Home >Opinion >The many enemies of the state

The National Democratic Alliance government prefers to paint those criticizing its heavy-handed land acquisition bill as being inimical to India’s growth, or as enemies of the state, or as driven by machinations of foreign governments and companies. The government has also taken to painting those driving protest and disclosure movements against various ongoing and future projects with the same brush.

And, evidently, it expects non-governmental development and human rights organizations in India and elsewhere to put up and shut up. Even Greenpeace, whose India office is threatened with closure as a result of its criticism of alleged human rights and community-consent violations by public and private sector coal mining and power projects in Madhya Pradesh.

To assume so would add stupidity to the government’s already evident paradigm of knee-jerk reaction. It may also hurt businesses lulled by the government’s protection racket, as it were.

While impunity is a mantra of politics and businesses, immunity is no longer a guarantor in that game. Washington DC-based EarthRights International in late April took International Finance Corporation (IFC) to court in the US capital for deliberate blindness to livelihood and environmental impacts in funding the Tata Mundra power project in Gujarat. IFC’s own compliance advisor ombudsman has criticized the project.

What will the government do now? Declare EarthRights International and the fisherfolk in Gujarat it seeks to represent as enemies of the state? Along with Tata Power, which has already begun to receive adverse publicity over the project and the lawsuit, which includes allegations of suppressing social and environmental impacts, will it blame the foreign hand? To do anything except in the most politically and ethically benign and transparent manner will only increase adverse publicity.

Take Greenpeace. Even if Greenpeace India shuts down on account of politically malign intent, does the government—and the businesses it has transparently protected over human rights concerns—seriously expect parent Greenpeace International to keel over? Or for the flow of information and attendant publicity from the project sites in Madhya Pradesh to dry up? Or think that no local or global organization will now dare take information-based or legal recourse on behalf of victims in countries like the UK, where one of the companies, Essar Energy, is registered? Or, for that matter in any litigation- and business reform-minded European country, the US and elsewhere, where such projects have consultants, financiers and equipment suppliers, and therefore, grounds for litigation against them according to local law?

Do the government and Indian companies seriously expect to get away with the spin that criticism of governments in New Delhi and various Indian states and business, both Indian and located in India, is a global conspiracy against India? To disabuse them of their grandiose notion, they only need to look at examples like that of Royal Dutch Shell, which in January agreed to pay £55 million in an out-of-court settlement to a community of fishermen in Nigeria, pressured by a UK-based law firm.

Or that of the Norwegian pension fund KLP, which in December decided to exclude from its portfolio South Korea’s Posco, Daewoo International—in which Posco has a majority stake and which is a major importer of cotton from Uzbekistan—and Singapore-based Olam International, an agribusiness, financial services and supply chain specialist, over major allegations of human rights violations while sourcing cotton and cotton fibre from Uzbekistan.

These—only two of several hundred recent developments—have happened under local and global due process, unlike the paranoid, bully-boy reaction in India against, say, Greenpeace.

Will saner minds prevail? Or will the government of India, to pre-empt similar action against businesses located in India, declare such rights organizations and legal representatives of citizens as illegal, enemies of the state? Or ban websites such as, a project of Environmental Justice Organisations, Liabilities and Trade—a global compact of business and human rights organizations, pro-environment groups and academic institutions from the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia? The atlas marks conflicts on account of nuclear energy, mining, land and infrastructure, among other parameters. India maps the greatest concentration of such conflicts.

Disquiet and outrage are equal opportunity employers. Businesses and countries across the world are under greater scrutiny from their stakeholders and citizens. As human rights and the act of redress to affected communities rapidly globalize in the logical footsteps of globalized capital, markets and information, such disquiet, scrutiny and outrage will only get sharper, louder, more intense. Bullying won’t kill, but nurture it.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His earlier books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly
affect business, runs on Fridays.

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