India: Nuclear and environmental dissent is a crime

Kumar Sundaram | The Ecologist

In modern India any form of dissent from the neoliberal corporate model of development is being criminalised, writes Kumar Sundaram. Opponents of nuclear power, coal mines, GMOs, giant dams, are all under attack as enemies of the state and a threat to economic growth.

In the same week that France decided to lower its appetite for nuclear energy and increase its reliance on renewable sources, the Indian home ministry started hounding Greenpeace for its role in “stalling India’s development” by opposing nuclear power and genetically modified organisms.

A crackdown on other anti-nuclear networks like the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) and the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) is being widely anticipated.

The crackdown followed a confidential report by India’s premier internal intelligence agency, the Intelligence Bureau, titled ‘Concerning efforts by select foreign funded NGOs to ‘take down’ Indian development projects‘.

Stirring up a media frenzy

The 21-page report named a number of prominent anti-nuclear activists like Praful Bidwai, Achin Vanaik, Admiral Ramdas, and Surendra Gadekar as well as a number of organisations. Activists have raised questions about how the report made its way to the media before reaching the ministries and the Prime Minister’s office.

S. P. Udayakumar, a leading activist against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, has taken the Indian government to court, highlighting the serious threat to his life posed by the media frenzy over the report. He fears for his life, stating in a recent interview:

“I am a threat to nuclear energy. I am a threat to the global nuclear industry. The governments of India, Russia, France and America are all together now.

“We are a threat to all of them. Their business interests are hurt. They are going to dump their outdated technology on the hapless people of India. We point out their faults and so we are being targeted.

It’s all rubbish – but the danger is very real

“Unfortunately some people in this country believe these stories. That is the irony of it. This is becoming a threat to my life and to the security of my family. When they name me like this. When they call me – an Indian – a security threat for whatever reasons, it sends a wrong message to the wrong people.

“When I walk on the streets someone may say here goes a traitor and attack me. I might get killed. My school has been attacked twice. You know my people were attacked inside the Tirunelveli collector’s office in full view of the public.

“If something happens to me the Intelligence Bureau and the Government of India are responsible. By maligning me and putting my life at risk.”

Anti-nuclear activists organised a press conference in Delhi in late June calling the Intelligence Bureau report unacceptable “scare-mongering”on the part of the government to malign local agitations and to further repress them. Achin Vanaik, an academic and leading anti-nuclear voice, said:

We are fearful that this is a kind of witch-hunt with longer term implications to repress all kinds of popular struggles

“We are concerned that the ground is being prepared, by whom we cannot say, to oppose and discredit a whole range of popular movements by targeting NGOs that are providing support to such struggles and resistances. We are fearful that this is a kind of witch-hunt with longer term implications to repress all kinds of popular struggles.”

Criminalising dissent

The Intelligence Bureau report reduces the diverse political landscape of India – comprising Gandhians, leftists, tribal movements, funded NGOs and activists who despise them, spontaneous protests and organised groups, academics and independent researchers – to a homogenous block bent on putting roadblocks to the Indian growth dream.

Linking all aspirations for a safer and cleaner future for India to foreign instigation, the report seeks to criminalise dissent.

Raising the ‘foreign hand’ bogey against anti-nuclear activists is not new in India. In the course of the massive people’s resistance to the Kudankulam reactor, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blamed US-based NGOs for instigating protests against the Russian-imported reactors.

Soon, this malignment from the top political level translated into brutal police violence against the villagers:

  • Fisherfolk’s houses and boats were ransacked, two agitators were killed, hundreds were arrested (including women and teens),
  • passports were confiscated from the youth in the area who used to work in the Arabian gulf countries, and
  • outrageous British-era charges of sedition and ‘war against the Indian state’ were levelled against thousands of protesters.

Economic growth not up to the mark? Blame the NGOs

But the recent Intelligence Bureau report takes this repression further and seeks to securitise ‘development’. In the first paragraph, it blames various NGOs and people’s struggle for a 2-3% loss in the country’s GDP.

While several reputed commentators and policy experts have called such assessment ridiculous, the report reflects the ruling elite’s mindset in which the any opposition to its own collaboration for profiteering global corporates is deemed anti-national.

Initial steps of the newly elected BJP government include opening the gates to 100% foreign direct investment in sensitive sectors like defence, and seeking to dilute environmental stipulations for big industries, mining and mega-projects.

The massive expansion of nuclear energy envisaged by the Indian government is itself a direct result of the government’s commitment to the nuclear supplying countries.

Nuclear power is the new must-have

India made advance promises for reactor purchases from France’s Areva, Russia’s Atomsroyexport and US giants like Westinghouse and GE in exchange for these countries’ support for an exemption for India at the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) in 2008.

India was thus permitted to engage in international nuclear commerce despite its status as a nuclear weapons state outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

It is under the pressure of the commitment to the international nuclear lobby that the Indian government has been bulldozing everything that stands in their way:

Coal, hydropower, mining are security interests of the state

The Intelligence Bureau report mentions other people’s struggles to protect the environment and traditional lifestyles – such as movements against corporate-led mining, coal plants, big hydro dams and GM-crops etc.

It has a separate section on the people and activist groups who criticised the development model of the Gujarat state, whose Chief Minister has now become the Prime Minister.

The Gujarat model has been notorious for its corporate friendliness – tax holidays, cheap land acquisition and huge subsidies for big industrial houses in the face of rising inequality and malnutrition.

While such ostrich-like attitudes suit the national security hawks, the democratic ethos is under grave threat in India.

One can only hope that in a country that fought hard against colonialism to attain freedom and nurture a democracy, such attempts will eventually be thwarted by the majority.

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