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The Real ‘Foreign Hand’

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s throwaway remark in
an interview to Science magazine that non-governmental
organisations (NGOs) funded by groups in the United
States and some Scandinavian countries were behind the
sustained opposition of local people to the nuclear plant in
Koodankulam, Tamil Nadu, is not just absurd, it is dangerous
and must be condemned by every democratic-minded person
in the country. It is absurd because there is absolutely no basis
for this accusation. It is dangerous because such a statement
from the prime minister of supposedly a democracy exposes an
undemocratic and intolerant mindset.

For over two decades, people around Koodankulam have been
expressing their opposition to the location of a nuclear power
plant there. Ignored for years, what began as a tiny movement of
a handful of people has steadily grown with every dismissal by
the government and the nuclear establishment as uninformed
opposition. Events exploded last year when, in keeping with
the supercilious attitude of the Indian nuclear establishment, a
casual approach to a mock emergency exercise in the year of
Fukushima caused panic in the area. Since then people living
around the Koodankulam plant, mostly fi sherfolk, have been
registering their opposition through non-violent protest. To
allege that these people have done so at the instigation of a
“foreign hand” is an insult not just to the commitment of these
ordinary people but also to all Indians who question the government’s
development policies. Do the prime minister and his
government believe that those who oppose them have no
agency ? That they are people of a lesser intelligence who cannot
understand the intricacies of nuclear power ? That they are
not citizens of this country with the right to decide whether
they want to live in the shadow of a plant that could pose a danger
to their lives in the event of an accident ? The prime minister
has claimed that the “thinking segment” in India supports nuclear
energy. Does this mean that all those who oppose it are
“unthinking” and brainless ? It is clear that having tried everything
short of police action to break the protests, the government
is trying to delegitimise the movement by accusing it of
being funded from abroad.

As part of a ploy of attack by innuendo, the Union Ministry
of Home Affairs suggested that four NGOs working in the region
were diverting funds to the protest but it quickly backtracked
when asked to provide proof. Now they have set about investigating
these organisations (many of which are church-based
and conduct several welfare-related activities) and have also
suspended the registration that allows them to receive funds
from abroad.

It was in 1976 during the Emergency that Indira Gandhi
brought in the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA)
through an ordinance. Under FCRA, provisions for registration
are stringent, requiring NGOs to demonstrate over three years
that they are working within the areas for which foreign funds
can be sought. Under a further amendment, NGOs have to get
fresh registration every fi ve years. The FCRA has provided the
government with the power to interrogate any NGO receiving
foreign funds and also the discretionary power to suspend its
registration. Given all this monitoring how has the government
suddenly concluded that an agitation of more than two decades
against a nuclear power plant is being funded by NGOs receiving
foreign funds ?

The prime minister’s statement, although made in the context
of nuclear energy, exemplifi es the government’s approach
to all genuine opposition or questions raised about its policies.
It has been evident for some time that the government views a
range of protests – from environmental groups objecting to
mining or introduction of genetically modifi ed crops to communities
refusing to part with land for thinly-veiled land grab
strategies under the guise of creating special economic zones –
as “obstructionist”. Whose paths are these groups obstructing ?
That of development that would benefi t all or that of the real
foreign hand, for whom the welcoming red carpet has been
laid out by the government under the name of foreign direct
investment ? The proposed nuclear power parks at Jaitapur or
Koodankulam are only part of the story. The real agenda of
this government, and of many state governments, has been to
push through with projects and policies and then cry “obstruction”
when people on the ground realise what is happening. In
a real democracy, where the poor and powerless have the same
rights as the powerful, such an approach cannot work. In I ndia,
it is the promise of those rights – and not the ubiquitous foreign
hand – that has fuelled protests in so many parts of the country.
It is the “foreign hand” that this government is holding on
to that is the real problem.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.