NGOs under the scanner

As the empire strikes back at super high-gear protests by NGOs, India's crowded voluntary sector is best dealt with when engaged, than confronted, say analysts.
Hindustan Times | By Zia Haq
UPDATED ON MAR 04, 2012 09:59 AM IST

As the empire strikes back at super high-gear protests by NGOs, India's crowded voluntary sector is best dealt with when engaged, than confronted, say analysts.

Last spring, when India wrangled with the 172-nation Stockholm Convention to resist a global plan on banning endosulfan, a farm insecticide, Mohammed Asheel from Kerala paid his way to the Swedish capital, checked into a budget hotel and independently monitored the negotiations.

Millions of poor Indian farmers rely on endosulfan because they can't afford anything safer, and without it, a single pest attack could flatten their farms, Indian officials argued at Stockholm. Yet, the hazardous farm chemical's deadly health effects on Kerala's cashew growers have made it a sinner than a saint.

Asheel, an activist supporting the ban, closely followed India's stand and tweeted developments back home. He represents one among India's plethora of non-governmental organisations that fiercely campaign for alternative policies in Asia's fast-growing economy, often holding back government plans.

Battlelines are now being drawn after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in a interview, blamed donors in the US and Scandinavian nations for funding home-grown NGOs that oppose India's civil nuclear energy programme and genetically modified crops.

Social activists often focus on a big chunk of population India's iconic economic boom has left behind. This grants them legitimacy. But at the heart of their opposition lies India's market-driven economic model.

South Korean steel giant POSCO's plans for a $12 billion (R60,000 crore) steel plant in Orissa are still hobbling. Protesters say the plant would destroy forest-based livelihoods.

But India needs vast amounts of foreign capital to achieve a desirable annual growth of nearly 9%, which can spur jobs. So, as farmlands are cleared for factories and scenic beachfronts for ports, the social costs of economic expansion are frequently questioned.

Besides, India's energy needs are rapidly rising. It currently runs 20 nuclear plants but aims to quadruple its 4,780 MW of nuclear power to 20,000 MW by 2020. The country suffers a crippling 12% peak-hour power deficit.

Yet, in the aftermath of Japan's Fukushima disaster, protests have hit plans to build nuclear power reactors - from Jaitapur to Kudankulam. The government's patience is now wearing out. It has struck back hard by slapping cases on four anti-nuclear NGOs.

Democracy or disruption?

"This (crackdown) is an indication that voices of resistance will be restricted now," says Mamata Das of the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers, which played a key role in bringing a law for protection of forest tribes.

The fiercest opposition has to do with India's harnessing of science. Farm biotechnology is a case in point.

Two-thirds of Indians depend on farm income and 60% of farms have no irrigation. "For us to achieve 9% growth, agriculture needs to grow at minimum 4%," according to Abhijit Sen, a Planning Commission economist. The government, therefore, is banking on biotechnology that can help create crops that demand less water but give better yields.

But opponents have a differing story. "The government has just one model in mind," says Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, adding: "It opts for corporate science, which is intimately linked to exploitative markets being created, this is apart from larger questions of safety."

NGOs say it is generally assumed that ordinary citizens are not competent to be consulted on science-and-technology-related decisions. "But there exists a people's knowledge domain too and NGOs often work with renowned scientists," says Kuruganti. For instance, PM Bhargava, who founded the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, was also involved in opposing India's first GM food, Bt brinjal.

However, getting NGOs on board will hardly end the opposition. At least 10 state governments said they did not want Bt brinjal, a stand that could impact future breakthroughs. States have previously jammed billion-dollar deals pushed by the central government, such as Enron's gas-fired power plant in Maharashtra. Even some eminent Indians have moved the Supreme Court to stall the nuclear programme over safety issues (see box). The court recently struck down licences of 122 telecom firms, resulting in firms fleeing India.

It's impossible to firewall the voluntary sector in a democracy, a reality echoed by PM Singh himself. Harsh Jaitli, CEO of Voluntary Action Network India, says a regulatory framework making the rules of the game clearer is a solution. Often, critics could be asking just the right questions. NGOs then are best dealt with when engaged, rather than confronted, analysts say.

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