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Civil society ripple: Social activist Medha Patkar regrets, UPA was accommodative of NGOs, NDA is not

NBA's anti-dam campaign in Madhya Pradesh
By Our Representative
In what may be seen as a clear refusal to take an equidistant position between the ruling NDA government and its predecessor UPA government, well-known anti-dam activist Medha Parkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) has said that the previous regime “consulted” civil society on critical issues, which is not true of BJP rulers. In a recent article, Patkar comments, while the UPA “paranoid about NGOs, especially those challenging big business or inequitable development projects”, it never shied of seeking “NGO input on major public welfare policies such as the right to information, universal education and food security.”
“Although officials did not always accept NGOs’ advice, the conversation, at least, continued”, Patkar said. The article, published in an online journal, is significant, as it comes close on the heels of a note prepared by several people’s organizations, which said the defeat of the Congress in the last Lok Sabha polls was a defeat of the progressive forces to come together, ally and broad base the fight for people’s issues.
In her sharpest ever comment on the Modi government, Patkar says, “The new Indian government led by the right-wing BJP engages in very little dialogue with NGOs or people’s movements. This is consistent with the record of BJP-led state governments in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The BJP prefers to talk only with those belonging to their ‘parivar’, or family of right-wing associations, including the RSS”.
Particularly taking exception of the recent Intelligence Bureau (IB) report, which put to question NGOs’ foreign funding, Patkar said, “Within days of BJP leader Narendra Modi becoming the prime minister, someone leaked a top secret report by the IB to the press. The report briefed Modi on India’s NGOs, expressing anxiety over their foreign funding and opposition to development projects, and accusing them of being anti-national”.
Asking why is such “paranoia” abound NGOs’ foreign funding, she wonders, “With so much information available on the Internet—such as Google Earth, Wikipedia and scores of other websites—what is wrong with Indian NGOs collecting and using this data, not to sell or market, but to protect the interests of communities and individuals?”
She comments, “A sweeping rule against foreign funding would be seriously damaging Indian civil society. In today’s globalized world, governments themselves use funds from multilateral agencies, including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund and bilateral aid agencies. A government that accepts millions of dollars from abroad has no right to question foreign funding of Indian NGOs.”
She emphasises, “Indian NGOs and the general public have the right to question economic policies, suggest alternatives and resist what they see as wrong decisions. This is their democratic right. So long as their resistance is non-violent, it is sanctioned by India’s constitution. However powerful or insecure the government, it cannot take away this right by invoking the spectre of anti-nationalism”.
Admitting that “some NGOs exist simply to make money or further dubious agendas”, Patkar says, “Often, these are run by politicians or political parties, and the government has already blacklisted many of these entities. I do not defend these NGOs. Non-profits must be law-abiding and open to scrutiny.” However, she believes, the NGOs should learn to become more “self-vigilant, and mobilize society to raise domestic funds as far as possible”, claiming, the NBA to which she belongs, “does not take funds from abroad.”
Patkar wonders why MNCs which are strongly criticized by NGOs are friends of government. For instance, NGOs have targeted genetically modified foods, “yet, companies like Monsanto, which promotes genetically engineered seeds (with state encouragement) and has been accused of damaging Indian cotton farming, are never held accountable. Only a few of the hundreds of allegations against Monsanto are even investigated.”

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