It’s an anaconda-squeeze and it has likely broken the back of a feisty, if flashy, environment and human rights watchdog: Greenpeace India. Earlier this week, a few dozen Greenpeace volunteers and activists in Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai, and Bengaluru quietly stood holding banners with a message: Protecting the environment is not a crime.
Such imagery may not help. Greenpeace India will have laid off most of its staff by end-January. The organisation is broke. The enforcement directorate (ED) raided its offices in Bengaluru in October on the suspicion—or pretext, depending on your point of view—of investigating violations of the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA).
The ED froze Greenpeace India’s bank accounts. A Karnataka high court order in November offered relief, but on payment of a bank guarantee of ₹50 lakh.
For an organization denied overseas donations since permission under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) was revoked in 2015, and surviving on donations sourced in India, it was near-fatal.
Greenpeace India’s case highlights how the current government, arguably more than any other since the Congress-led Emergency era administration of 1975-77, has stifled dissent as no other. It became evident as early as late-2014 and early 2015, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government attempted to ram through a heavy-handed land acquisition bill—and then several ordinances. It painted critics of the process as being inimical to India’s growth as enemies of the state and as driven by machinations of foreign governments, even foreign companies.
The prime minister also made it personal in a speech in early 2016, as the media reported at the time, singling out criticism by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Alongside, ministers and officials of the home ministry didn’t hide their irritation towards NGOs, whether their activities were justifiably suspect, or to use the government’s vast powers to trip up some on account of their voicing inconvenient truths—even those flagging ongoing and future projects.
Greenpeace India was one such. Amnesty India was another. It came under the government’s lens for its stand on human rights. Amnesty India had a case of sedition foisted on it in 2016, based on a report registered by a representative of the Sangh Parivar-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) in Bengaluru. It was based on Amnesty showcasing human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir.
On 8 January, a trial court in Bengaluru closed the case. The court put its imprint on a “closure report" of July 2017 from Bengaluru Police that cited lack of evidence. Meanwhile, the “anti-national" tag remained. After an ED raid on its offices in October 2018, the directorate froze Amnesty India’s bank accounts.
Greenpeace India ran afoul of the system in 2014. In January that year, activists, with typical showboating, unfurled a huge banner proclaiming “We Kill Forests: Essar" on the façade of Essar Group’s Mumbai headquarters. They were protesting perceived environmental and human rights violations by Mahan Coal Ltd, a joint venture of Essar Power Ltd and Hindalco Industries Ltd, in Madhya Pradesh.
As the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government of the time segued into NDA in May that year, Greenpeace’s troubles continued. The NDA government offloaded its activist Priya Pillai from a flight to London in January 2015 to prevent her from pursuing “anti-national activities". Pillai was to discuss the Mahan Coal venture with a committee of legislators in the UK.
It was entirely legitimate. Essar Power was a subsidiary of Essar Energy, registered in London. In September 2013, the UK government had presented to that country’s parliament a document that, among other things, promised to “implement UK government obligations to protect human rights within UK jurisdiction where business enterprises are involved" and “support access to effective remedy for victims of human rights abuse involving business enterprises within UK jurisdiction".
Pillai took the government of India to court. A judgement delivered by Delhi high court on 12 March 2015 exposed the government as out of order, knee-jerk, paranoid, and obtuse. Pillai won the battle. Greenpeace, alas, has been made to lose the war.
This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights.
Read Sudeep Chakravarti’s earlier columns at livemint.com/rootcause