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Is India in danger of becoming an illiberal democracy, a democracy where the form is maintained but the substance is snuffed out, a democracy where society is open but the state is closed? Going by what is happening on the Greenpeace case, such an eventuality cannot be ruled out.

Greenpeace is an aggressive NGO active across the world. It claims that the bulk of its funding in India comes from local donors. Fair enough since that is easily verifiable. Its methods have invited the wrath of some other governments as well and within India many of its fellow NGOs have often expressed discomfort at its theatrical ways. As minister of environment and forests I myself was at the receiving end of its youthful brigade which I took in my stride. During the public consultations on genetically modified brinjal, I was accused of being an agent of Monsanto, no matter that the US multinational felt aggrieved by the ultimate decision to impose a moratorium on its commercialisation. On the issue of Dhamra port in Odisha, Greenpeace accessed my file notings through RTI (which it certainly was and should always be entitled to) and took out a prominent advertisement in leading newspapers accusing me of favouring the Tatas at the cost of forest cover and Olive Ridley turtles.

So I have no particular reason to speak up for its present predicament. But I should because what is happening is ominous. The facts are straightforward. The government of India has allowed coal mining in the ecologically sensitive Singrauli region of Madhya Pradesh. I had rejected the opening of the Mahan coal block as minister on various grounds, giving clear reasons for doing so, but had also pointed out that the government of India has every right to overrule my decision should it want to do so taking larger economic factors into view. As it turned out, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government rejected my decision.

Greenpeace has, over the past three years or so, mounted a loud campaign against allowing mining in the Mahan coal block. One of its vocal campaigners got offloaded from a plane when she was to go to London to speak to a group of UK parliamentarians. In an affidavit filed by the ruling establishment in the Delhi high court, she got branded as being “anti-national" for wanting to lobby with these foreign lawmakers and Greenpeace got accused of doing its damnedest to subvert India’s growth and development. Subsequently, she interacted with the MPs through Skype showing that in today’s day and age, you really cannot control the flow of information.

The Priya Pillai episode is unprecedented and extraordinary. It does us no credit whatsoever as a country. We may not always agree with organisations such as Greenpeace and their techniques but surely they have every right to express their views and propagate them as well. We are, after all, India—an open, argumentative, liberal democracy comfortable with diversity and plurality of all kinds and where governments may have their way while their opponents have their say. Did the extensive agitation by the Narmada Bachao Andolan that also created international ripples stop the dams on the Narmada? No, they did not but our sensitivity to resettlement and rehabilitation issues has undoubtedly been sharpened thanks to the irrepressible Medha Patkar and her dedicated band of colleagues. Similarly, the notion that Greenpeace can hold back India is laughable. It might create a temporary embarrassment both at home and abroad, but this is the essential price we pay for being a democracy and we must keep it that way. In any case, a counterview can also be mounted.

The government of India is now embarking on a large-scale dilution of the edifice of environmental laws and regulations. While it does so, it never tires of saying that it believes in integrating environmental protection with economic growth and in ensuring a harmonious balance between the two objectives. In theory this sounds very good, but it is in actual practice that the complexities, contradictions, conflicts and challenges surface and then trade-offs must get made. Moreover, these trade-offs must get made transparently and as part of the democratic process. If the official approach is one of “my way or the highway", then the samvad which the Prime Minister spoke of just the other day in Baramati becomes a charade. What is the point of hearing if you are not listening?

There is absolutely no doubt any more that the Modi sarkar believes more in think tanks than in social movements, that it looks at an independent network of civil society organisations and activists as enemies of the state and not as a community that is articulating concerns of the people such as livelihood security, public health and protection of natural resources like forests. It is in the nature of civil society to be antagonistic to the state. That distance must be respected. Governments always try to co-opt civil society but the most honest of them will always refuse to be co-opted even as they collaborate. And that is indeed the way it should be. Civil society activists and organisations have made governments more responsive and forced them to adopt progressive policies in a wide variety of areas, including the environment.

Today, it is Greenpeace, tomorrow it could be anyone disagreeing with the official view and also carrying out mobilisation which is the very lifeblood of democracy. Do we want to be a democracy where political parties compete, where elections are held, where legislatures meet but where voices of dissent are muzzled, where diversity of opinion aggressively articulated is not seen as a strength but as a threat? Let there be no mistake: the Priya Pillai offloading incident and its defence by the ruling establishment do not concern just one over-zealous activist and her organisation, but really is one that involves the freedom for us all—the freedom of speech, the freedom to differ, the freedom to agitate and the freedom from fear.

The author is a former Union minister and Rajya Sabha MP.

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