Leaning across the spotless coffee table in his office that overlooks a leafy street, The Donor lays his cards bare: “We support risks. For us, and our money, failure is not a deterrent. But Indians, corporates or individuals, haven’t quite fathomed the art of giving.” He should know. A grant-maker from one of the top foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that pump in money in India and abroad, The Donor avers that unless and until the corporate sector and the high networth individuals (HNIs) move out of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) comfort zones, civil society activity in India will have to depend on foreign funds.
Well, tell that to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, these days really wary of the “foreign hand that feeds dissent” against some of the key projects.
Fact & Fission
The spectre of “foreign hand”, an omnipresent, engaging shadow in Indian politics since the 1960s, was raised afresh last week when the generally soft-spoken Dr Singh put the heebie-jeebies into India’s bustling civil society sector through some casual remarks.
In one of his rare interviews, he told the US-based Science magazine that rich NGOs from the US and Scandinavian nations were behind the protests that are stalling the setting up of two more reactors at the nuclear power plant in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu.
“They are not fully appreciative of the development challenges that our country faces,” he said. “But we are a democracy, we are not like China,” the PM added for good measure. The official machinery took the cue, and Foreign Contribution Regulatory Act (FCRA) licences of four NGOs active in the Kudankulam area were promptly revoked. This raised fresh fears of a crackdown on NGOs that refuse to toe the government line.
As for the US, White House was quite unequivocal. “We are supportive as a government of India’s investment in civil nuclear power… Our NGO support goes for development and it goes for democracy programmes,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said on Thursday. The debate in India, as it stands, is on just how kosher the dollars are.
It’s ironical that Kudankulam, a sleepy fishing-village with a population of around 11,000, should find itself in the middle of a raging global debate on the future and safety of nuclear energy. For starters, it is also one of India’s petri dishes for wind energy projects, with a handful of wind turbines dotting even the nuclear plant compound.
To be fair, the village has been on the boil since 1988 when Samathuva Samudaya Iyakkam (Social Equality Movement) got people from three districts, Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari and Tuticorin, to come together for a massive rally against the nuclear plant. But that was against the diversion of water from the local Pechiparai Dam, the only source of water in this arid landscape, to the nuclear plant.
Today, it’s the safety concerns that have the locals up in arms, safety of human lives, as well as their livelihood, the marine life, with the recent Fukushima disaster in Japan upping the fear quotient further.
We the People?
Well, the government of India wouldn’t buy that. It believes unsuspecting locals are being led on the Singur-Nandigram path by foreign hands with ideological, often ulterior, motives. It wants Indian civil society to behave, and not be carried away by the prejudices of those far-removed, and far more secure.
Yet, this forms an important component since most of that aid are not tied grants, unlike what corporates or HNIs give. That helps NGOs to prioritise work that suits local necessities, than cast a wider net on larger social goals with little local impact.