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Who’s costing us the earth?

Wednesday, 9 July 2014 - 6:00am IST Updated: Tuesday, 8 July 2014 - 9:12pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Castigating NGOs conveniently shifts the blame for the plunder of the country's natural resources

The Intelligence Bureau (IB) has overreached itself in submitting a report to the Prime Minister’s Office accusing NGOs of receiving foreign funds, and in singling out Greenpeace India, for campaigning against coal-based and nuclear power projects. The timing of this leak of a confidential report is suspect. Even Dr Manmohan Singh had held that foreign funds were supporting such NGOs which slowed down India’s quest to be a nuclear power, but that remained a query.  The IB has now gone further by prompting the Home Ministry to scrutinise this funding, given that the present government is even more suspicious.

Indeed, the IB report makes heavy weather of Gujarat NGOs which have raised civil rights issues in the aftermath of the 2002 riots and also questioned the “Gujarat model of development”.

The “foreign funding” is a convenient, if lazy and irresponsible, slur to damn many NGOs which raise sensitive issues. It is a throwback to the paranoia exhibited by Indira Gandhi who saw the “hidden hand” in several such inconvenient truths.  It is a variant of domestic McCarthyism which discovers a green (as opposed to a red!) under every bed.  To imagine that developed industrial nations use reputable international agencies like Greenpeace and Amnesty to keep India backward is to stretch the limits of credulity. 

Greenpeace has also been a thorn in the side of rich nations which are trying to develop or fund thermal stations too. Only recently, after negotiations in Bonn towards a global climate treaty in Paris next year, Martin Kaiser, who heads International Politics in Greenpeace, said: “France, Germany, Japan, South Korea and other OECD countries must stop financing foreign coal-fired power plants through development banks and export credits and shift these investments towards renewable energies…  Yet Australia, Canada, Japan and Poland want to rely on highly polluting coal-fired power plants and oil for the next few decades. This is madness.”  

As many as 60 governments supported a resolution in Bonn that calls for reducing dependence on fossil fuels. In 2012, Greenpeace and other NGOs successfully lobbied against Shell for attempting to drill for oil in the Arctic.

India has a regrettable record in ensuring that people are not displaced by large energy projects. The IB sees the hidden hand of the Dutch government which funds an NGO called Cordaid which has called for restraining extractive industries like oil drilling in Manipur till the rights of local communities over their land and other resources, including rivers, were respected.  There are plans to erect 150 dams in the Northeast, 11 of which are under construction. The biggest is the Lower Subansiri project on the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh which the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, a farmers’ organisation, and All-Assam Students Union, among 40 domestic organisations, are all protesting against.

Nuclear energy is another all-too-familiar bogey. The atomic energy establishment’s functioning is shrouded in the greatest obscurity in the name of national security. However, it is common knowledge that our nuclear power stations – starting with Tarapur – have experienced cost overruns, radioactive leaks and far too frequent shut-downs. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, whose remit is to prevent harm to nuclear plant workers, people and the environment, is staffed with former nuclear scientists and is remarkably coy about exposing plant problems. No one, not even Parliament, knows how these are operating.  

The transmission and distribution losses on conventional coal-based power can cost up to a fourth of the electricity produced. Since the 1970s, anti-nuclear activists like the writer Praful Bidwai, whose columns appear on this page, have been dubbed “anti-national” by the nuclear powers-that-be; his name has once again cropped up in the IB report. If patriots like him can be castigated in this irresponsible manner, it is easy to understand how foreign–funded agencies can be wrongly blamed for hobbling the nuclear industry, which only produces 3 per cent of all the electricity in the country. Nothing should ever interfere with the right to dissent. 

If the IB has let its imagination run riot on subversive, mainly foreign-funded, NGOs, its foray into the field of economics – which Keynes called “the dismal science” – is even more far-fetched. One would like to see the back of the envelope on which the IB calculated that the activities of these agencies have cost the country 2-3 per cent of its GDP. In fact, the boot is on the other foot. The most authoritative estimate of the cost to global GDP of environmental damage has been conducted in 2006 by Lord Nicholas Stern, the former chief economist of the World Bank. He calculates that if there is no global action to curb carbon emissions (such as those released by coal-based stations) the world will lose 5 per cent of its GDP annually. If one adds all the other environmental damage, the annual toll could be a crippling 20 per cent. 

It is the rampant loot of the country’s natural resources by corporate interests, aided and abetted by a venal political class, that is costing it literally “the earth”. While the BJP may allege that the UPA was withholding permission for power and extractive projects, among others, the harsh fact is that most were given a green signal. According to the World Bank, the deterioration of India’s environment is already costing it 5.7 per cent of its GDP. Thus, it is the relentless appropriation of natural resources, accompanied by widespread displacement of people,  that is the villain of the piece.

The worst ravaged region of the country is the central belt which the late activist Baba Amte described as “the cummerbund of India” because it possesses the most mineral and timber resources. It is here that the oppressed are waging an armed combat against the State, which appears powerless to quell their rebellion. One has only to cite Manmohan Singh’s characterisation of this being the biggest threat to the country’s security. It should thus be crystal-clear that most reputable NGOs and activists are part of the solution, not the problem. 

The author is chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI)

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