioritize economic development and promised to increase the country’s use of coal. But ignoring the environmental toll of its policies is itself undermining economic growth, according to a World Bank report, which found that economic degradation costs India about $80 billion a year – nearly 6% of its GDP.

Stifling debate at this critical moment for India isn’t the solution. The strategy is short-sighted, and it is unlikely to succeed in the long term. Though the Modi government has shown no indication of veering off its destructive course, Indian communities and civil society have shown immense resilience, courage and an unwillingness to be silenced when it comes to deciding the fate of their children and their children’s children. The stakes are simply too high.

 

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