After months of tussle with activists, India suspends Greenpeace

by @rohini_mohan April 10, 2015 5:00AM ET

The Narendra Modi government is trying to ”silence criticism and dissent” about its environmental policies, say critics

Coal Energy
A Greenpeace activist dressed as a coal miner protests near Parliament in New Delhi on August 21, 2012.
Prakash Singh / AFP / Getty Images

Since it came to power last year, along with legal changes in environmental policy, the Narendra Modi government has restricted grassroots and environmental activism on an unprecedented scale. Just yesterday, the Ministry of Home Affairs blocked Greenpeace India from receiving foreign funding for six months and froze the nonprofit’s bank accounts, allegedly because the organization has “prejudicially affected the public interests and economic interests of the country,” in violation of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, or FCRA. Samit Aich, executive director of Greenpeace India said that the Home Ministry’s repeated moves to restrict the nonprofit’s funding were clear attempts to “silence criticism and dissent.” Divya Raghunandan, the group’s program director, adds, “The real reason is our campaigns that have been irritants for the cozy nexus between government and some companies.”

On May 3, 2014, a report by India’s Intelligence Bureau that accused “foreign-funded” nonprofits of stalling development was leaked to the media. Addressed to the prime minister’s office, it said the nonprofits served as tools for foreign policy interests of Western governments by agitating against nuclear and coal-fired power plants across the country. 

The report attacked Greenpeace in particular, but also the Indian environmental and human rights organizations People’s Union for Civil Liberties, the Narmada Bachao Andolan and Amnesty India. It named certain renowned civil-rights activists as being anti-nationalists and part of a green lobby that had “slowed India’s GDP by two or three percent.” The report called them “threats to national security.” The daily paper The Indian Express stated that much of the report was copied directly from a 2006 speech Modi gave at a book launch when he was the chief minister of the state of Gujarat. 

Shortly after the report was leaked, the Home Ministry blocked the flow of overseas funds to Greenpeace India. Raghunandan says this is because Greenpeace’s “campaigns have questioned illegality and harassment in mining areas. … When they don’t like the message, they shoot the messenger.” 

‘The State may not accept the views of civil rights activists, but that by itself, cannot be a good enough reason to do away with dissent.’

Delhi High Court

ruling in favor of Greenpeace's Priya Pillai

According to Raghunandan, the accusation about foreign funding paying for the organization’s anti-mining campaigns is a red herring. “More than 70 percent of our funding is domestic: contributions from environmentally conscious individuals who pay between 300 to 700 rupees ($5-11) a month,” she says. Eventually, the Delhi High Court struck down the blocking of Greenpeace funds. It said there was no proof of Greenpeace being involved in “anti-national” activities. Now, the flow of funds to the group has stopped once again.

Other nonprofits have been targeted, too. In December last year, the government banned four more environmental organizations that receive foreign funding: Bank Information Center, Sierra Club, and Avaaz. 

Several individual activists have been directly targeted. On Jan. 11, the Ministry of Home Affairs prevented Greenpeace India’s senior campaigner, Priya Pillai, from boarding a flight to London, where she was to speak to British legislators on alleged human rights violations at coal mining projects of Essar Energy and Hindalco Industries in the Mahan forests in the state of Madhya Pradesh. The ministry put her on a “no-fly list,” preventing her from leaving the country.

Pillai challenged this in the Delhi High Court. There, the Home Ministry’s lawyer justified its move, saying Pillai was involved in “anti-national activity.” The lawyer said her testimony in London would have been “prejudicial to national interest” and could be used by foreign governments that want to “subdue India’s increasing strength on global platforms.” On March 12, the court ruled in favor of Pillai: “The State may not accept the views of civil rights activists, but that by itself, cannot be a good enough reason to do away with dissent.”

Activist Medha Patkar arrives at a press conference, Aug. 29, 2014, in Kolkata, India about changes in the land acquisition act brought about by the Modi-led government.
Ashok Nath Dey / Hindustan Times / Getty Images

Pillai’s story made the international news as a case of state intimidation of green activism, but many other local activists in Mahan, where she works, have been targeted. Mahan is one of the last forests of sal trees in the country, and mining there affects more than 14,000 indigenous people. In March 2013, nonprofits, including Greenpeace, and local activists joined hands under the grassroots group Mahan Sangharsh Samiti, or MSS, to oppose mining, primarily by Essar and Hindalco. In Singhrauli district, which is near Mahan, members of the MSS say they are subject to regular raids by the Intelligence Bureau, midnight arrests by local police and constant intimidation. On May 7, 2014, some MSS members, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, tried to stop Essar staff from cutting trees before forest clearances were given. They were arrested at midnight without the required warrants. 

“Coal should not be so important that the government wants people to pay with their lives,” says Pillai. “The green activists are fighting for an equitable model.” 

The Intelligence Bureau report has often been ridiculed in the Indian media, but its language of anti-nationalism is widely used by politicians today. Previous governments have targeted activists too, as in the case of Abhay Sahoo, an activist in the state of Odisha who has been charged in more than 55 cases for protesting against the Korean steel company Posco. But activists Medha Patkar, Alok Shukla and Pillai all say that today, the intimidation has been stepped up. Once the word “anti-national” is used to describe any dissenter or activist, that person is sure to suffer grave consequences. For instance, Laxmi Chauhan, an environmental activist based in Korba, Chhattisgarh, had a visit from Intelligence Bureau officers who questioned him about his source of funds and his work against illegal mining. Under the Modi government’s recommendations to speed up environmental clearance, anyone who files and loses a “frivolous” case against a project, whether on the basis of environmental or human-rights violations or personal loss, and loses, will have to pay a penalty of 100,000 rupees.

“The government is on a certain course of development, and it simply brushes aside those who ask questions, whether it is a villager or a Delhi activist,” says Patkar.