Thursday, April 30, 2015

NGOs and anti-development movements

I have written a few blogposts earlier about Kudankulam Nuclear power station built on east coast of India, with the reactors supplied by Russia. Today, the first reactor of this power plant, has been fully functional producing about 1000 MW of pollution free power and the second unit is at advanced stage of construction.

In its long saga of construction, the biggest stumbling block came up in 2010. As the work on reactors was nearing its completion, all hell broke loose with thousands of protestors living in the vicinity of the plant starting an agitation to get the project shelved. There were demonstrations, Public Interest Litigation at the Supreme court of India against the nuclear programme. As a result, the work was suspended on the project. The Tamil Nadu Government asked the federal Government to halt all operations till the protesting agitators would be reassured, that there would be no danger to them. In February 2012, Indian Government found out that the agitations were in fact instigated by some American and Scandivanian NGO's, who were found to have used foreign funds received for social and religious purposes to fuel the protests, violating foreign exchange regulatory rules. Finally, following a series of meetings and reports by experts committees, the State Government of Tamil Nadu, gave its final nod for resumption of work at Kudankulam in March 2012.

A couple of years back, I visited the Kutch region of the State of Gujarat on west coast of India. The most striking feature of this region is a huge marshy terrain known as Rann, which actually is made up of two unequal parts, the larger Rann and the smaller Rann. The smaller Rann is nearer to Saurashtra region of the state and has more greenery. As I had travelled towards the border of this marshy desert, I had a surprise in store. Instead of finding arid and dry landscape around, what I actually saw were huge agricultural tracts with standing specialized crops of "Jeera" and " Dhaniya." Even before my asking anything about that to my host, he clarified that all these fields are quite a recent development. A decade and half ago all this was semi arid land, which grew nothing. The magic wand has been a network of canals, known by common name of "Narmada Canal." This canal systems draws all its water from a single river Narmada, which has been dammed. This dam, now called Sardar Sarovar Dam, is one of the biggest dams in Gujarat on this river and has brought unbelievable prosperity to the state and its farmers. Yet this very project had become the first focal point of a  movement named as Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). This movement was supposed to be a social movement of adivasis (tribal), farmers, environmentalists and human rights activists who were against building of large dams built across the Narmada river.

I have never been able to understand the logic behind such movements. By blocking progress of projects, that would generate power or bring prosperity to a region, what do these people plan to achieve. If their aim is to see that the welfare of the people, who are displaced and need to move or are going to loose their lands, is served well and normally lethargic Government machinery moves to provide more than adequate compensation to the affected, they should concetrate on that activity instead of blocking the project itself. Such an aim is not only understandable but also worth the support. 

It so happens that  most of these anti-development activities are found somehow linked with organizations commonly called as Non-governmental organizations (NGO). What are these in reality? According to Wikipedia, these are the organizations that are neither a part of a government nor a conventional for-profit business. Usually set up by ordinary citizens, NGOs may be funded by governments, foundations, businesses, or private persons. In India, there are more than a million NGOs doing great work in fields of human development, social justice and upliftment of poor. There are international NGO's too and there number is estimated to be around 40000. Many of Indian NGO's receive funding from abroad. 

Ever since Indian Government found out in 2012 that the agitations at Kudankulam were in fact instigated by some American and Scandivanian NGO's, who were found to have used foreign funds received for social and religious purposes to fuel the protests, needle of suspicion has been tilting towards the NGO's. In October 2014, Government investigators found that as many as ten thousand NGO's had not filed there Income-Tax returns, a mandatory requirement as per tax laws. They were served notices and asked to furnish their tax details within a month, specifying the amount of foreign funds received, sources and the purpose for which they were received and how they were spent. Surprisingly only 229 NGO's replied to the notices. 

This month, Government decided finally to act. It first froze the national bank accounts of Greenpeace (an international NGO), accusing it of violating the country's tax laws and working against its economic interests by "stalling development projects". This was followed last week by putting a well known NGO, the Ford Foundation on a watch list and was ordered to seek government permission before giving money to local organisations.

The most severe indictment came this week, when Government cancelled the registration of nearly 9,000 foreign-funded NGOs saying they have failed to comply with rules by not filing  their annual tax returns for three years and have also failed to explain the delay.

There has been some criticism of the Government. However simple logic says that if someone has broken the laws of the country, the entity has to face the consequence. Onus really is on the NGOs. Who must prove that they they have genuine reasons for non compiling with the Government notice. I do not think that they deserve any sympathy, just because they claim that they are non profit organizations set up to help poor. 

30th April 2015 

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