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Environment Under Siege in New India

India’s new Bharatiya Janata Party has a pull-out-the-stops development policy that includes targeting environmental advocacy NGOs, investment in dubious hydro projects and opening fragile border areas to military infrastructure.

Pollution at Varanasi ghats. For the last 20 years, there has been a Rs 27,000 crore project called the Ganga Action Plan, but the Ganga at Varanasi is at its most polluted still. (Photo: Vivek Rai / CC)

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Not even a month into the Narendra Modi government, it seems like one is reading pages out of The Pelican Brief, the Grisham-Roberts thriller. Only, the locale is not Louisiana, in the United States, the river is not the Mississippi, and the NGO is not Green Fund. The country is India, the river, Ganga (Ganges in foreign tongues), the bird, the hornbill and not the pelican, and the NGO, Greenpeace. And the top political issue that has emerged domestically for the new Indian government is the “environment,” almost a dirty word now if one follows this month’s television debates.

Environment is also a dirty word because the party that opposed Narendra Modi directly, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and its leader Arvind Kejriwal, included two dozen environmental activists among its candidates, people like Medha Patkar, Anjali Damania – who took on Nitin Gadkari, a powerful Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader in Maharashtra and now urban development minister – and S P Udaykumar, the anti-nuclear activist whom AAP supported in Tamilnadu. The BJP supports nuclear arms, and anti-nuke activists are anathema to it.

Patkar, leader of the Narmada river displaced persons’ movement (Narmada Bachao Andolan) has been at loggerheads with the Modi government in Gujarat for decades, fighting a dam in this western state that has displaced thousands in upper-river basins. The verdict is, having won its majority, the BJP and its thinking represents India’s majority thinking, that the environment is bad and people and organizations involved with the environment are “anti-national.” One of the first things that the union government and the new water ministry has done is to clear increasing the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam by 17 meters – which, says Medha Patkar and her NBA, has already displaced 200,000 people in its effected region. “If the height is raised by 17 meters, the densely populated villages in Nimad area of Madhya Pradesh with houses, farms, shops, temples, mosques and standing crops would be drowned,” she has said. But she lost the elections. Who now cares what she says?

The tone for the current policy was set as long ago as 2006, when, in a speech, the then Gujarat chief minister, Modi, lambasted a “wealthy” and “influential” class of non-government organizations that “hire PR firms to continually build their image” with “money coming from abroad.” The occasion was the release of the first edition of “NGOs, Activists & Foreign Funds: Anti-Nation Industry,” edited by Radha Rajan and Krishen Kak – a collection of articles on what they called the “anti-Hindu agenda and corrupt practices of certain NGOs and activists.”

While the peaceful transition of power kept the world glued to a new India that voted a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to power in May 2014, it took about 15 days for people to realize the principal agenda on the table. Growth means build and build, as furiously as China has been doing, to outgrow China. This seems to be the mood of the nation so colorfully argued every night by BJP leaders like Yatin Oza, who credits environmentalists with stopping all of India’s development, to the extent of having “negatively impacted GDP growth by 2 to 3 percent.” The NGOs have been officially accused of violating Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) clearances, mandatory for organizations receiving foreign aid.

When ministries were announced, many thought that the Environment Ministry would be accorded low importance, as right-wing policy makers and strategists viewed it as a hindering and obstructionist ministry. Defense, a key portfolio, and finance, understandably went to Arun Jaitley, a long-time BJP veteran, who personally lost his first direct elections this May, though. The new environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, met Defense Minister Jaitley on June 10 and two days later announced a policy that would enable India’s border states with Pakistan, China and Burma to clear defense projects falling within 100 kilometers of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), without approaching the union government for environment clearances.

The 4,000-kilometer long LAC touches four states, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim, which are ecologically fragile, with glaciers, forests and sanctuaries through which at least 80-odd roads can now be built. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has short-listed 20-odd proposals which will be approved by July. Another 5,000 acres of land in Arunachal Pradesh bordering China has been cleared for the Indian Army and Air Force’s new Mountain Strike Corps in the eastern sector.

The Environment Ministry also cleared a radar unit at Narcondam Island in the ecologically fragile Andaman and Nicobar islands, both moves seen by experts as a way to counter China in the northern borders and China’s naval power in Sri Lanka and Malaysia (Coco Island). The Narcondam is home to the rare hornbill, and the expansion of Phase II of the futuristic Karwar naval base in coastal Karnataka radar station was on hold for two decades. No more.

The MoEF also reportedly started consultations with ministries like Coal, Power, Mining and Steel “to give a push to pending projects that run into tens of thousands of crores.” If environment clearance is facilitated, mining of uranium in Meghalaya and Andhra Pradesh (Jaduguda) will also become easier. The defense sector has been seeking this relaxation for 30 years, as India has to import uranium and cannot mine. Mining of coal is also mired in clearance controversies in core tiger habitats, and today India imports coal. This is another area the Environment Ministry is expected to free from clearance hurdles. There are Vedanta and Posco projects, in Odisha, halted by tribal rights groups and green activists. Questioning liability laws and safety adherences, Indian activists oppose nuclear power projects, more so after the Fukushima tsunami. Safety has always been an issue for the 22 nuclear power plants in operation in India since the 1970s.

Narendra Modi won his parliament seat from the ancient city of Varanasi on the banks of the river Ganga. He tweeted, “Need of the hour is to restore the glory of the Ganga… Today Maa Ganga is calling us, her children to make the river clean once again. When I see the pitiable condition of Ganga I feel pained but I feel it is Maa Ganga who has decided I have to do something for Her.” Modi had a case. The Ganges is India’s most polluted river. The three most important water issues before Water Minister Uma Bharati are cleaning up the Ganga, cooperating with the Environment, Power and Agriculture Ministries to provide water and power, even by interlinking rivers, and resolving interstate and international river water disputes. For the last 20 years, there has been a Rs 27,000 crore project called the Ganga Action Plan, but the Ganga at Varanasi is at its most polluted still. Disaster management is yet another issue. In places like Uttarakhand, unregulated damming for hydroelectricity has caused rivers to shift and wash land away. Now, Modi, on his first foreign visit to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, has sought hydropower cooperation.

Since the 1980s, there has been a plan to link India’s northern Himalayan rivers with the southern Deccan rivers, along the lines of China’s $60 billion project. This has meant a burden of Rs 70,000 crore and Rs 110,000 crore on the public treasury in India’s last two growth plans. River linking was in the BJP’s election manifesto and remains a priority, though experts have protested, saying, “The interlinking of rivers will disrupt the entire hydrological cycle . . . Besides, some 4.5 lakh people may be displaced and 79,292 hectares of forests may be submerged. Far from increasing productivity through irrigation along its course, the large network of dams and canals may alter the natural drainage, causing flooding and waterlogging to inundate millions of hectares of agricultural land. The equitable distribution of water across the country will inadvertently distribute pollutant loads across rivers as well.”

Interestingly, fertilizer imports top India’s import basket and the Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizer is Ananth Kumar, a fundraiser from Karnataka, often accused of links to the mining industry and baron Gali Janardhan Reddy and his brother (the Reddy brothers), accused of illegal mining in Goa, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and bribing judges. Among their defense counsel was Mukul Rohatgi, India’s new attorney general.

Everything is falling in place to ensure the environment and environmental NGOs and their activists are kept under check. Television and the Economic Times reported that an Intelligence Bureau memo on June 3 accused “foreign-funded” NGOs such as Greenpeace, Cordaid, Amnesty and ActionAid of “serving as tools for foreign policy interests of Western governments” by sponsoring agitations against nuclear and coal-fired power plants across the country. India has over 2 million NGOs.

The NGOs named as harming India’s growth include Narmada Bachao Andolan, and PUCL (the civil liberties organization that fought for Vinayak Sen’s freedom). The IB report says: “these foreign-funded NGOs are allegedly the influence behind ‘Praful Bidwais and Medha Patkars.'” It says Greenpeace, an international NGO working in the clean energy sector, received Rs 45 crore of foreign funds to oppose coal mining in India. “Since 2013, Greenpeace has undertaken protests in five project-affected villages of Mahaan (in Madhya Pradesh) coal block allocated to Essar and Hindalco under the banner of Mahaan Sangarsh Samiti. Its activists have been targeting coal mining companies, specifically Coal India Limited, Hindalco, Aditya Birla group and Essar as they ‘stand in their way,'” the report says.

“A consortium of NGOs like Maldhari (herdsmen) Rural Action Group (MARAG), People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Movement for Secular Democracy, Gujarat Sarvodaya Mandal, etc. are making efforts to debunk the Gujarat model of development,” the IB report says. Modi lured voters with the Gujarat model of development. The report also names Movement for Secular Democracy, which has been active in various cases being contested by victims of the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. The IB report highlights another Gujarat-linked project as being under NGO attack, the Par Tapi Narmada River Interlinking Project with protests led by Parthi Purna Adivasi Sangathan (PPAS) against the construction of six dams in Gujarat and one in Maharashtra to move water from surplus Western Ghats (western coastal mountain range) to north Gujarat and Saurashtra/Kutch. The Sarvodaya Parivar Trust, another NGO opposing the project, is also in their sights.

The report further alleges that several NGOs are at the forefront of anti-GMO food activism in India, “with Germany being the main source of funds.” ASHA (Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture) and IFSF (India For Safe Food) have been identified as among such NGOs – the other two being Navdanya and Gene Campaign – which have been leading anti-GMO food activism in India.

The IB report says nearly $40,000 was deposited in two bank accounts of S P Udayakumar, convener of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy that has been at the forefront of the agitation against the Kudankulam nuclear project. Four other NGOs, Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament & Peace (CNDP), Popular Education & Action Centre (PEACE) and Jan Sangharsh Samanvaya Samiti are all active in anti-nuclear weapons and power campaigns.

The media is not, however, questioning the funding of a radical outfit like the Hindu Rashtra Sena (HRS), which badgered a young man to death last week because of his religion, or the clearance to e-commerce portals like e-Bay or to Reliance gas or the Adani group, which are said to have funded the BJP’s election campaign. It is known the new government will go to bat for Posco and Vedanta, and active mining, and has rapid building plans across the country. Prime Minister Modi’s cabinet calls this “empowerment, progress and development,” although environmentalists are crying foul.

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