New truth regime

Print edition : July 11, 2014

The Vedanta plant at the foothills of Niyamgiri Hills, the peacful habitat of the Dongria Kondhs in Lanjigarh, Kalahandi district. The Supreme Court ruling resulted in the scrapping of its bauxite project. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

A signage for the project site office of a proposed Posco steel complex in Nuagaon, Odisha, on January 18. The I.B. report refuses to see the fact that many mega projects and their implementation faced the wrath of local communities such as Adivasis, Dalits and marginal farmers. Photo: Bloomberg

The Intelligence Bureau’s report gets it all wrong in accusing the robust civil society and its NGOs of threatening national economic security.

HISTORY RECORDS THAT WITCH-HUNTS IN political and cultural arenas were launched on the back of conscious and simplistic misunderstandings of complex structures and their associated phenomena. And as yet another hunt is just about to be launched, it is important to realise that the struggle against it is not just a political one but an epistemological one: this struggle is not against arbitrary power alone, but against the one-sidedness of the truth regime of that of power.

What does this new truth regime, constituted by the Intelligence Bureau’s (I.B.) June 2014 report, set out to enunciate? It purports to be an economic analysis of the Indian establishment’s failure to realise its obsession of unilinear economic development, but it is not! It neither discusses the international or domestic economic contexts and factors that contributed to this failure nor allots them any blame quotient. However, it apportions most of the blame quotient to India’s robust civil society and its non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

The report tersely states that the dissenting activities of India’s NGOs have threatened national economic security. It apportions a 2 to 3 per cent loss in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) to their problematic activities, which include campaigning against some mega projects—in the extractive, nuclear and coal-based power sectors—and succeeding in stalling (more correctly, deferring) a few of them. It goes on to conclude that all this was done at the behest of Western corporates and political powers who want to “take down” India’s development in order to further their business ends. The report’s sometimes explicit message to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other top officials is the need to quell such dissent-led protests, which have stalled what is deemed to be India’s corporate-led economic growth agenda.

The I.B. report neither asks why these mega projects, in the first place, became contentious, nor attempts to analyse why governmental agencies continued to promote such projects despite potential loss of livelihoods and environmental degradation for the local communities. It does not contain a single word on issues that were raised during the 2014 election campaign—rampant corruption, as evidenced in the 2007-09 coal allotments, promotion of crony capitalism, and illegal wealth stashed away in the banks of some of these very Western countries.

Stick to beat NGOs with

It goes without saying that the report’s key finding is intended to arm the Narendra Modi dispensation with a stick to beat the NGOs with and arm-twist them into submission so that they do not oppose its economic agenda. After all, laws still require them, especially those receiving foreign funds, to furnish accounts to the myriad Ministries led by the Union Home Ministry which continue to look at them from the political or economic security angle. Also, Narendra Modi and his team are in desperate need to realise their electoral mandate over the next five years. By implementing such an agenda based on 7 to 8 per cent steady annual economic growth—with the slogans of inclusiveness: sabke saath aur sabkaa vikas. If this mission fails for whatever international or domestic reasons, the I.B. report’s conspiracy narrative will term those NGOs that still have the gumption to continue to voice their dissent as villains. Thus, a new truth regime has already been floated and ye shall obey it, as the old saying goes.

But this truth regime is neither new nor without problems. First, it carries forward an old legacy. This report’s findings sound uncannily similar to the rhetoric by Indira Gandhi who routinely referred to the foreign hand out to simultaneously destabilise her and India’s polity. During those heady decades, some observers had even concluded that India’s fledgling human rights movement was guilty of aiding this foreign hand whenever they raised the issue of gross violations of human rights. Some had gone to the extent of concluding that the armed revolts taking place in India’s geographic peripheries were a direct result of these hazy-hand conspiracies. Given the fact that some of these revolts have meandered on for decades without pragmatic political solutions, such theories have become less fashionable today. Nevertheless, if one has to go by the I.B. report, the foreign hand itself appears to have decisively shifted terrain: For the hand, the political is now a legacy as the economic is the contemporary.

Indeed, the truth regime easily comes apart. The I.B. report steadfastly refuses to see the fact that many mega projects and their implementation faced the wrath of long-marginalised local communities such as Adivasis, Dalits and marginal farmers; governmental agencies had already ridden roughshod over these communities’ rights by acquiring or destroying lands and other natural resources for which they had put forth their rightful claims; these rights, guaranteed by India’s constitutional provisions and parliamentary laws such as the Forest Rights Act, 2007, merely existed on paper; in a number of States, there were simply no agencies to implement them. This failure to realise their rightful claims pushed these communities to the path of struggle.

In the ongoing protests over nuclear power projects in Kudankulam (Tamil Nadu) and Jaitapur (Maharashtra), local communities remain far from convinced about governmental assurances on safety after witnessing the Fukushima disaster in Japan live on television. The protests continue. Also, over the past few years, a range of new activists and NGOs, starting from the grass-root-level to the State, the national and international levels, tirelessly worked to extract information about these projects from authorities reluctant to part with it, petitioned local and State-level judicial forums by highlighting the problems associated with them, moved the Supreme Court or the Green Tribunal in Delhi, and vigorously campaigned on these issues. The results of such interventions went either way for those who initiated them. Regarding the case against Vedanta’s bauxite mining project at Niyamgiri in Odisha, the Supreme Court ruled that the local communities had the final say whether the mega project violated their religious and cultural rights (see story on page 15). This resulted in the scrapping of the project. As for Kudankulam, the court decided to go by the official scientific opinion but imposed conditions for the project’s implementation (see story on page 21).

Thus, these NGOs have seen only a few successes but have endured a large number of failures. The failures came when they did not have the resources to fight cases or were unable to stand up to state- or corporate-led intimidation and harassment. More dangerously, in some contexts, the local communities gave up as they did not have the numbers or they were unable to stand up to the police repression over a period of time. Of course, the I.B. report has no reason to mention this fact.

It devotes a few pages to the activities of international NGOs, including Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Survival International and ActionAid. It says, after circulating and amplifying dissent to the point of a global-level protest, these organisations fuelled the protests. On the other hand, these metro-based organisations do not appear to possess the power or the will, or even the intention, to sustain grass-root-level struggles, which can be sustained only by grass-root-level movements built over a period of time by committed activists.

NGOs’ contribution

The international NGOs’ contribution came in the form of meticulous research on local issues from a global human rights and ecological perspective. Secondly, they also ensured that local campaigns reached and impacted international arenas. Third, the international NGOs did some fine-tuning of the news about these protests to resonate with impacts of similar protests across the world. They knew that parallel protests over such issues had broken out across the world. Thus, a local protest by Adivasi communities against bauxite mining in their traditional lands and habitats in Odisha immediately resonated with that of indigenous communities in the Amazon jungles against mining, dam-building or timber-logging. This resonance has now become so important that the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples’ Issues, James Ananya, spent an entire year (2012-13) studying the impact of extractive industries on the lands and habitats of indigenous communities across the world. A myopic I.B. report can hardly be aware of such an overarching trend in world politics. It needed a James Cameron to sense this trend. His Avatar, a film documenting the epic struggle of the Navi tribe, coincided with the release of Amnesty International’s research report on the human rights violations suffered by the Dongria Kondh tribe protesting against Vedanta’s bauxite mine plans. The Niyamgiri campaign went viral after Avatar’s phenomenal success.

Thirdly, persistent advocacy by the international NGOs enabled local protests to get easier access to Western sites of economic decision-making such as Ministries, stock exchanges, banks and pension funds. The international NGOs had already done serious advocacy and campaign work on human rights violations and environmental degradation committed by Western companies across the globe. This included campaigning for justice for the survivors of the December 1984 Bhopal gas leak disaster. Following this work, the Western sites of economic decision-making are now aware of the extraterritorial human rights obligations of companies that operate with global financial resources. These obligations are now getting enshrined in corporate law frameworks of these countries. When Indian corporates enter these very sites to access funds, they are ill at ease in complying with the rigors of decision-making, which include stringent measures to prevent human rights violations and environmental degradation as a result of the activities of corporates. These obligations have become particularly relevant in the extractive sector companies, which face tremendous opposition for their operations across the world. This naturally impacted Vedanta and other companies, which were put on the back foot as they steadily lost investors and ratings in the wake of the news of the human rights violations at Niyamgiri. The I.B. report is simply ignorant of the range of factors contributing to these corporate setbacks—indeed, it goes on to label such activities by international NGOs as attempts to “take down” India’s economic growth.

By sticking to this conspiracy angle, the I.B. report appears to have missed the most important evolution, which the NGO as an institution is undergoing in contemporary India. Yes, an NGO is not just one static organisation sticking to one issue as thought of earlier. It is forced to operate across a number of issues and themes, including information, human rights, ecology, education, health, and women. It is now more of a hybrid and needs the ability to quickly metamorphose back and forth. Gone are the days when it was a legally run cooperative, or worse, individual- or family-run fiefdom or business not accountable to anyone else. In fact, some NGOs are now run as chief executive officer (CEO)-style companies but with similar non-accountability structures. Yes, during the past decade, the corporate and the electronic worlds have decisively entered the NGO institution, bringing a host of changes in its structure, funding, style of work and even clouding its universal ideals and substance of work. Some of this change may be irreversible, but even in this chaotic world, there are local NGOs, launched with good old ideals but are struggling for funds.

Unlike what the I.B. report concludes, some of India’s top national NGOs manage themselves with shoe-string budgets and do not accept corporate or foreign donations. Unlike what the I.B. report thinks, they cannot run or sustain a social movement against a mega project but can only add to the strength of a social movement. Some NGOs are still confined to the research desk, the campaign blackboard and the law book. However, a few others with sufficient ambition have set up laboratories and policy think tanks and commissioned scientific and environmental studies. Some have had the audacity to lead social movements, establish nuclei of political parties and endure their attendant problems. As for the international NGOs based out of the West, they started as voluntary association of internationalist citizens committed to the rights of the other. Today, they are not just organisations but politico-cultural brands. Their leaders are appointed just like any other corporate honchos and they operate in presidential style. Indeed, these organisations zealously guard their brand identities. They are drawing up, or have already implemented, ambitious plans of expanding their membership base and reach in the South, and their plans include expansion in India.

A bit of this comes out when the I.B. reports the organisational muscle of Greenpeace India, but on the whole the report grossly misses the hybrid presence of the NGO institution in India. Yes, given their history and context, NGOs need to ponder a lot over the following issues. First, the I.B. report may afford to miss it this time as it focussed on silencing dissent on economic growth, but they need to reflect on the hybrid future that awaits them. Secondly, it is essential that they not only furnish regular accounts to the members/donors or the Union Home Ministry but also make their structure, capacities, activities, plans, successes and failures fully transparent to the public at large and subject them to independent scrutiny, without resorting to fixing such scrutiny. Thirdly, it is essential that they retain their capacity to ask universal questions.

One such question is why modern India, despite having a long and continuous tradition of voluntary work from Ramakrishna Paramahamsa to Mahatma Gandhi, is still unable to ensure the flowering of international NGOs, which stand up for the rights of those across the world and do not have anything directly to do with India. Such universal questions are the only pedestal they will retain at a time when many await their turn, after the I.B. report, to bring them down from their moral high ground.

Ramesh Gopalakrishnan was, until recently the India Researcher at Amnesty International’s International Secretariat in London and was directly involved in the research, advocacy and campaign on Vedanta’s bauxite mine plans in Niyamgiri, Odisha.

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