Foreign-funded charities accuse PM of scare tactics as national intelligence agency submits anti-NGO report to government
Narendra Modi

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, has attacked NGOs in his speeches, previously describing foreign-backed protesters as ‘five-star activists’. Photograph: Reuters

Emma Gibson, a Greenpeace campaigner from Kent who participated in the Kingsnorth power station protest in 2009, has been worried she could be deported from India ever since an intelligence report accusing several foreign-funded NGOs of stalling major infrastructure projects was leaked this month.


The intelligence bureau (IB) report was submitted to Narendra Modi days after he took over as prime minister. Modi won last month’s general election on an aggressive development plank. He had risen to national prominence due to his encouragement of big business in his home state, Gujarat, where he acquired the image of a strong, no-nonsense leader.


Although Modi has made no comment, the anti-NGO report by the national intelligence agency listing dozens of organisations and individuals was circulated to several ministries, and raised the spectre of a general crackdown on these organisations.


Gibson’s name is on one of the lists, but there has been no midnight knock. She returned to the UK of her own accord on Sunday. Greenpeace India, however, has been singled out for action. Although it is a registered charity permitted to receive donations from abroad, Greenpeace India must now seek the home ministry’s permission before it accepts donations from two sources – its parent international body and the US-based Climate Works Foundation.


“Greenpeace India has clarified that most of its funds (61%) come from 300,00 individual Indian donors, and the rest almost entirely from Greenpeace International,” Gibson said. “The IB report is riddled with inaccuracies. It called me a cyber security expert, which is laughable. The report is designed to cause huge damage, but much more than Greenpeace, it’s the smaller NGOs that are absolutely terrified.”


Official hostility toward NGOs campaigning on environmental, land rights or anti-nuclear issues is not new. Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, openly complained that foreign-funded NGOs were blocking the expansion of nuclear power and the introduction of genetically modified products. But it is Modi’s image as a muscular leader that has raised fears of a clampdown.


“The government is adopting scare tactics,” said Suhas Chakma, director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights. “It wants to ensure that nobody comes in the way of big projects.”


The authorities, it appears, are taking no chances – even foreign academics and researchers who have been working for decades to help India’s poor and dispossessed have come under suspicion.


A day after the intelligence report on NGOs hit the headlines, a British academic from Birkbeck College, London, arriving in Hyderabad to attend a conference organised by the International Federation of Ageing, was turned away at the airport.


Penny Vera-Senso, a social anthropologist researching poverty and ageing in India since 1990, was given no reason for the ban on her entry, but was told she could not apply for a new visa until 2016.


She was last in India in March, when she attended a Right to Food convention in Gujarat and put up a photographic exhibition on old people at work.


“Penny has a passion for old people, and has done a lot of good work to show that the aged can also contribute to the Indian economy,” Harsh Mander, head of the Centre for Equity Studies in Delhi, said. “The Right to Food convention was a very big one, and some speakers criticised the Gujarat model of development, which an intelligence official might have construed as anti-national activity. Penny’s presence was obviously noticed at the meeting. But her work is very focused on poverty and ageing, so this is nothing but plain intimidation.”


The intelligence report damning NGOs appears equally slipshod. It claims that “people-centric” campaigns organised by NGOs blocked projects in seven sectors – nuclear power, uranium mining, thermal and hydroelectric power, farm biotechnology, extractive industries, and mega industrial projects. The objective was to keep India in “a state of underdevelopment”.


The report then goes on to make the unsupported claim that India’s annual GDP growth rate fell by 2-3% because of NGO campaigns between 2011 and 2013. It does not assess the impact of grassroots campaigns in relation to other factors that impacted the political economy – the policy paralysis in government, the corruption and mismanagement, and some keen judicial scrutiny.


NGOs have also had some major failures. Despite significant local support, for instance, the agitation to stop the nuclear power project in Kudunkulam, southern Tamil Nadu, state failed. Across the peninsula, in Maharashtra, another nuclear power project has failed to take off due to opposition not so much from NGOs but from a political party, the Shiv Sena, which is part of Modi’s government in Delhi.


But NGOs are clearly worried. The anti-nuclear campaigner Achin Vinaik said: “We are fearful that this is a kind of witchhunt with longer term implications to repress all kinds of popular struggles.”