The Jholawalla image is still valuable. But activists must reinvent themselves: Ashish Kothari

The crackdown

  • Tamil Nadu govt announces cancellation of Greenpeace India licence last week
  • Few months back, the MHA had cancelled foreign funding for the NGO
  • Greenpeace is gearing up to battle the govt in court over the cancellation

More in the story

  • How activists can survive in India and make a difference
  • Greenpeace India Chairman Ashish Kothari on the way forward

Greenpeace India was told last week that its registration was going to be cancelled by the Tamil Nadu government. The Indian unit of the global environmental-related NGO is registered as a society in Chennai. This latest move has essentially pulled the rug from under it.

Earlier, the Union home ministry cancelled its permit to get funding from donors abroad. But the latest blow is the "most serious one" according to Ashish Kothari, Chairman of the Greenpeace India board. It could mean that Greenpeace shuts down in India.

The 54-year old Kothari is also a veteran environmentalist. Soon after finishing school, he became one of the founders of the acclaimed environmental NGO Kalpavriksh. He has authored over 30 books and 250 articles since.

In this conversation with Catch, Kothari spoke about working with an increasingly hostile government, the elusive balance in regulation of NGOs, and the need to diversify green activism beyond the jholawallah stereotype.

NG: What is your reaction to the cancellation of Greenpeace (GP) India Society's license? What's the road ahead?
AK: Prima facie, the registrar's case against GP India is weak. We will of course challenge this in court. It is clearly another attempt by the government to muzzle dissent ... so far, the most serious one against GP. This would effectively mean Greenpeace has to close down, if this order is not challenged and struck down. We are however confident of winning this in court.

Also read - How to kill a mockingbird: lessons from the Greenpeace crackdown

NG: Earlier, the Ministry of Home Affairs cancelled your permit to receive foreign funding. How did that affect Greenpeace India? Were you cutting down on expenses and activities?

AK: There have been cuts in the scale of activities and staff, but essential work has continued thanks to a stay order by the court. This has allowed us to continue accessing our domestic funds, which constitute about 60% of the budget.

NG: Greenpeace India had termed the home ministry's actions as intimidation. In a statement, you termed it as going against the constitutional rights to freedom of expression and association. Do you think that making strong allegations against the state will only help your critics reinforce their image of Greenpeace as excessively aggressive, almost militant? Is there a case to tone down your defence?

AK: It is important to realise that groups like GP do not criticise the state per se, but state policies and programmes that they consider are against the basic tenets of ecological sustainability and social justice. There is no cause to tone down this criticism, even if there may be cause to occasionally reconsider the methods employed to convey the message.

It is the state that is the aggressor when it pushes through land grabbing, forest diversion and other such processes at a mass scale in the name of 'development', even when detailed analysis says that the really poor in India do not benefit (and in fact pay the price) from such processes.

However GP and many other such groups have also included in their work and their messaging a lot of positive, constructive initiatives. For example, GP's work in ensuring power to a village in Bihar through a solar-based microgrid, showed that decentralised renewable energy is a more viable and faster option than coal-based central grids.

The latter have not given power to tens of thousands of villages in India even 70 years after Independence. Then there were campaigns to promote rooftop solar in Delhi, sustainable agriculture in Bihar and elsewhere and organic tea.

These are all Greenpeace activities aimed at promoting solutions, as well as obtaining a positive image.

"This is another attempt by the government to muzzle dissent says Ashish Kothari"

NG: Given that many NGOs receive a large amount of funds from foreign contributors, do you think that some regulation is necessary? Is there some compromise to be made?

AK: Regulation of all social institutions is necessary. But it is important to distinguish in what form and by whom. It is instructive, for instance, that there are more stringent norms for NGOs taking foreign funds than for commercial entities! So corporate houses can get away with anything while there is micro-regulation of NGOs. Even political parties get away with foreign funds (BJP for instance got funded by Vedanta), though this is clearly illegal.

This is hardly fair.

There is an increasing call for democratic forms of regulation of all social entities to ensure that they are following due process, are transparent and accountable. But when government instituted regulation starts getting used selectively to target NGOs, not because they are violating laws, but because they are critical of state policy, this is an arbitrary and undemocratic use of state power.

NG: Is there a case for NGOs to be completely transparent - to openly declare all your contributions, names of contributors, your balance sheets, income statements?

AK: Absolutely. In fact NGOs like GP do that. But again, why should this not apply to political parties too?

Also read - Greenpeace's new campaign: epic Bollywood posters to fight the govt

NG: In this context, how do you rate this government vis-a-vis the UPA regime?

AK:

In terms of economic policy, it is carrying on what the UPA was doing, which is sacrificing environmental and social/food security in the name of 'development'.

It appears to be doing so faster and with greater impact though. For example, by systematically beginning to dilute (or considering diluting) a number of relevant policies/laws. More dangerous, however, is its view towards civil society which so far has been significantly less tolerant and more aggressive than that of the UPA.

In its active or indirect collusion of religiously communal and brahmanical forces, and placing of right-wing elements in key institutional positions including in education and social/cultural sectors, it is also setting into motion dangerous social trends far worse than what the UPA did.

"We need a diversification of roles and images to achieve our goals, while staying true to our principles"

NG: Despite a rich history of environmental activism in the country, environmental issues make it to the "mainstream" rarely, like the save tigers campaign or the one to reduce urban air pollution. Meanwhile, material and energy intensive lifestyles continue to dominate urban aspirations. Do activists need a course correction? Is the jholawallah tag making activists inaccessible?

AK: I don't think the jholawallah is redundant or inaccessible even today, but indeed environmentalists and social activists need to reinvent themselves into a number of other avatars too. The simple chappal-clad activist that works to help communities in resisting destructive forces of 'development' and communalism continues to be valuable; look at almost any successful resistance movement and you'll find them.

But the laptop-toting researcher or activist who can help a community access national and global networks or help them critique mining project reports, or do such critiques themselves, is also crucial. As is a passionate and articulate middle-class person who can talk to students in commerce, engineering and computer colleges, who can write powerful articles for the media, or make creative pitches on the so-called 'social networking' sites.

Also important is the role of the activist lawyer who fights in the National Green Tribunal or the courts, or the one who sits on government committees and remains true to the principles of the environment and justice (though unfortunately several NGOs get compromised when they get too close to government or corporations).

So we need a diversification of roles and images, to do different things, reach different sections of society, create horizontal and vertical networks cutting across classes and regions .while remaining un-compromised on basic principles.

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Another setback for Greenpeace after govt cancels registration

Nihar Gokhale

Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale