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Thy Foreign, Lying Hand, Great Anarch

The PM’s suspicion of external influence in NGOs belie old fixities and current practices

Thy Foreign, Lying Hand, Great Anarch
Thy Foreign, Lying Hand, Great Anarch

That Predictable Strong Arm

  • Anti-GM crop NGOs come under fire as a draft bill threatens arrest of activists who provoke fear against GM technology without “scientific evidence”
  • NGOs “linked to the Church” under fire for opposing uranium mining in West Khasi Hills, Meghalaya, in 2010
  • Medecins Sans Frontieres under the scanner for extending medical aid to Naxals in 2011, so too PUCL’s Binayak Sen for allegedly helping Naxals
  • Several Indian NGOs with funding from Denmark placed under the scanner in 2011 after reports that the donor country planned to fund groups opposing government policies and corruption
  • NGOs headed by Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi attacked during the anti-corruption protests last year
  • Arrests of anti-POSCO activists belonging to the CPI-backed POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti in 2011


“The world has changed, and the country must also change,” Manmohan Singh famously said on becoming finance minister two decades ago, in June 1991. The man who welcomed foreign investment into India has now, as its prime minister, invoked that old chestnut of a “foreign hand” working via civil society organisations (NGOs) to dismiss opposition to the Koodankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu. This has attracted (for the large part) criticism, concern, even wry chuckles at the irony of it all. For starters, a man who has always had to battle a pro-US image is pushing for a nuclear plant being built by Russia and, in the process, accusing US-funded NGOs (though not naming any) of blocking it. If that wasn’t enough, Outlook learns there is also a Russian ecological group, EcoDefence, somewhere at work here.

Civil society is clearly upset. Many say Manmohan’s statement reflects a disturbing trend of government tackling genuine dissent by means more foul than fair. They stress the government reacted the same way to the Anna Hazare campaign, imputing motives to the NGOs that led it rather than meeting them on the turf of ideas. So the recent CBI and police action against four NGOs for alleged violation of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (and reported plans for action against several more) has hardly been a PR coup for the Centre. But it’s evidently a carefully thought-out strategy. In an interview to American journal Science last week, Manmohan blamed US- and Scandinavian-funded NGOs for not being “fully appreciative of the developmental challenges that our country faces”.

Was the PM trying to give out a signal to a wider audience that would be heard well beyond the country? What is the significance of invoking the “foreign hand” bogey—well-worn through use by successive generations of Indian PMs—at this juncture? Clearly, the pressure, both personal and external, to deliver on the nuclear deal (the only big feather in Manmohan’s cap) is showing. The failure to push through the deal on the ground—there have been protests at proposed reactor sites—undermines his, and indeed India’s, position.

“It is unfortunate that the prime minister of the largest democracy should have to lament about foreign-funded NGOs influencing the course of events,” says Nikhil Dey, a member of the National Advisory Council (NAC). Most large NGOs—a “powerful lobby”, all things considered—agree with this view.

Complicating matters is an edgy game of politics being played out in Tamil Nadu, where protests against the Koodankulam plant have been raging for months. The leading agitator S.P. Udayakumar, coordinator, PMANE, told Outlook that the Centre had unleashed a “psychological war” against activists behind the stir. And soon after meeting CM Jayalalitha on February 29, he said she was “positive” and “cordial and patient” and “we have full faith in her”.

“The PM lamenting about foreign-funded NGOs influencing events is unfortunate and contentious.” Nikhil Dey, NCPRI & NAC member “The PM ought to take apprehensions seriously. It’s an insult to the intellect of millions, and to democracy itself.” M.V. Ramana, Princeton University

“The Union home ministry should have shared that information with the media, rather than let the PM talk about the NGOs.” Sanjaya Baru, Former media advisor to PM “We see this as a desperate attempt to hide the real foreign hand—corporate agendas and their lobbying power with policy.” Samit Aich, Greenpeace India

“It’s like striking at the nerve of democracy by questioning the questioner. We’re not in a country that doesn’t allow debate.” Dr Pushkar Raj, PUCL “The PM’s statement was positive and long overdue. Most NGOs work for purposes different from what they’ve registered.” V.K. Saxena, NCCL

“Foreign funding for development is going down, but data shows funds going up—we don’t know for what purpose.” Harsh Jaitli, Voluntary Action Network India “The PM’s remarks reflect the level of insecurity in our polity and democracy, that we can’t tolerate any kind of challenge.” Amitabh Behar, NCAS

But Jayalalitha is not letting on which way she’ll swing. For one, she has to tackle Tamil Nadu’s acute power crisis. And there’s also a bypoll to the Shankarankoil assembly constituency in Tirunelveli district (where Koodankulam is located) coming up on March 18. For now, she’s playing the pro- and anti-plant lobbies against each other. Recently, there were howls of protests when she appointed former Atomic Energy Commission chairman M.R. Srinivasan (seen as “pro-nuclear”) to head a committee constituted to probe the safety of the plant.

Some sceptics blame NGOs for a lack of transparency in functioning, something they demand from the government.

“The whole thing has been blown out of proportion,” says the prime minister’s former advisor and journalist, Sanjaya Baru. He feels it is necessary for governments to engage with civil society. But that should not call for glossing over “irregularities”—if any—committed by NGOs. In this instance, Baru claims information about “irregularities” was with the Union home ministry (MHA) for at least six months. “It would have been better if the MHA took a proactive role in sharing it with the media, rather than let the PM talk about them,” he added.

In normal circumstances, bold action against NGOs for misusing foreign funds would have been decent PR—generating positive, nationalist vibes—but it has had the opposite effect. Faulty media management? No. Experts say Manmohan’s tack ran contrary to a changed pecking order in India—instituted largely by the PM himself. Many top bureaucrats (and some politicians) are foreign-trained. Policymakers, scholars and researchers interact with global agencies.

This has led to piquant situations. Take The Asia Foundation. It was banished from India by Indira Gandhi, on charges of being a CIA front. Now it sends Indian diplomats to the US for crash courses on foreign policy. This “foreign hand” also extends to NGOs, who are funded by a host of multilateral agencies and think-tanks abroad. The Ford Foundation alone farms out about `70 crore a year to top Indian civil society and advocacy groups.

S.P. Udayakumar, other PMANE activists, after meeting CM Jayalalitha in Chennai. (Photograph by Quickpix)

Ultimately, the PM’s gambit failed because a bogey of Cold War vintage didn’t sit well with a man who actually pulled India out of that mindset. Journalist and environment activist Praful Bidwai describes it as a “prelude to a campaign of crackdown”. He says, “Manmohan Singh is trying to tell the world that India will push the work at Koodankulam no matter what the opposition to it.” Bidwai, who has been a strong anti-nuclear campaigner, recalls how he was vilified by the establishment for his views when India went nuclear in May 1998.

But sceptics also raise questions about the NGOs and the way they function. Devesh Kapur, who heads CASI in University of Pennsylvania, blames NGOs for lack of transparency, something they keep demanding from the government. However, it has to be accepted that for NGOs foreign funding is a fact of life. Pushpa Sundar, author of an in-depth book on NGOs, says most often they have to look abroad for funds. “With government providing very little funds and very few people donating, civil society has little option but to seek foreign donors, who provide funds with their own agenda, not necessarily evil,” says Sundar.

The PM evidently also doesn’t have a problem with all foreign funds, especially from groups like USAID, PATH, GAVI and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Many, in fact, argue he has actually modified development programmes to bring them on board. For example, the government, on prodding from GAVI, has begun introducing into the national immunisation programme a pentavalent vaccine that includes a shot for a disease caused by Haemophilus influenzae type B (HiB) bacteria. The prevalence of this disease, many public health experts have argued, is too low (around 0.07 per cent) to merit universal dosage of a vaccine against it. But the government has dismissed concerns, including those that raise a doubt on the vaccine’s efficacy. “Often aid for public health programmes come with strings that require us to buy a specific vaccine of a specified firm or with advance purchase commitments,” says Y. Madhavi, a principal scientist and vaccine policy researcher at New Delhi’s National Institute of Science, Technology & Development Studies. “In fact, many believe the push here is part of a strategy to bring down prices of the HiB vaccine in the US,” she adds.

Neither does the government resist foreign funds being used for pro-nuclear and pro-GM causes. Recent instances include the World Nuclear Association’s nuclear energy promotion symposium in New Delhi last month, attended by top government scientists, and USAID’s deep involvement with the government through its Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project to promote genetically modified crop technology. Many anti-GM campaigners have argued against the inclusion of Monsanto and Wal-Mart on the US-India Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture, which is ultimately aimed at reworking the country’s whole agricultural policy.

The opposition to yet another high-stakes nuclear power project, the 9,900 MW Jaitapur project in Maharashtra, too has suddenly been swept into the debate under the same terms—framed in the “foreign-motivated” category. The state Congress pounced on the cue offered by the PM and sought “answers” from around a dozen protesting NGOs, as well as its rival Shiv Sena, which is also opposing the project, about their sponsors. Congress sources admit they have no evidence, not even a tipoff, that there’s funding by foreign (or objectionable) agencies. “It was a good issue to put the Sena on the defensive, after their recent win in local elections. It’s a political game,” says a Congress general secretary in Mumbai. Indeed, at its core, the whole thing might turn out to be just that.

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