Development debate: Should civil society be a sitting duck?

Development debate: Should civil society be a sitting duck?

The Intelligence Bureau's report on how some non-governmental organisations are trying hard to put a full stop on India's march to gas-guzzling, coal-burning economic euphoria smacks of ‘my way or the highway’ attitude.

The report titled ‘Concerted efforts by select foreign funded NGOs to take down Indian development projects’ cannot, however, be brushed aside as alarmist. There may be a relevant motive behind monitoring activist groups.

After all, independent India has tried to handle unrest in the north-east, Kashmir and pressure groups elsewhere using the four-pronged realpolitik put forward by Kautilya, who advocated sam (conciliation), dam (bribes), danda (force) and bhed (split) as the four options of statecraft used together instead of a single option, an accurate observation first made by former BBC correspondent Subir Bhaumik.

Of course, the authorities have to investigate; it is their job. But they should also know there is no harm in doing away with the insinuation that all NGOs are guilty by birth. Where are we living? North Korea? What is more important: the issue or the NGO? In plain language, should the authorities go after the person rather than the subject?

Greenpeace’s lengthy point-by-point rebuttal of the contents of the ‘leaked’ IB report is in public domain, so is the report. It should then be easy for laypersons, with some use of common sense, to come to a reasonable conclusion.

 For example, the IB report says NGOs have hurt India's Gross Domestic Product by at least 3 per cent, which Greenpeace calls a ‘ridiculous’ claim since 3 per cent of India’s GDP is over Rs 3.3 lakh crore.

 The international NGO goes on to quote the World Bank, "Environmental degradation may be reducing India’s GDP by 5.7 per cent per annum."

But the figure arrived at by the IB is approximately double the amount, Rs 1.76 lakh crore, mentioned by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in the 2G spectrum scam. The onus is on the IB to show how exactly a motley bunch of NGOs has hurt the country.

It is impossible to wish away NGOs. It is the law of nature for every action to have an equal and opposite reaction, which is good for a vast multi-cultural country as India where different peoples live – a kind of automatic checks and balances.

When a conflict arises in a matter of sharing natural resources, it happens quite often in India that the warring parties belong to different social background, culture and even faith. Tension over sharing river water between states and regions is a prime example. 

If the supposed benefactor of natural resources happened to be an entity with a profit motive or backed fully by the government, the simmering indignation of the affected party gets a completely new meaning – popularly known as ‘a matter of national security.’

NGOs walk a fine balance among several forms of extremes. They argue in a democratic space and protest if the need arises. But the corollary of the IB report is that India does not need NGOs aka opposing voices. 

Question of accountability

Everyone should mind their own business when the government goes on a land acquisition drive or introduces new kinds of seeds. If this is so, who will be held accountable later if the kick went wide? Anyway it is rare to see people in public life accept failure in our times.Yet, this was exactly the stand-off that people needed to put matters into perspective.

Some NGOs have immense wealth as any regular corporate body. The government must make it mandatory for them to list the donated amount publicly for each campaign without meddling with the campaign itself, unless it is a direct threat to national security. 

This way the authorities would know the source and tentative purpose of the money without having to go through sleepless nights worrying about what the NGO would do next. There is no reason why NGOs should not agree to this form of transparency measure. They will have no choice but to take responsibility for their actions.

The stand-off between NGOs and the IB was not so much about alleged shady sources of donations. NGOs in fact lost their cool when the IB broached the subject of national security. 

Activists suspected the authorities would coin the governmental nomenclature ‘national security’ to any matter that made those in power uncomfortable, without seriously looking into any side effect of their policies. It sets a bad precedent in a free country.

Civilians must remember that it is foolish to expect spooks to play by the rulebook. At least not on this planet as we know it. They always slip in their cloaks and carry daggers.

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