THE BLOG

Environmental Justice, Activism and Democracy Under Modi

06/05/2015 18:51 BST | Updated 04/05/2016 10:12 BST

Policies of fair land acquisition have been undone, coal mines have been exempted from public hearings, irrigation projects have been allowed without clearance, right of tribal village councils have been taken away to oppose an industrial project, industries have been allowed to creep closer to national parks, twenty-one field trials of genetically modified crops have been approved and an environmental committee has been set up with members that recently recommended corporations should monitor, evaluate and report on their violations without any government supervision. Forests are being exploited at an unprecedented rate masked with a facade of pollution monitors and economic growth rhetoric. Since Narendra Modi was sworn in as prime minister in May 2014, environmental laws have been disregarded, diluted and amended. While the Modi Administration claims these adjustments are necessary for development, their harmful impacts are wide reaching.

According to The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), India, like other developing economies, may lose up to 1.7% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) if the annual mean temperature rises by 1 degree Celsius compared to pre-industrialization level, hitting the poor the most. However, The finance, environment and rural-development ministers, and Modi himself, have called these safeguards to protect people's property, the environment and tribal rights "roadblocks" to economic growth.

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Image courtesy of sakhorn38 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Narendra Modi government has restricted grassroots and environmental activism on an unprecedented scale. On May 3, 2014, a report by India's Intelligence Bureau accused "foreign-funded" nonprofits for funding anti-national activities. On April 9th 2015, the Ministry of Home Affairs blocked Greenpeace India from receiving foreign funding for six months and froze the nonprofit's bank accounts, allegedly because the organisation has "prejudicially affected the public interests and economic interests of the country," in violation of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. Samit Aich, executive director of Greenpeace India said that the Home Ministry's repeated moves to restrict the nonprofit's funding were clear attempts to "silence criticism and dissent." Divya Raghunandan, the group's program director, adds, "this is because Greenpeace's "campaigns have questioned illegality and harassment in mining areas." Eventually, the Delhi High Court struck down the blocking of Greenpeace funds.

Till date the Modi administration has attacked sixteen foreign donors (ranging from Ford foundations to Danish International Development Agency, to church-backed NGO's), and other environmental organisations such as, Bank Information Center, Sierra Club, 350.org and Avaaz. All sixteen donors have been added to the "prior approval" category; all bank transactions are closely monitored and will need a clearance from Home Ministry. The future of environmental, human rights and religious peace activists is worrisome, what does the next four, possibly fourteen years look like, if Modi is to win three consecutive terms?

The ruler of the so-called largest democracy in the world is systematically denying freedom of speech and democratic rights to human rights and environmental activists. On Jan. 11, Priya Pillai; Greenpeace India's senior campaigner was prevented from boarding a flight to London by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Pillali, was scheduled to speak to British MPs on alleged human rights violations at coal mining projects of Essar Energy and Hindalco Industries in the Mahan forests. The ministry put her on a "no-fly list," preventing her from leaving the country. This incident was exactly four months after a British Greenpeace staff member was prevented from entering India and put back on a flight to London. Pillai challenged this in the Delhi High Court. On March 12, the court ruled in favor of Pillai: "The State may not accept the views of civil rights activists, but that by itself, cannot be a good enough reason to do away with dissent."

The Intelligence Bureau report is particularly hypocritical in nature. Large amounts of foreign funding pour into India through global financial institutions such as the World Bank, and private investment. UK-headquartered mining firm Vedanta, the American agricultural and biotechnology corporation Monsanto, the Korean steel company POSCO, the Russian government (financing several nuclear power plants), and right-wing Hindu organisations benefit immensely from foreign financial assistance. Why are none of them featured on the foreign donor watch list?

The aforementioned events are not isolated events and together paint a good picture of the current landscape of democracy and environmental justice in India.

According to IPCC, Asia is facing the brunt of climate change and will see severe stress on water resources and food-grain production in the future, increasing the risk of armed conflict among India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China. Some may argue that political support for climate change can only be garnered through activists. The rate, at which the Modi administration is curbing environmental activism, is worrisome in light of the upcoming United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris seeking a global climate deal by 2015.

In the long run, such legal labyrinths and regulatory hurdles may stifle civil society and impinge on fundamental freedoms of expression and association. They may cause legitimate international donors to stop donating permanently in the future, disproportionately harming minority and marginalised groups. We cannot abandon our democratic identity, fundamental rights of expression, dissent and debate in the pursuit for economic growth.