A report from the Intelligence Bureau**, marked ‘secret’, has drawn furious condemnation and rebuttals from activists, NGOs and the media, shortly after it was leaked. Rightly so, because the implications of the allegations in the report stretch far beyond the subject of  foreign  funding of NGOs that it deals with.

The report says that foreign-funded NGOs are trying to “scuttle development projects in our country” like  Kudankulam, Posco and Vedanta, by whipping up opposition to these projects among the people, and causing “negative impact” on our GDP (gross domestic product).

This raises many important and contentious issues -- the basic one being that of the validity of GDP as a measure of development. It is now widely conceded that gross domestic product can rise even while the people for whom development is meant  get impoverished. Focusing only on GDP to the exclusion of the distribution of incremental GDP among the population can – and has – caused the marginalised, poor sections to be  pushed further down into misery.

Build a mega dam, and claim that irrigation gets facilitated for so many  extra thousand  hectares, but forget about the displacement of thousands of villagers in the process of building the dam. I have vivid memories of visiting a tribal settlement near the Machkund dam project along the Orissa-Andhra border. Water gushes out of the dam in picturesque and impressive cusecs, but the women of the area who used to be able to walk down to the river bank for their daily needs of water are now denied access to the river.

The water from the dam is barricaded and gets piped only to far off  towns and cities, while the adjoining rural settlements are worse off than they were before the dam was raised, with even basic needs like water denied to them. What kind of progress is that?

But where the IB Report falters at an even more fundamental level is in undermining the will of the people itself. Kudankulam saw massive and prolonged protests by the residents of the area because they were worried about the safety of the nuclear plant built there. They had every right to express whether they wanted that plant or not. That is the essence of democracy, that the people get a say in decision making about what kind of ‘development’ they want and need.

We claim to be the world’s largest democracy, so why is it wrong for the people to protest against a nuclear plant or a new industry that they are uncomfortable with? Are the authorities forgetting that people  provide the rationale for all development, and that development and GDP have no meaning if the people and their preferences are ignored? People’s voices should be counted not merely at election time through their votes; they are central to the process of governance, and ought to be heeded at every step.

To say that foreign-funded NGOs are scuttling developmental projects and preventing the growth of GDP, is also to demean the people’s capacity to think and decide what they want and don’t want. They may be illiterate (though why they are still so, six decades after independence and the adoption of a Constitution which mandates compulsory education for all, is a different question)  but that doesn’t mean they are morons. The lowliest, illiterate, most indigent tribal woman knows what she needs to survive, what her family’s basic needs are, and what the mega projects have done to make it more difficult to meet those needs.

Anti-Posco protesters observe 'Black Day.' Pic: Mining Zone Peoples’ Solidarity Group

The people  -- and the NGOs just take up their causes -- are not a pack of sheep to be led blindly by what a foreign funding agency says. True, there are a few NGOs with agendas dictated by vested interests, but they are a small minority. To aver that the protests at Kudankulam or Narmada or Orissa were the result of foreign machinations is to belittle the wrath and frustrations of the locals.

The haughty arrogance in the corridors of power towards those who are mute spectators of the impoverishment of their lives is all too common -- it has become the hallmark of  our decision makers who have forgotten that development and governance are for the people, including the poorest of the poor.

The ‘foreign’ hand

It may also be true that there exist many powerful foreign agencies, corporations and governments that have stakes in decisions that we take as a country, about projects that mean huge profits, in millions, for those corporations or countries. It is no secret that they put pressure and lobby, to thrust their decisions on  the developing world. The sugar lobby in the US, for example, ensured that a WHO report on the harmful effects of excessive consumption of refined white sugar gets blocked, by threatening to block funding to the WHO.

Examples are available in plenty. Multinational corporations have more financial clout today than many developing countries, and are able to arm-twist ministries. You may recall the reports about a giant like WalMart spending millions on ‘lobbying’ for entry into developing countries, because they offer large markets and therefore, profits.

However, even allowing for that, one does need to accord a little more credit to the people’s intelligence, even if they are dispossessed and disadvantaged. For example, the ministry’s report mentions Greenpeace’s support for  protest movements. Does that necessarily mean that villagers who gather en masse to protest against what they do not want, are swayed only by Greenpeace?

Greenpeace and activist Vandana Shiva have issued strong rebuttals to the IB Report, pointing out that its stance amounts to “bulldozing clearances for multinational corporations to take over India’s economy”.

Vandana is renowned worldwide for her espousal of farmers’ rights and national sovereignty in saving indigenous seed varieties which stand threatened by multinational agribusinesses like Monsanto. She adds in her rejoinder that GM technology is still under a cloud worldwide, its long term safety remains unproven; over 2,84,000 farmers have committed suicide due to indebtedness caused by the clutches of ‘modified’ seed technology.

“It is difficult to avoid the conclusion,” she says, “that the IB report has been influenced by those who have the most to gain by undermining India’s sovereignty”. So, which way does the ‘foreign hand’ point?

She also points out that Article 51 A of our Constitution enjoins every citizen to protect our natural environment – which is what those protesting against Vedanta and Posco were doing. How can such dissent be dismissed as ‘anti-development’?

It is no big secret that large multinationals are eyeing India (and the developing markets in general) as a profitable market, given its huge population of ‘consumers,’ and more importantly, given the flak that unsustainable, profligate corporate policies are drawing in the developed world. The bill for allowing FDI in retail was opposed on similar grounds – would such dissent too count as anti-development then? Laughable, as most comments on the IB report have been quick to point out.

It should also be remembered that media can be partisan, too; it is no secret that those with vested interests can get reports and viewpoints convenient to them published. Media houses are owned by corporate houses and one gets only what the media decides to put out. Reliance acquiring substantial stakes in several TV channels, recently, is a point. Would the concerned ministry also take note of how the “corporate hand” is swaying public decisions through news?

The ultimate irony perhaps lies in the fact that the corridors of power allege that the common man is swayed by NGOs, when political parties get power by ‘swaying’ the populace, through road shows, rallies and rhetoric, rather than honest work on the ground to ameliorate the conditions of the poor. Sure, we need to be wary about foreign hands trying to impose their will on us, but that does not mean that people have no right to raise their voices on matters that affect their lives.

And finally, why should a report of this kind be marked ‘secret’, don’t we, as citizens, have a right to information that concerns our lives?

** There was a mistake in the article that has since been corrected.