Open Essay

Being civil about development

Shiv Visvanathan considers himself a social science nomad
Tagged Under -
Page 1 of 1

The IB report on NGOs brings out the battle between the state and nature

Intelligence reports are fascinating. They carry the mystique of an imperial world, of the Cold War now passed; the nostalgia of Kipling’s Kim and John le Carré’s Smiley.

Someone once said that an ambassador is an honest man who has a duty to lie abroad for his country. Such a statement smacks of innocence in which ‘truth’ and ‘lie’ can be registered in separate columns. Intelligence is the art of confusing the two, of collecting facts and presenting them in a manner that feeds the anxieties of the state. Often, it is suspicion amplified to the point of paranoia. Fact and exaggeration must exist side by side in the world of strategy. Intelligence as a social science is a genre of its own, with its own mystique of information and gossip.

Judged as a bureaucratic text, the IB report on NGOs against development did a good job. The report emerged as a news leak—in watertight Delhi—and became a sensation as the media devoted page after page to it. Its information was focused, intense, thematic. It realised that development was a strategic issue, critical for the nation state and the people. Predictably, it also assumed that these interests were the same; that groups challenging state-sponsored development are anti-national and anti-people by definition. The IB report still works on the old model which equates ‘Government’ and the ‘State’. The new model of governance believes that government is not restricted to the states, that civil society groups also perform the function of governance, and that the State and civil society are in a dialogue, in a quarrelsome relationship. But the spirit of rationality demands that one go beyond a critical nitpicking of the report. One should see it as an act of duty as the Ajit Dovals and Prakash Chandras click their heels to the new regime.

One notes also that this report can be used to serve the suspicions of both regimes UPA and NDA, of both Manmohan and Modi. In fact, that is the beauty of intelligence—it can serve two masters. What this essay shall attempt is to present the same data from the viewpoint of marginalised people as well as civil society, to show there is no such thing as a ‘fact’ until it is put in the context in which it is to be interpreted. It is just that interpretations differ and therefore have different consequences.

One might admit that the idea of the report originally came from Greenpeace; but Greenpeace is almost slapstick, and lacks the sedate theatre of Indian NGOs. This report is a collective act of 21 NGO groups who felt it was their duty to report to the State, to a new regime which they hoped would be more responsive to them. Many, like the Kudankulam anti-nuclear groups, flew into Delhi to clear their name, only to discover that governments of any ilk need hearing aids before marginalised people come dropping in on them.

The report itself was written by Arjun Bhinde, a visiting professor at IIT Delhi. Bhinde, in turn, claimed that he had only served as a munshi, synthesising the views of various groups into a systematic response.

Development is a continuation of strategy by other means. Development—and the models associated with it—determines who gets power or energy, why and when. Development links livelihood and opportunity, increasing or decreasing the possibility of a democratic society. Such development is usually conceived as a project, a technocratic act of expertise, when technical groups make decisions without consulting the people their decisions affect. When development is seen as a technical response to a technical problem, people become irrelevant or residual. Decisions of this sort are presented in numbers measuring progress, profit and productivity. It is true such reports have not been wise enough to recognise Camus’ observation that statistics do not bleed, that suffering and productivity operate on separate registers and invoke separate histories. Sedition enters when these registers are mixed, when the clarity of nation states faces the muddiness of civil societies. One must also admit that as accountants, civil society groups—especially NGOs—are poor at audits, confusing gift and contract, conflating advance and payment, mixing up friend, kinsman and employee. NGOs are more like jajmani systems, more concerned with keeping relationships alive than accounts accurate. As a cynic once said, NGOs have too many social scientists and too few commerce graduates. One needs a professional dullness to be empirically accurate.

However, as social scientists, NGOs are masters of the terrain. They are tremendous listeners, understanding the dialects of pain and suffering, and can capture the consequences of development—its displacements, its silences, the real audit of power—which determines who gets what and who does not, followed by the inevitable ‘when’ and ‘how’. Development is not merely about who gains but also about who loses—and how much. Here, at the risk of pomposity, one must confess that NGOs are better accountants of the development process than the State. They do not confuse a stakeholder society with a shareholder state. Development as a progressive act provides little to those left behind. It is a project in a hurry, and sees protest, dissent and delay as acts of sedition. Delay increases costs, alienates investment, and convinces foreigners that India is not yet ready for modernity. In that sense, NGOs are harbingers of backwardness, spokespersons of backward people who refuse to join development.

The poignancy lies in differences of perception; whether it is the World Bank or Mother Teresa who responds to the pain. NGOs generally fall in between. Life in an NGO is also a career, and one confesses it is easier to move from Andolan to Oxfam to World Bank. But some of us are not so mobile or ambitious. These types stick to one people and articulate their protest. What the Government sees as hypochondria can be genuine pain. Let us go further—the IB report is right in realising that ‘development’ and ‘anti-development’ are both careers; that the Naxals of today are often the World Bank consultants of tomorrow. In that sense, development is a great equaliser.

Speaking more seriously, the Intelligence Bureau is right in its choice of issues. Where it goes wrong is in its split definition of the word ‘foreign’. It is okay for a government to accept foreign aid, sign deals for French and Russian nuclear reactors; but local NGOs obtaining grants to fight ‘development’ triggers the paranoia of ‘the foreign hand’. We can borrow billions for nuclear reactors but it is taboo to receive thousands for a protest movement. Innocence and legitimacy is available to states, but not to individuals no matter how well meaning they may be.

Secondly, the Indian State is outdated. It thinks of security only in militaristic terms. It then reads internal security as a continuation of external security. Acts against outsiders and against one’s own people get conflated. The Naxalite joins the ‘foreign hand’ as an internal sibling. Unfortunately, security and sustainability are put in opposition. Ideas of food, livelihood and security are not caught in such a notion. In fact, a strange duality builds up between security as advocated by the nation-state and sustainability as argued by civil society. The two concepts struggle to protect two different worlds. The tragedy lies in the distance and suspicion this creates.

The IB report is shrewd in its understanding of NGOs in many ways. It realises that there are fashions in suffering and in protest. It points out acutely that foreign funds earlier went to battle against dams and human rights struggles. That front is quiet today as funds move to anti-nuclear, anti GM-food struggles. One must admit sheepishly that the subaltern and suffering are redefined by every generation, and that funding often determines fashions. One remembers a member of the Green Tribunal—a judge—claiming in an interview that “rights is overloaded with people, but sustainability can be a new career.”

In fact, in a deep and fundamental way, the conflict is about citizenship. The issue today is that citizens want a voice, a right to make decisions about their own livelihoods; over the fact that millions have become homeless and cannot find another home. The question is: is it citizens that are seditious or it is the nation-state in pursuit of development that has become a threat to its own people? This is the poignancy of modern democracy, which sees development as the new Camelot. The irony is that development can become a continuation of war by other means. There is no ‘truth commission’ to try the State; but does that mean civil society cannot question it? The question also is who represents the marginalised sections of society— the State or civil society? There are open-ended questions, and for an IB report to ignore it verges on illiteracy. One recollects that dam displacement in Russia and the US was handled by the army. Evacuating people then becomes easy. Even with regard to the Narmada, army and police jeeps completed the evacuation of people. Yet, few sense the irony of such moves.

However, let us move from generalities to the specificity of cases. The crime of the foreign funded NGO is the act of protest against development. Protest creates delays, and delays not only increase costs but destroy pace. Governments feel embarrassed by recalcitrant citizens. Delays in development affect GDP. The insinuation is that foreign donors are investing in delays so that it affects GDP. It is a clever strategy where you intervene in the name of democracy to effect development. These foreign groups and NGOs are said to bring down GDP by two or three per cent. The idea of a specific number is intriguing; there is a certainty to it. Yet one has to ask, does this GDP also measure suffering and loss of livelihood or only the cost of delay? Numbers conceal the conflicts that democracy has still to resolve.

Any NGO entering nuclear activism quickly realises that the discourse has ossified. The permissible is already specified, the taboo areas marked out. To question nuclear energy is to question the State, especially a state which refuses to question nuclear energy. It is a Hobbesian state that refuses to accept that citizens can think differently. There is confusion between security and sustainability. Security depends on secrecy, and sustainability feeds on transparency. Secrecy depends on expertise, the closed, canned scientific opinion, while sustainability needs the clarity of governance that summons citizenship of all kinds. To bring them into dialogue is to violate the rules of the Atom Staat, and this is precisely what happened in Kudankulam.

When ‘the people’ are recalcitrant, you cannot blame them directly. One needs an alien hand, a contaminating virus. Greenpeace fits the bill completely. It has elements of the circus, of ninja tactics, it is a guerilla and slapstick force; but it has a conscience. It feels responsible for the silences of development. Its shock tactics evoke surprise but hardly violence. What irritates is that Greenpeace is an act of conscience that reminds us of things that we refuse to look at.

For Greenpeace and the network of NGOs today, coal causes climate change. Carbon emissions caused by thermal power generation threaten the future, and any threat to the future is a concern for Greenpeace. More immediately, coal threatens current ways of life, often demanding displacement of people; and coal mines are often environmental obscenities. India needs to move away from this fuel; but this is not to deny the need for energy. Instead of coal, one needs alternative, clean fuels.

The IB report describes Greenpeace as ‘spawning mass based movement against development projects’, arguing that Greenpeace is a threat to the economic security of India. Its effectiveness as an opposition is vouched for in the report’s claims that ‘Greenpeace has been growing exponentially in terms of reach, impact and volunteers… ’, pressuring India ‘to use renewable energy’.

What one sees is a battle between two paradigms of economics that has been presented as a battle between the Indian state and a troublesome NGO. Major corporations like Coal India, Hindalco, Aditya Birla Group and Essar are cited as villains. What irritated the report writers most was that a Greenpeace activist stood as a candidate for the Aam Aadmi Party. Read holistically, it is a great campaign; read conspiratorially, Greenpeace is a piece of villainy slowing down India’s future. It is a pity Intelligence serves immediate interests. If it were forward looking, it might have been a guarantor of security. Since Intelligence agents refuse this futurism, NGOs like Greenpeace appear crass, conniving and detrimental to the strategies of the State.

Reading the report, one senses nature and the State are battling it out. The State claims ‘eminent domain’—sovereign rights over the forests, coal and water—but nature seems to be fighting back through tribes, the marginalised and NGOs, demanding a new social contract that goes beyond the old ‘state of nature’ arguments endemic to political science. Every example the IB report cites becomes a new example of this battle. The social construction of ‘nature’ in these two discourses is critical.

One of the major dramas centres on the battle against genetically modified organisms.

With a report like this, hunches may be unerring, but as suspicions they can become misleading. It is true that Europeans have been suspicious of genetically modified foods and that Germans led a battle against GM foods. It is also true that a significant portion of the funding comes from these groups. But one has to recognise that India has its own legacy, inspired by Vandana Shiva, Suman Sahai and later by Kavita Kurganthi.

The IB report mentions four NGOs, all with an identical address, ‘a small unmarked room flat’, which contributed to the three-year moratorium on BT Brinjal. What the committee ignores is that science itself has changed the nature of risk, demanding deeper thought. Moratoriums may be the standard delay tactic, but they also serve as moments for reflection rather than malign acts of disruption.

One senses a set of arguments in this spectrum, of resistance to unilateral acts of development by the State. First, these arguments demand that the displacement and destruction of livelihoods because of development be treated openly. Second, citizenship should be treated as agency, and every man and woman should have a say about the nature and location of their livelihood. Third, development cannot rely on the old Draculas of ‘foreign hand’ and ‘foreign funding’. As democracy reinvents itself, the idea of development will be challenged and debated. Finally one has to realise that this is not an act of sedition, but an invitation to a debate our choices. It is an experiment in democracy as much as science. Instead of harassment, one must thank the NGOs and civil society for this gift of debate. Only then can the nation move to an evolved idea of governance and intelligence; and perhaps even graduate to wisdom.