‘Right to protest under threat’

Print edition : July 11, 2014

Samit Aich.

Interview with Samit Aich, executive director, Greenpeace India.

ONE of the organisations to feature prominently in the report of the Intelligence Bureau submitted to the Prime Minister’s Office is Greenpeace, a global environmental organisation. Some of Greenpeace’s global actions have been categorised as cases of “extreme environmentalism”. Its international and Indian chapters have been criticised for having spearheaded many protests, including ones against coal mining, that have allegedly contributed to a deceleration of the GDP. Greenpeace India executive director Samit Aich spoke to Frontline on his organisation’s response to the I.B. report. Excerpts.

How do you view the I.B. report, which looks at the activities of your organisation very critically? It also questions the sources of your funds.

We find it extremely surprising that the report has been leaked. We do not know what is the real version and what is the official version. The timing is also of grave concern; whether the report is essentially meant to set the cat among the pigeons, to throw a scare among NGOs [non-governmental organisations]. We feel extremely perturbed that Greenpeace India has figured prominently in the report. Of course, our position on several of the issues we work on, like coal, nuclear power or against GM [genetically modified food], is all very clear, but we are wondering what the basic reason for this report being leaked and Greenpeace being named could be. What we have seen is, of course, malicious, and the figures of GDP being quoted should be questioned.

Did you try to put in some kind of a requisition to the government for a meeting to discuss the I.B. accusations?

Just after it was reported in the media, I sent a formal letter by mail and fax to the Home Ministry and haven’t got a response at all. There is complete silence. Till date we haven’t heard anything from the government about civil society and NGOs being a threat to the country’s economic security and quite deplorable the things that have been said about Greenpeace. The sense I am getting from this report is that there is a threat to the right to protest and the right to civil democracy that as an Indian I am very proud of. That is the question Greenpeace and others are asking: do we have a right to protest, as it is guaranteed by the Constitution to have a different thought process, the right to protest, of course not violently?

Coming to the more basic question that has been raised on the issue of international funding and the outsourcing of such funding to other organisations to organise protests, what is your organisation’s response to that?

Let me clarify this about funding. As an organisation, we have around a quarter of a million Indian financial supporters who support Greenpeace. Our model is interesting and clear. We take only small sums of money from a large number of people from any part of the world. We have around three million online supporters, volunteers and offline supporters. I don’t know what is the definition of foreign funding. If I go by corporate law, for instance, any company that has a more than 51 per cent stake can be considered as having a majority stakeholder. At Greenpeace India, we have on an average 60-65 per cent of money coming in from Indian supporters. So by what stretch of imagination can we say that we are a foreign-funded organisation? Having said that, we have around 35-38 per cent of funds coming in from Greenpeace International, which, by the way, also follows the same norms of fund-raising. Almost two-thirds of our funding comes from Indians and I am surprised to hear that this small amount of funding is coming in the way of economic growth. We have not seen the report and we have responded on the basis of what has appeared on the Net.

Greenpeace is often accused of environmental extremism.

We hold on to three values very strongly—non-violent direct action, bearing witness, and financial independence. Bearing witness essentially means that when there is an environmental disaster or an environmental problem of a significant kind, we are not the kind of organisation that will remain silent. We will go to the world and tell them about it. We take direct action, but non-violently. I think you are raising a larger question about the role of coal. This is not just the position of Greenpeace in India alone, but any of the 40 countries where we operate we say that coal is not the solution to energy problems. For us climate change is the biggest risk the world over because of carbon emissions caused by thermal power generation. If the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report says that the world is heading towards irreversible climate change and that is a report no one officially contests, then all developing and developed countries have to move away from coal. There are myriad issues involved here: extraction, carbon emissions and displacement of people. If you overlay the forests of this country with the map of India, you will see all the coal reserves lie under forests. One will have to cut the forests, displace indigenous tribes and forest dwellers, and be in contravention of the Forest Rights Act. A more fundamental approach to energy planning is required.

Our studies indicate that coal reserves will be there for 17 to 20 years. No one says coal will be available for the rest of our lives. The government is making investments for the long term; are these being made for new thermal projects which have a lifespan of 40 years? Money is going to be put in for infrastructure where the raw material is not going to be there. Therefore, an alternative energy planning strategy is required. We are saying: go in for renewables; for a change, lead the world, not follow the world. Those investments need to be made today. The World Bank says that 5.7 per cent of India’s GDP is going to be affected because of climate change. So any growth the country makes will be negated by climate change.

But is there not a similarity of argument in what the Western countries say about developing nations’ need to cut down on carbon emissions, instead of looking at their own consumption levels; Greenpeace does not seem to criticise the capitalist nature of development.

We say that irrespective of whether you are a developing or developed country, carbon emissions have to come down. Our stand is clear; we tell the United States to move away from dangerous fuels.

There are alternative paradigms of development; it cannot just be GDP-led growth. Why is it that after 65 years of Independence 300 million Indians do not have access to electricity? The very definition of GDP, that is, the mean of the average of all incomes in this country; it does not address the disproportionate distribution of wealth. It cannot just be linked to the economy but to the ecology. We are demonstrating alternative models of energy. In Bihar, we have set up a micro grid, which is clean and decentralised. The government can trash our model but what has its energy planning delivered so far? The rich in India are emitting almost the same amount of CO that they do in any developed country in the world. There is no talk of national parity

The I.B. report was commissioned by the previous government and presented to this government essentially. There does not seem to be a shift in the paradigm of development. Besides the I.B. report does not prescribe any course of action against you.

I do not know whether the report is a vestige of the past or an asset of the future. But this broad-brushing of allegations is dangerous and deplorable. It is like saying one-third of the Parliament Members have criminal records, so all of them are criminals. But increasingly, the right to protest is being pushed around. I have a different view of the Gujarat model. Now there are voices saying that they have been stifled. Select industries have access to the PMO, while NGOs don’t. The I.B. report is what crony capitalism seems to be taking refuge behind. The Niyamgiri forests will be cleaned off; the Mahan forests will be cleaned off in the name of energy security. The current government has the responsibility to ensure that our vibrant democracy is not stifled.

Every NGO seems to have an idea of “rights”. Several organisations named in the I.B. report have not responded jointly and unitedly, and there are many who have not been named and have not come out in support.

Diversity in approach and functional focus is to be seen in a positive light. If industry can be diverse, why can’t civil society be? I cannot say why some have responded and some have not. The government can unleash its powers against those who are doing things against the law of the country. It is wrong to put an umbrella approach to say that every member of civil society is a sitting conman and should be rejected outright. Every NGO adds a different aspect to the debate and in some way they are all interconnected. Our campaign in Mahan is not just about an ecological issue; there are issues of displacement as well. We have an appalling record of rehabilitation. It is not about rehabilitation alone. There are social pressures that work, right? You cannot give money and tell people to migrate. People have lived in those villages for decades; they have a right to self-determine. That’s what they are saying in Niyamgiri: our hills are sacred to me. One cannot put an economic value to it. That is what they are saying in Mahan also.

What lies ahead?

Nothing has changed. We will continue to campaign in defence of the planet. We have done nothing illegal. We are the country’s premier environmental organisation and perhaps even the world’s. We come with our warts and moles but that won’t alter the strategic approach in the way we work. The I.B. report shows what Greenpeace is about; we are an organisation that cannot be ignored. What we say will make sections in the government and industry extremely uncomfortable but that is the approach we will take.

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