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Economy policy
Nitin Sethi |  New Delhi Jun 21, 2014
Last Updated at 09:58 PM IST

The world of Green NGOs is as complex as the corporate one

Foreign direct investment in the NGO sector is, in fact, no different from the cross-holdings and the FDI web of the corporate world
Green NGO
ClimateWorks, one of the two international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) recently restricted by the National Democratic Alliance government from funding Greenpeace India Society in India, also funds another NGO, Global International, which, till recently, was headed in India by Union Environment and Forests minister Prakash Javadekar. When he took over charge of the ministry, the minister was proud to announce his association with the NGO.

ClimateWorks also funds a third NGO called Climate Parliament, a forum that had on board many parliamentarians, including the Bharatiya Janata Party's Rajiv Pratap Rudy as convenor. Both these organisations also lobbied for increased deployment of renewable energy, instead of coal-based power, in India.

The India office of ClimateWorks, registered as a non-profit company here in the name of Shakti Foundation, has sponsored or co-hosted research, events and projects of bodies such as World Bank, Planning Commission, the Confederation of Indian Industries, Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi, The Energy and Resources Institute and Aspen Institute. Shakti Foundation is upfront in sharing this information on its website.

One of the board members of the US-based ClimateWorks, is eminent businessman Jamshyd N Godrej, chairman of the board of Godrej & Boyce Manufacturing Company Ltd. He was also a member of a committee on low-carbon growth set up by the government.

This is just an example of how complex, webbed and diverse the world of large environmental NGOs, globally or in India, has become and how enmeshed it is in policymaking on climate change, sustainability and environmental issues globally. Foreign direct investment (FDI) in the NGO sector is, in fact, no different from the cross-holdings and the FDI web of the corporate world.

The role of NGOs in climate change and other UN environmental negotiations is formally accepted and encouraged. There are just as many, if not more, better-funded business NGOs and corporate funded groups that also formally engage with one of the most complicated energy and economic negotiations ever undertaken in history; no government thinks of these as just environmental negotiations. Many assess the birth and death of business opportunities arising out of climate talks.

Diplomats and bureaucrats who have dealt with such NGOs in India, especially in the area of climate change, know this for years. They have handled them quietly, just as they have dealt with development agencies of developed countries and multilateral funding agencies such as the World Bank, trying to push their specific agenda through their projects in the country.

"You listen to them, engage with them on your terms, hopefully, and you take from them what you find to your advantage - information, knowledge or funding. You should know what you want from each," says a retired bureaucrat who has negotiated for India on environmental issues, on condition of anonymity.

He adds some NGOs are so well funded and influential that their members, at times, negotiate at UN talks as representatives of small countries. The Indian government and several other developing countries have pointed to the funding of delegations of some small countries by developed countries, through various routes.

"It's cacophony out there (in civil society) and countries try to channelise these for their own messaging. Naturally, developed countries have better resources to set agenda," says a serving negotiator. In 2012, the chief US negotiator was caught on tape berating a few international NGOs in a closed-door meeting. He warned them against raising demands for greater action against the US, reminding them the US had paid for them to be at these international meetings.

NGOs push debate in the public sphere and this has a multiplier impact in the international and domestic media, too. Many negotiators from large developing countries complain of the skew in civil society in favour of either the US or the EU. But that skew has lessened through the years, as South-centric NGOs have turned more organised and vocal, with encouragement from developing countries, of course.

Through the past decade, several international green NGOs set up shop or increased funding and focus on emerging economies such as China and India. Among these is Greenpeace. By intent, it takes a more aggressive public posture which includes media-friendly tactics. And, quite like its operations abroad, it operates by finding a high profile 'point of action' to support its larger campaigns in India - such as opposition to mining in the Mahan coal block in Madhya Pradesh. And, it makes no bones about it.

Greenpeace mixes a real and increasing domestic concern - the rights of millions of tribals - with its international climate change battle for closing green-field coal mining, without differentiating between developing and developed countries the way the UN climate change pact does. International lending agencies are being pressurised by many such NGOS to stop funding coal projects in developing countries and put their money into renewables.

Many officials in India feel these NGOs misrepresent the principle of equity between nation states at UN climate forums and try to 'internationalise' issues of equity between communities within a country's political and sovereign control. This gives developed countries a handle over developing economies at UN forums. Activists argue resolving issues of equity begin at home. In the case of coal, if the externalised costs of coal extraction - costs of land, resources, environment and livelihoods - were accounted for, it would be costlier than many renewable sources.

It's easy to pick on Greenpeace or a handful of other environmental activists for their global funding, but most of these support (logistically, legally or financially) and 'network-up' protests at village levels by groups that aren't even registered as NGOS - voluntary groups merely looking to protect livelihoods and hunting for solidarity against more powerful opponents (the state and the industry working together). Of course, at times, it could also be a rival businessman. Visiting any mandatory public hearing for projects, it's easy to see how often the local administration and industry representatives are irritated and angered when they find affected villagers have been supported by NGOs or other activists to react to technical documents, and bureaucratic world play.

But when the Intelligence Bureau conflates differing economic views with anti-nationalism, one tends to forget just as Greenpeace and other foreign-funded NGOs, even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bharatiya Janata Party-affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch are vehemently opposed to genetically modified crops. Or, that government regulatory agencies for the environment - on GM crops, forest and environment clearances, food standards, etc -have often been found loaded with industry representatives or industry-funded experts, requiring courts to step in.

"There is practically no law in India to protect the livelihoods and rights of these millions; so many of them fight in the name of environment, forests and wildlife. It's easier to seek judicial redress and urban sympathy in the name of saving forests than in the name of protecting land and resource rights of the marginalised," says an activist from central India who has fought many legal cases.

He points to the arguments and fights over the Korean Posco steel project in Odisha, where select villages hold up against the combined powers of state and central governments and the industry by defending a patch of land legally called forestland, but actually used to grow betel vines, with wide support from domestic and international NGOs and mass-based groups. Even tribal affairs minister Jual Oram continues to be against the project and has stated so, after taking oath as minister. The Intelligence Bureau couldn't have put him on its watch-list; he isn't foreign-funded.

All decisions on the environment - setting new green standards, amending norms, banning dangerous chemicals once thought to be benign and rejecting or approving projects - have hit or favour some industry or company. Discrediting the environmental activism of NGOs as anti-national only promotes selective industries' revenue generation as a nationalistic enterprise. It also pre-decides the nature of economic growth.

This is the second of a four-part series looking at the various aspects of NGOs and their functioning
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