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India's Restrictions on Several NGOs Raise Concerns

FILE - Activists of Greenpeace rappell down their office building where they are head quartered to unfurl banners "democracy" and "freespeech" in Bangalore, May 15, 2015.

Environmental group Greenpeace said it will restart its environmental campaigns in India after a court ruling provided a temporary reprieve to government restrictions on its financial assets.

Fears the Indian operations of Greenpeace would shut down were eased Wednesday when the Delhi High Court allowed the group’s local arm to access domestic bank accounts and donations from Indian donors.

In April, the government blocked foreign funds in seven bank accounts of Greenpeace India for alleged legal violations,including that the group had underreported foreign contributions.

Wednesday’s court order, however, is only a temporary reprieve as the group remains barred from foreign funding and its legal wrangle could drag on for months.

Under fire

Several prominent nongovernmental groups have recently come under fire in India. The government has canceled the registration of about 9,000 nongovernment groups for not filing annual financial returns.

Last month, the government also placed U.S.-based Ford Foundation on a watch list and asked the group to get official approval for donations to Indian organizations. Other U.S.-based groups, such as the Sierra Club, are also under scrutiny.

Analysts said the government fears the groups' campaigns block or slow down infrastructure projects such as coal mining and power plants, many in forest and tribal areas where Greenpeace has mobilized local communities to oppose large projects.

The group has been accused of spending foreign donations to obstruct development projects that are in the national interest.

Wilfred Dcosta of the Indian Social Action Forum, an umbrella group representing about 700 NGOs, said the organizations are unnecessarily targeted.

'Whose national interest'?

“Depends who defines national interest. Because a politician may define it differently, a bureaucrat may define it differently, we define it differently, the common people may define it differently. I mean whose national interest are we talking about?” Dcosta asked.

Earlier this month, the U.S. ambassador to India, Richard Verma, brought attention to the challenges being faced by such groups in the world’s largest democracy and said he is worried about the potentially chilling effects of the "regulatory steps focused on NGOs.”

The government said it is only taking action against groups flouting laws that bar foreign donations to NGOs of a “political nature.”

Siddharth Nath Singh, a ruling Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman, said the government’s only concerns are legal violations.

“If you do not follow law, nowhere in the world they can be allowed to go Scot-free, and therefore the government has taken those steps. If they follow the law, then all is OK," Singh said.

Greenpeace denied the government's accusation that the group has broken the law.

Earlier this month, Samit Aich, Greenpeace India’s executive director, said, "The home minister is trying to strangle us by stealth, because he knows an outright ban is unconstitutional."

Greenpeace spokeswoman Vinuta Gopal said, "The attack on Greenpeace and other groups in the civil society is because the government would rather not have dissenting opinion and therefore they are trying to warn civil society to come in line with their thinking.

"Otherwise, the kind of arguments they are holding do not seem to be the real cause. That seems to be really pulling at small clerical mistakes, and the like, in order to shut down an organization like Greenpeace," Gopal said.

This is not the first time Greenpeace has come under fire.

Last year, the government prevented its campaigner, Priya Pillai, from traveling overseas to speak to British lawmakers against a coal mining project in central India. The court later ordered her name removed from a “no-fly” list, saying the government cannot do away with dissent.


Political analysts link the recent clampdown on advocacy groups to a report by the Intelligence Bureau last year that said foreign-funded NGO’s negatively impact economic development. The leaked report called Greenpeace a threat to national economic security.

Political commentator Satish Misra of the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi said the BJP is not “particularly friendly” to NGO’s.

“(It) basically wants to send a message that, 'Do not undertake those things, which we do not approve of.' Basically a kind of message that you remain within inverted commas. Particularly in a democratic society, you do not take actions like this," Misra said.

As Greenpeace vows to continue its campaigns to reduce air pollution, protect forests and boost solar power, the group is putting its faith in India’s judiciary. Meanwhile, the debate on whether the Indian government is reducing the space for civil society groups continues.

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