Politically motivated: Medha Patkar

Print edition : July 11, 2014

Medha Patkar. Photo: CV.Subrahmanyam

“A SMALL group of activists and NGOs have at times succeeded in shaping policy debates in India. Apart from that, in some cases it is observed that in a cyclic process, an NGO is set up, funds are obtained from abroad, a few articles are commissioned, a PR 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 the image, after that the government machinery finds it that more difficult to act against the awardee.”

This paragraph from page 3 of the Intelligence Bureau’s (I.B.) secret report on “Concerted efforts by select foreign-funded NGOs to ‘take down’ Indian development projects” goes on to list “significant anti-developmental activities undertaken by NGOs” which include movements that are primarily protesting against certain energy and extractive industries, including the “Jal Satyagraha of the Narmada Bachao Andolan demanding lowering of water level of the Omkareshwar Project and of the Indira Sagar Project in Madhya Pradesh.”

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) and its founder Medha Patkar, 59, are no strangers to accusations. Set up in 1989, the NBA has made a name for itself. It certainly has detractors, some of them even well-known and respected people, and though there have been allegations that it took financial help from abroad, they were invariably dismissed after investigations into them.

The organisation has had a hand-to-mouth existence, carrying out its activities with the time given by volunteers, the conviction of its activists, and the support of the people it works on behalf of. It is therefore not surprising that Medha Patkar expresses indignation at the I.B. report. She says:

“We [the NBA] have been cautious about foreign funding and have not accepted it at all because of our belief in self-reliance. They [the government] have tried their best to try and pin accusations on us in this respect. Some years ago, [Narendra] Modiji had even written to L.K. Advani asking him to investigate the NBA. This was done and Advani wrote back saying nothing was illegal. We used that letter in court when the CEO of Adani filed a case against us. He said we received foreign funds and used the money for anti-national activities. In 2007, the Supreme Court dismissed the case.

“We don’t believe in accepting funds from outside the country and have never done so. When we won the Right Livelihood Award and the Goldman Environmental Prize, we did not accept the prize money that was associated with both.

“But what I want to point out is that the government has no moral right to question foreign funding because they themselves are foreign funded... capital is flowing in from abroad and it is influencing and changing the country’s policies. This takes its toll on the people... it affects livelihoods and takes away profits from the state exchequer.

“Every sector in the country is getting foreign funding, so why not the NGOs? In fact, the NGO sector is service- and empowerment-oriented, so really there is no reason to question the foreign funding they get. Of course, scrutiny of the sources and how the money is being used, all this is fine, but to actually debate whether or not NGOs should get foreign funding, that is not acceptable.

“The government is saying that foreign funding for NGOs can go against economic security. There are basic ideological issues at play here. Just because something is not the state’s point of view doesn’t make it anti-national or against national economic security.

“They are saying that NGOs like Oxfam and Greenpeace are anti-national. These are world-level organisations. They are bringing up questions of the environment and of livelihood—these are more and more relevant in the world today. These organisations do studious academic reports. What is wrong with research and documentation?

“The government has no right to question them just because they have another point of view. Is this point of view illegal? Is it harming the state? A mere difference of opinion doesn’t give the state the right to step in. Unless something unconstitutional is proved, it cannot do this. It is anti-democratic and fascist.

“NGOs are the voice of informed dissent, and this is required in a democracy. There are so many examples of benefits to civil society because of NGO intervention. There is the Right to Information Act, the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act, the declaration of assets by those standing for public office, environmental laws... so many such benefits. Besides, under our Constitution there is such a thing as the right to agitate.

“This report and all it contains is really just politically motivated. Is one meant to suppress all opposition to varying economic paradigms? The government only wants to support the corporate plan. It is a horse race to ensure that there are no barriers for the corporates so that they can do as they please. And they claim all this is in the name of economic progress.”

Lyla Bavadam