The Prime Minister’s statement, in an interview to the prestigious journal Science, attributing anti-nuclear protests at Kudankulam to non-governmental organisations based in the United States, has stirred a familiar hornet’s nest, that of ‘the foreign hand’.
The foreign hand of the CIA was of course frequently deployed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to deflect attention from domestic problems and, most memorably, to justify the imposition of the Emergency.
It is deeply ironical coming from a Prime Minister whose government’s policies can be divided into two handy categories: those, such as employment guarantee and food security, that have the imprint of the Congress’s aam aadmi hand symbol; and those, such as its economic and nuclear policies, that bear the generous imprint of the foreign hand.
It is amusing that the policy perspective of the U.S. government should be so enthusiastically embraced, even as the views attributed to NGOs in that country are derisively dismissed. This has to be more than the common hypocrisy of everyday politics.
Clearly, what makes the government bristle is opposition to official initiatives. Popular protest provokes it to send its minions scurrying to sniff out a foreign conspiracy. The assumption is that any developmental project the government undertakes must be an unambiguous national good, and the support of its citizens for such projects must be the prime test of their loyalty. Can there be a more banal form of normative developmental authoritarianism?
None of this is new. Medha Patkar would not have forgotten the to-do over her deposition on the Narmada Dam before a U.S. Congressional sub-committee back in the 1980s.
Senior Congress leaders of the time sponsored a publicity campaign in which she was vilified as an anti-national traitor: anti-national because she was leading a powerful agitation against a development project that was presented as a symbol of Gujarati asmita (pride); and a traitor because her appeal to international fora against a deaf Indian government resulted in a review of the project by an Independent Commission set up by the World Bank which was funding it.
The Independent Commission’s findings established the inadequacy of the government’s rehabilitation and resettlement programme and caused the World Bank to withdraw funding.
Raising the spectre of the foreign hand is an official stratagem for the avoidance of uncomfortable questions. By focusing attention on the funding of a handful of NGOs (three have had their licences cancelled), the government has implicitly questioned the credibility of all those, including the National Alliance of People’s Movements, who are concerned about the possible impact of the project on livelihoods and issues of safety.
In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, why should the demand for a credible safety certification be dismissed as a foreign conspiracy? Does the government not owe its citizens a satisfactory response as to the adequacy of safety mechanisms for the two nuclear reactors? In response to a pointed query from the interviewer from Science about whether after Fukushima the Prime Minister still thought nuclear energy had a role in India, the reply was ‘Yes, where India is concerned, yes. The thinking segment of our population certainly is supportive of nuclear energy.’
The opposition to the commissioning of the reactors at Kudankulam, on this view, is a combination of the unthinking segments of the Indian population along with foreign NGOs who simply do not appreciate India’s need to augment its energy supply.
None of this implies that NGOs are embodiments of unalloyed virtue. There are NGOs and NGOs. Some of them are genuine non-profit organisations engaged in selfless service while others are simply rackets for collecting money (the bulk of NGO funding in India is indeed foreign) and acquiring land, or vehicles for the self-aggrandisement of their promoters. There are even a large number of NGOs that have been set up by retired bureaucrats.
The government itself relies on NGOs for partnering it in the delivery of public services in education, health and rural development, just as it enters into partnerships with the private sector for infrastructure and other projects.
But the official response to NGOs varies: hostile when developmental projects are obstructed, friendly when their advocacy supports government initiatives, and indifferent in situations where they actually use foreign donations to fund communal hatred. The Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act of 1976 was passed during the Emergency; it was repealed and replaced by a new Act in 2010.
If this is still an inadequate instrument for regulating foreign funds for NGOs, then the government needs to think about the appropriate principles for the regulation of civil society organisations, instead of dismissing all civil society activism as necessarily paid or sponsored. It should especially reflect on the extent to which our views on their governance should be framed by our ideological predilections.
In globalised times, the relationships between the triad of the state, market forces and civil society are extremely complex, especially as states enter into alliances with civil society organisations as well as corporations.
For citizens, securing accountability from all three actors is an enormously challenging task. In the meantime, instead of casting doubts on their integrity, the government needs to answer the questions raised by the Kudankulam protestors. The citizens of India – thinking or unthinking – have a right to know what their government is doing about nuclear safety.
What is important is the question, not who is asking it. Shooting the messenger, whatever her/his colour, does not behove the government. The writer is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Law & Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University