Monday, March 5, 2012
The Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh has for long enjoyed a reputation as a rare type of politician. In a country where politics are cloaked with corruption problems, he has stood out as a politician of serious intellectual rigor, humble demeanor, and personal integrity. Recently, however, Dr. Singh gave in to a rather unexpected frustration when he decried American NGO-funded support for protests against the nuclear power plant in Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu and the use of genetically modified crops in India. These NGOs, Dr. Singh argued, did not understand the energy needs of India. He emphasized that the nuclear power plant could not be left idle and had to move forward. Additionally, cases have apparently been filed against four NGOs for alleged misuse of foreign donations to fund protest, and 77 foreign NGOs listed in a government watch list. (The newsreport can be found here).
In a follow up to the Prime Minister’s comments, US charge d’affaires Peter Burleigh reportedly responded that the United States would comment after verifying the factual accuracy of the statement. Russian Ambassador Alexander Kadakin, however, felt no such compunction. Ambassador Kadakin reportedly responded that the Russian administration had suspected such funding, particularly since the protests began following the Fukushima tragedy and not before the accident. (the report can be found here).
Indian NGOs reportedly responded with a letter addressed to the Prime Minister Singh’s remarks and by bringing legal action. A group of NGOs including a former Indian Supreme Court judge, former Chairperson of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, and former Union Power Secretary wrote a letter to the Prime Minister (the report and letter can be found here), challenging the undemocratic underpinnings of the Prime Minister’s remark. They provocatively added, “We are not China.” The head of another NGO filed a defamation action against the Prime Minister for labeling their efforts as a foreign plot or agenda. (report can be found here)
The main question, though, is this: so what if environmental protests are funded by foreign NGOs?
Barring a few restrictions, it is not illegal to provide funding to civil society in India. Unless there are accounting illegalities, there is no reason that local communities should not be legally funded by those with a shared concern. By all means the Indian government could try to enact legislation prohibiting foreigners to fund local civil society initiatives. Of course, such an effort would be ironic considering that foreign investors are vested in nuclear power plants. Surely, Ambassador Kadakin’s concern did not stem so much from his altruistic interest in India’s energy needs as it did from the fact that the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited had planned to collaborate with Russia in building two nuclear power plants.
It would be equally ironic that the government, which few months back battled to allow foreign direct investment in India, would oppose foreign funding for supporting civil society endeavors. It is certainly not something that one would expect from Dr. Manmohan Singh, a major architect of India’s economic liberalization reforms.
Let me add, however, that India indeed faces a steep challenge in meeting its energy needs. Millions remain without basic power infrastructure. The sub-continent has limited natural energy resources and has to rely on foreign supplies. Of late, its ability to import oil from Iran has been greatly impeded by foreign sanctions that have limited its ability to make payments to the government. (see report here). India faces serious energy predicament, even as growth rates drop and competition consistently looms across the border from China. Prime Minister Singh is certainly not in a pretty spot right now.
However, questioning legal and peaceful protests by concerned members of the civil society is not the solution. The need of the hour is transparency and efforts by the government to explain and persuade those living in the vicinity of a nuclear power plant of its safety. As we near the first anniversary of the 2011 Japanese Tsunami (March 11), we cannot ignore or wish away the terrifying moment when the nuclear plants in Japan did not shut down. We cannot ignore how Japan’s tragedy paralyzed the world, including its economy. Japanese continue to grapple with radiation challenges. That is the state in an economically developed nation.
Further, as the challenge to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s approval of the two nuclear power plants in Georgia by the Tulane Environmental Law Center for failing to consider the effect of the Fukushima tragedy in the EIA demonstrates, convincing people that nuclear energy is safe is not going to be a cakewalk in a post Fukushima world. The promise of electricity is alluring. But, it is no match to the fear of potential annihilation. Such promise must be backed by technology, sound safety procedures, effective compensation schemes, and legitimate efforts to engage in dialogue. Democratic governance has its own price.