Not foreign firms, Centre averse to NGOs

Not foreign firms, Centre averse to NGOs

Ironically, it was the Cong and BJP that were held guilty for accepting funding from firms abroad.

Last month, the Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Cha­nge Madhav Dave, while addressing members from the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the ministry, reminded them to be wary of the NGOs supported by foreign interests and funding and to ensure that projects are not delayed due to new environmental studies.

Dave told them to keep the overall goal of ‘ease of doing business’ in mind. Earlier, the EAC on River Valley Projects recorded in its minutes of meeting that it will not entertain representations from the civil society groups. Objectively seen, the minister was well within his right to caution experts with respect to policy issues as well as emphasise the Centre’s policy goals.

What is however seriously problematic is that the word of caution is only with respect to civil society groups. Not a word was supposedly spoken about the need to be cautious about business entities, whether Indian or foreign, whose project proposals are scrutinised by the ministry and the EAC.

It is beyond doubt that many foreign companies have been found blatantly violating environmental laws: the Environmental Clearance for Lafarge, the French cement giant, was suspended in 2011 by the Himachal Pradesh High Court on grounds of faulty studies and concealment of information; the environmental and forest clearance for POSCO, the Korean steel giant, was suspended by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in view of blatant illegality and deficient studies and Vedanta/Sterlite’s industrial operations in Tamil Nadu, Goa and Odisha were found to be illegal and improper on environmental grounds by the Supreme Court, high court and NGT; Coca Cola was held guilty of over-exploiting ground water in Kerala.

This is not an exhaustive list. At the international level, Germ­an car giant Volkswagen admitted to having ‘planted’ someth­ing called a “defeat device” — or software — in diesel engines that could detect when they were being tested, changing the performance accordingly to imp­rove results. Foreign companies, ironically, tend to be treated as ‘holy cows’ by the government.

At the domestic level, groups like Jindal Steel, Adani, GVK, Bhilwara, Jaypee Cements have been held guilty of environmental violations by various courts. While not a word is ever said by the political establishment aga­inst such proven violators, they are also regarded as no less sacred than the exotic ‘holy cows.’

One is rather surprised at the aversion towards only NGOs espousing environmental and social concerns. After all, one must not forget that the government does engage actively with a select category of NGOs, who have easy access to the citadels of policy and decision making.

These NGOs include the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), the Federation of Indian Commerce and Industries (FICCI), Federation of Indian Mineral Industries (FIMI), Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India (CREDAI), Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) to name a few.

Clearly, and without doubt, SIAM does not have public health as its primary consideration when it articulates for use of highly polluting diesel for private vehicles or for that matter when CREDAI aggressively advocates for exemption from application of environmental laws for real estate projects. The government's policy, irrespective of the party in power, has always been influenced by the pressure exerted by these NGOs.

Yet, not a word of caution is ever expressed by the political leadership when it comes to dealing with these NGOs. On the contrary, political leaders openly hobnob with leaders of these NGOs and solicit their support for implementation of government programmes.

Greenpeace issue

Now, coming to the issue of foreign funding. Two years ago, the Ministry of Home Affairs took action against NGO Greenpea­ce on alleged violation of law, based on a report of the Intelligence Bureau. Not only was its Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) permission suspended, but even its registration as a society was suspended. The Delhi and the Madras HCs overturned the government’s decision, holding it illegal and arbitrary and a violation of the democratic right of citizens.

Ironically, it was the Congress as well as the BJP that were held guilty by the Delhi HC for accepting funding for political activities from the UK-based foreign company — Vedanta and Sterlite. In a clear and unambiguous judgement, the HC concluded that both the parties had violated the FCRA which prohibits political parties from accepting foreign contribution.

Both parties escaped prosecution since the law was subsequently amended with retrospective effect, legalising these contributions. As expected, the law was amended without any objection in Parliament.

The freedom and right to form an association is one of the freedoms under the constitution. So is the freedom of speech and expression. In expressing concerns with respect to environment, civil society groups are only doing what the Indian Constitution requires them to do under Article 51 A (g) — to protect and improve the natural environment and to have compassion for every living creature.

No minister, ministry, government or its expert committee is above the constitution. It is high time those in power recognise not only their constitutional duties, but also the limits of their power and authority under the Constitution.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based environmental lawyer)

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