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India bars funds for Greenpeace, calling it a threat to economic security (+video)

Local activists say moves by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government against the global environmental group are aimed at stifling legitimate dissent.

India has cut off international funding for the local branch of Greepeace and accused it of working against the country's economic interests, escalating its long-running legal battle with the global environmental group.

But local Greenpeace activists, who accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of loosening environmental rules for large industrial projects, have dismissed the government crackdown as an attempt to silence legitimate dissent.

India froze Greenpeace’s seven bank accounts in the country and suspended its foreign funding license last Thursday, giving the environmental group 30 days to challenge the order.

India has waged legal battles against the group for years. The latest move came days after Greenpeace launched a campaign against a $16 billion coal mine project in Australia backed by Indian business tycoon Gautam Adani. It was during Mr. Modi's visit to Australia last year that Mr. Adani announced his coal mine project in Queensland.

The Indian government has had problems with the foreign-funded groups, particularly with Greenpeace, since many of them blocked the expansion of Koodankulam, India’s largest nuclear power plant, in 2012.

In 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, about 22,000 Indian NGOs received a total of more than $2 billion in international donations. The funding came from more than 150 countries, with the United States as the top donor.

'A witch hunt'

Modi’s government sees many of the NGOs as impediments to a series of long-awaited reforms to revive India’s ailing economy. Last year, India’s Intelligence Bureau prepared a report that described many foreign NGOs as a threat to India’s economic security. Greenpeace topped the list.

India’s deputy home minister, Kiren Rijiju, told parliament last month that the ministry had banned 30 Indian NGOs from receiving foreign funds because they were working against the interests of India.

“This is just a witch hunt,” says Prashant Bhushan, a prominent lawyer who supports anticorruption and environmental causes.

“The government is doing everything possible to attract [foreign] investment in energy, mining, retail, and other sectors,” he says. “Why is it afraid of the money that comes to legitimate NGOs in India? The civil society voices are critical to any democracy and government must allow them to work.”

Greenpeace, which has operated in India since 2001, mainly focuses on climate change, land rights, and nuclear disarmament issues. It came under the government scanner after it protested against India’s Nuclear Liability Act in 2010. The law, which aims to provide a civil liability for nuclear damage, was the last step needed to activate the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement signed in 2008 by former President George W. Bush and then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Greenpeace protested the deal, arguing that the Indian government was showing disregard for the safety of Indian citizens in preference for foreign investment. Its activists also staged protests at the Kudankulam nuclear plant.

The organization was subsequently listed as one of the main threatening foreign NGOs by India’s spy agency. What seems to have further infuriated the Indian government is the group’s widespread network. It claims to have 77,768 local donors across India.

In all, 70 percent of Greenpeace's funds come from local supporters within India, says Executive Director Samit Aich. He says the government has also blocked its domestic accounts.

“This shows quite clearly that the MHA's (Ministry of Home Affairs) real objective is not to restrict our access to foreign funds, but to shut us down completely," Mr. Aich said in a statement.

Quashing dissent

In its decision, the Ministry of Home Affairs listed three key reasons for freezing Greenpeace's accounts. First, it said, Greenpeace transferred foreign funds from a designated bank account to five subsidiary bank accounts without permission from the government. Second, the organization funded Indian NGOs and activists who filed petitions against the government. And third, the ministry said, Greenpeace spent more than 50 percent of the funds received from abroad on administrative costs in 2011.
 
The majority of the cases against Greenpeace are three to four years old. The government previously tried to block the inflow of foreign funds to the organization, but courts prevented the move.
 
India's tolerance of foreign-funded NGOs has declined over the years. Former Prime Minister Singh accused them of obstructing work at a nuclear power plant in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and of mounting a campaign against genetically modified crops.

On environmental matters, Modi’s government seems to have adopted the policy of its predecessors and has tended to seek to silence those who would raise inconvenient issues.

In January, Priya Pillai, a Greenpeace activist, was offloaded from a flight to Britain, where she had planned to tell a parliamentary committee that a coal-mining project would harm forest dwellers in India. On March 12, the Delhi High Court, calling the action “illegal and arbitrary,” said that “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.”

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