Home/ Opinion / NGOs, development and national interest

The Intelligence Bureau’s recent report on the impact of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on development, is about foreign influence detrimental to India’s national interest and not about stifling dissent. It points to three issues—levers for expanding strategic influence, geopolitics of energy, and failures of the state.

In the 1960s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) funding was involved in nearly half the grants of the Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie Foundations, mainly in the physical, life and social sciences. Of the 700 grants above $10,000 given by 164 other foundations during the period 1963-1966, at least 108 involved partial or complete CIA funding. CIA was also using several hundred US academics, sponsored over 1,000 books and had covert relationships with about 50 US journalists.

The nexus between climate change, energy, international cooperation and economic growth is certainly of strategic interest to the countries named in the report as multilateral negotiations on climate change are in their final stage, and lower emissions in one country allow for more in another. Interestingly enough Greenpeace supports the argument of the industrialized countries in seeking renewable energy to replace kerosene lamps with light bulbs in tribal areas instead of an adequate level of electricity comparable with urban areas through grid connection and electricity from coal, the most abundant and cheapest source of power in India.

The defining feature of politics around the environment is the way experts frame the problem and shape the solutions.

For large scale infrastructure projects in industrialized countries experts are no longer called upon to give their opinion on “what action can be taken given the risk" but rather on how to “maximize social and economic benefits with as little environmental harm as possible".

The response of NGOs to the environmentally high-risk, extensive extraction of shale gas in the US and five new lignite mines in Germany displacing 3,000 people, is working with industry to incorporate adequate safeguards.

We continue with risk assessment based on the Environment Protection Act, 1986, designed for air and water pollution, providing an opening to courts and NGOs to question the activity itself.

Policy shifts in three other areas are also needed.

First, greater attention to concerns of the tribals in forest areas, where the delay in settling “community rights" deprives them of adequate resettlement packages when extensive mining takes place, providing another opening.

Second, in 2003 India announced that tied aid would not be accepted leading to a shift to funding NGOs and more recently to think tanks and states. The amendment to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, in 2010, focused on disclosure norms for receipts but not expenditures. We should revive the earlier proposal to fully eliminate bilateral assistance, limit multilateral assistance to specific sectors such as transportation, urbanization and renewable energy, delink foreign funded think tanks and NGOs from government committees etc; and restrict funding of agitations while not curbing advocacy.

Third, the report of the Intelligence Bureau should be discussed with leaders of other parties and states to develop a national consensus on sustainable development rather than an environmental perspective to mining and infrastructure, climate change, rehabilitation as well as security implications of foreign funding.

Mukul Sanwal is a former civil servant.

Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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Updated: 29 Jun 2014, 07:08 PM IST
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