Increasingly, the question is being posed in public discourse: Who should govern the country and how? Should an elected government with an elected Parliament under a Constitution with all its built-in checks and balances take decisions or should the many thousand privately run organisations called collectively as non-governmental organisations (NGOs)? The question is increasingly becoming relevant as the Central government has sought to curb the NGOs and bring their funding and functioning under the scanner of the law of the land. The Green Peace affair is only one of several such events that continue to dog public discourse.
Not that such curbs are the handiwork of the NDA government only. UPA also had a run with several NGOs. The core influence of several NGOs on the Manmohan Singh-led government through the extra-constitutional authority like the National Advisory Council created by Congress president Sonia Gandhi and headed by her, notwithstanding that government had to come down heavily on several NGOs as these organisations moved to obstruct development projects. One such NGO was working among the poor fishermen at the southern end of the peninsula. It used the fishermen as a human shield against the nuclear power project at Koodankulam going ahead and succeeded in delaying it by several years. All the while Tamil Nadu itself was suffering of as much as a 10-hour power cut almost every day.
When the UPA-2 regime blocked the pipeline that it found was being used to funnel foreign funds into this NGO, the agitation also tapered off and the project went on to being commissioned. The 2,000 MW project began to provide a lifeline to Tamil Nadu’s industries and also feed into the national grid. Whether it is NGO Green Peace or others like it that claim to have all the wisdom in development economics, there ought to be some Lakshman Rekha to their agitational tactics.
India’s power, steel, aluminium and other industries need coal. The coal reserves are largely in forested areas or even in marginal land where residents eke out a hard and marginal life.
If you reduce the entire coal mining project as a People versus Government issue, and then insist that the only solution is for the project to exit and people be allowed to be where they are, no new mines can be opened unless you mine the coal in the sky. A rational answer would be to find a solution that causes the least pain to the residents and yet gets the projects through. However, such a solution would mean that the NGO spearheading the agitation against the project loses out in its battle to get the project scrapped, virtually its raison d’etre to exist. Foreign funding or political undercurrents behind these NGOs cannot be ignored by any government worth its salt.
No one suggests people’s right to protest should be curbed. Governments in any democracy cannot claim all the wisdom; nor could NGOs.
What is needed is a fair understanding of the issues involved and a fair solution that enables both development, ecology and people to find their common interest and move ahead.
Every industry anywhere will disturb the environment in some way or the other. We need industry to create more jobs with at least 10 crore young people looking out for jobs in the next ten years. Governments that continually outsource their right to decide what development is needed to NGOs will finally end up creating no new jobs .
Several major projects have been stalled by the ability of these NGOs to make groups of farmers, adivasis, fishermen and forest dwellers believe that development projects are their enemy. Of course the people’s concerns may be genuine in most cases but why not let expert bodies take a call.
This is not an authoritarian government but a democratic one with a vibrant media and active opposition parties.
Several major projects remain stalled by NGOs and other groups organising people to physically prevent installations leading to law and order issues and even force being used by governments that unfortunately end up in police firings and deaths. Just as in Koodankulam, the 2,000 MW nuclear power plant was sought to be physically stalled by an NGO using the fishermen even after all the experts inside and outside government convincingly showed that the fishermen’s concerns have all been met, in Jaitapur on the west coast of Konkan the proposed 6,000 MW nuclear power project has been attacked this time by a political party. Maharashtra is the industry and business centre of the country. It too cries for more bulk power. Konkan is an underdeveloped area in the state and power, oil, gas are some of the installations that could create jobs and change the economic profile of the coast. Can people depend entirely on fishing and farming to get rising incomes and improve their living standards?
These questions have been repeatedly asked but NGOs who object to projects refuse to answer them by merely fogging off some vague beliefs as answers. On the east coast, the 12 million tonne Posco steel plant has remained on paper for over 15 years now. Activism of Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice-president brought the proposed aluminium project in Kalahandi to a dead stop — and Kalahandi, we know, is an area of persistent poverty for all the romanticism around some local tribal people. Building of national highways, opening of waterways, coal and iron ore mining have all suffered in the country and yet we want high GDP growth and elimination of poverty. In international reports, India is seen in poor light compared to China.
In the most recent United Nations report on Millennium Development Goals, titled ‘Making It Happen’, China gets the credit for reducing poverty from 60.7 per cent of the population in 1990 to a mere 6.3 per cent by 2011. India on the other hand is listed as a laggard compared to China with reduction in poverty ratio from 49.4 per cent in 1994 to a still significant 24.7 per cent by 2011.
Prima facie, this gives a leg up for communism which is the political doctrine in China. The government in Beijing does not have to contend with NGOs physically trying to stall development projects or a Supreme Court that could declare a government decision as illegal.
Dissenters in China are shut up in jail and government and ruling party are supreme authority. Of course this is not an argument to follow China.
However, if democracies have all the time to keep arguing and avoid taking decisions, there can be no progress and high levels of poverty will continue to besmirch India’s image as it used to do for a long time after independence.
The author is a senior columnist and one of the vice presidents of the Bharatiya Janata Party.