by Pallavi Polanki  Jun 16, 2014
The Intelligence Bureau’s controversial report on the “negative impact” of foreign-funded NGOs on India’s economy has drawn the ire of activists and civil society groups who have called it an attempt to thwart dissent and crush popular protests against big business.

The timing of the IB report, which was submitted to the Prime Minister’s Office less than two weeks after the new government took over, and speed with which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has responded to it has only reinforced apprehensions about what the future holds for those who disagree with government’s “development model”.

Firstpost spoke to social activist Aruna Roy about the implications of the IB report for people’s movements in India and what it says about the new Modi-led government.

Excerpts from the interview:

Your reaction to the IB report and its claim that foreign-funded NGOs working in the field of environment are costing India a loss of up to 2-3 percent of the GDP annually.

This is an illogical, strange and almost ridiculous conclusion for the IB to draw. The IB is mandated to report on security. This report seems to go much beyond that to comment on an economic paradigm, and equates any difference to that paradigm with a threat to security and anti-national behaviour. In particular it makes the case that any group participating in any form of protest or even highlighting the negative fallout of nuclear power plants/coal mining projects/GM foods/industrial corridor projects etc are anti-development and anti-national. Who defines “development”? Even economists differ amongst themselves on the definition. These are contentious issues debated all over the globe, where the economic cost to our environment (climate change), safety of communities living in these regions, and the impact on increasing inequalities is sought to be ignored and brushed under the carpet.

The report questions the conclusions drawn by activists and environmental groups and puts a figure on it. However, the authors of the report do not bother to analyse and show how they reached the astronomical figure of 2-3 percent loss to the GDP. Even as an official economic analysis this is shoddy and misleading. When that is used as the basis of branding these groups and their activities as anti-national, with an attempt to connect them to “the foreign hand”, it is deliberately mischievous. In fact, this begs the question of whether the IB is actually trying to support the brazen attempt by foreign corporations such as Monsanto to control the seed and agri-business market through patented GM food production? Or are they attempting to support Vedanta — another foreign multinational and its attempt to override the concerns of indigenous tribals and corner the profits extracted from their resources? Or do they feel that questions of corruption and potential environmental damage should not be raised in areas where coal or uranium mining takes place?

The IB report makes no attempt to evaluate the immense power of “foreign” corporate money influencing political decisions and opinion in India, driven by its profit motive. The IB also fails to explain the so-called pernicious motive of the foreign development agencies, human rights organisations, and environmental groups. If they have a “foreign interest” they should be supporting the foreign corporations who will take away profits to their own countries and companies.

If the sweeping assertion of the IB’s “foreign hand” is accepted, perhaps the time has come to stop all foreign money. No FDI and no foreign funding. Let the Indian government reject all foreign loans and support, including from the IMF and World Bank; let Indian industry propose investments without any FDI; and let the FCRA be amended so that it becomes a foreign contribution prevention act. That is when we might have equal standards applied on all foreign money. However, it is clear that foreign funding is just being used as a red herring.

If NGOs are violating the law, and misusing money, it is far better to bring them completely under the RTI Act and ensure complete public scrutiny. People can watch them much better than IB surveillance.

Is the timing of the report and the response it has received from the Prime Minister a cause for worry?

The IB report demonstrates that its surveillance has been going on for many years. Yet, as some commentators have observed, parts of the report seem to be almost plagiarised from a book that made similar sets of allegations, and was released by the current Prime Minister, when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat.

It is clear that this trend is not new, and the IB has performed this function over years. But the speed with which these issues are now being prioritised shows the urgency to stop all protest immediately. The new government has exposed its intent by not distancing itself from this kind of a report and its unsubstantiated conclusions. The subsequent letters issued by the PMO to different Ministries to start keeping a tab on all NGOs also passes a message down the line. It seems to suggest that this report is part of a larger plan of the government to muzzle dissent and contrary opinion.

What impact is this report likely to have on civil society movements in India?

Civic engagement is now accepted as one of the cornerstones of democratic governance. The quality of civic engagement is dependent on the access to civic space for movements. Citizens have to work as collectives to get their voices heard. By casting aspersions on campaigns, this report is clearly trying to create an atmosphere of apprehension and fear in all civil society groups. It is quite likely that this report will be followed up by a kind of a witch-hunt against dissenting organisations so that all of civil society is forewarned.

The government should remember that these are democratic movements seeking to amplify voices of the marginalised. Instead of trying to shut them off, it would be much wiser to listen to them carefully, and understand how much merit there is in what they are saying. The targeted organisations are those that have long believed in non-violent protest and are in the Gandhian tradition of peoples movements. Where the ruling party has been unwilling to listen or accord equal space, unrest has followed. Peoples’ voices can never be shut off completely. A wise government will listen to them. The curb on expression including protest is a serious warning that democracy is threatened.

How should NGOs and members of the civil society respond to the IB report and the claims its makes?

The reaction to this report must come from all segments of Indian society. We need to make sure that intelligence agencies are not used for political purpose in this fashion. There have been nuances of agreement and disagreement with commentators who do not agree with the point of view of the groups targeted in this report. The differences arise from perception, perspective and values. Their being damned as anti-national and malafide, actually shows up the government and the administration’s inability and even unwillingness to deal with dissent. No “development” can be at the cost of a segment of its people, and at the cost of constitutional democratic values.

What aspects of the IB report do you find most disturbing?

This kind of report shows that the IB is working outside its mandate. It is a strong reason to call for a review of the working of the IB itself and to bring it under the RTI Act. We must also restrain its obvious effort to support foreign corporations at the cost of the democratic rights of the ordinary citizen, and their right to know and decide in India. There has been a popular belief that the IB operates under a political mandate and not as it should do, under genuine concerns for national security. Apart from what it has stated about the working of NGOs and movements, the worry for all Indians should be the nature of it’s functioning as mandated by the Government! Is it just a mouth piece for the Government in power, or is it a national institution to protect the country even from the government itself, should the government become anti its own people?

Earlier this month, the Delhi Police evicted Dalit families who had been protesting in Jantar Mantar against caste-violence in Haryana. Your initial reaction to this crackdown on protestors in Jantar Mantar. Is there a worry that spaces for protest and voices of dissent are being increasingly policed?

The attack on women protesting against rape at Jantar Mantar is worrying. It signifies rubbing of salt on wounds of marginalised people – Dalits, women– and sends a clear message that protest and dissent will not be tolerated and forcefully curbed. First it’s a message to women to expect no real support from this government on issues of violence against them. The second is that Dalits who seemed to find hope in the larger Hindu identity will still continue to be discriminated and as Dalit women, they will be at the bottom of the pile. This is absolutely unacceptable and will not be accepted by women across castes, religions and class.

The overwhelming anti-democratic action is the denial of the right to protest and the violence with which it was quelled. Neither of which is acceptable. The government showcased its intolerance for dissent by demolishing shelters and evicting people from Jantar Mantar — a symbol of democratic space for Indian’s silent and suffering majority, where ordinary people hope to have their voices amplified — and proposes to ban Jantar Mantar for protests.

The government should understand that such totalitarian methods cannot be imposed on a country which has known the right to free speech and expression since 1947 definitely, and even before. Our sovereignty is protected not merely by a vote but by the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Last week, the Centre gave Gujarat government the nod to increase height of the Narmada Dam. Do you share the concerns that this decision has raised among activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan? Do you see a larger message in this decision for people’s movements who are protesting against similar projects in other parts of the country?

The action of the Modi government, while following a visible trend over the years, can also be traced back to decades of resistance by marginalised people and the cultivated damning of the campaign in Gujarat. This is the tip of the ice berg and is a clear message to other campaigns that no stone will be left unturned to quell any or all protest. The decision to raise the height of the Narmada Dam has been taken without any public consultation, and in an arbitrary manner at a time when there are many claims of already displaced people not being properly rehabilitated.

While villages and entire families will be submerged, their protest will only get louder. To reiterate, there can be no democracy without the right to dissent and express it; and no decision can promote the well-being of a nation, unless it carries its people along. There is logic and wisdom behind the architecture of debate and discussion, and looking for solutions together with the sovereign people who elect representatives to rule them every five years.


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