Hullabaloo Hurray Hurray! NGOs are back but still stuck in luddite days. Unless, of course, there is an agenda.
Snapshot
  • Most NGOs are against modern science, technology and development. Have you ever heard of an NGO-inspired job creation or economic development programme?

Much has been said and written about the not-so-admirable role of NGOs who have been throwing a monkey’s wrench into the wheel of development of the NaMo government. There may not be a single case in which NGO activists have not stopped or delayed the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ environmental clearance process. They are never satisfied with whatever the ministry does to clear projects. They see red only because most of them are cut from the red political hue. Somehow or the other, they think that all modern development projects are not congruent with environmental protection. Each and every project destroys environment and biodiversity, and therefore should not be taken up. Even if they come to peace with some of the projects, to incorporate their agenda will be so prohibitively costly that it will not be economically feasible to implement such projects with the NGOs’ mitigation ideas.

One wonders where all these NGOs were when India’s population tripled to what it is today, and how does any government provide housing, jobs and healthcare to the teeming millions. Yes, a certain amount of environmental destruction will take place, but if the project implementers are bound by a legally enforceable contract to restore or mitigate the damage caused, then the country’s development can surge ahead. No one ever sees or hears of an NGO-inspired or mobilized job creation or economic development programme. All one hears is how the environment is being destroyed and modern development is the cause of all of it. In fact, many of them argue that the western model of development that India is pursuing for the past four decades is ill-suited, and we need to develop eco-centric model of development, whatever that means. Most often, it means no development.

This is the sad saga of developmental politics in all developing countries where NGOs have ensured perpetual poverty and misery to preserve their funding constituency. The real tragedy is that the World Bank and the UN have caved in to these NGOs’ demands and have formed compacts with them to plan the developmental agenda for developing nations. The net result is developing countries have never achieved any measurable modicum of development and have been unable to alleviate poverty. India, after it adopted market liberalization in the early 1990s, achieved significant progress under Narasimha Rao with able support from Dr Manmohan Singh. But the same person, under the tutelage of the Sonia Gandhi-headed NGO-packed National Advisory Council, reversed economic progress.

Prime Minister Modi came to office promising nothing but development, and as a right-winger, all of us expected him to usher in free-market economic policies. Sadly, that has not happened, as many NGOs and their left benefactors have blocked all attempts in Parliament. This has been disappointing to most people who were sick and tired of socialistic development, and wanted unbridled free-market economic development. It is amazing how the tyranny of the left and the Congress, even though NaMo has a majority in the lower house, continues.

Everyone is looking forward to the mid-term elections by the end of summer for the numbers to change in the upper house of Parliament. NaMo has no time to lose; he needs to fast-track his developmental agenda and demonstrate visible progress and impact on the poor and job creation. He should jettison the naysayers and NGOs. He should neither react nor respond to their criticisms.

Obviously, not all NGOs can be blamed as obstructionists, but some of the leading NGOs and their most visible personalities need to be brought under the scanner, which is what the NaMo government has done. It is really important to understand the origins of this NGO movement and how it has evolved into such an influential position that they demand and get seats at the table of decision making in all important public fora around the world. In fact, the NGO movement is a multi-billion-dollar and multinational movement. They can and have stood up to the strongest of governments and industry. India has an estimated 20 lakh NGOs, and many of them are funded by overseas entities. Only 2 per cent of them file reports of their overseas sources of funding. It is alleged that most of that funding is not spent on purposes for which they are meant.

According to the World Bank, the NGO sector has grown exponentially since the mid-1970s. Nearly $8 billion are channeled through NGOs globally every year. This is an indication of how lucrative it must be to set up an NGO and start attracting funds and really be not responsible or accountable to the State. Seshadri Chari, pointman for foreign affairs of the BJP, writing in Outlook magazine (9 March 2015), mentions that the growth of NGOs is a result of the Washington Consensus to push a neo-liberal agenda of stabilizing macro-economies and integrating national economies with the world economy (read US economy). Enlisting NGOs for achieving a variety of political and economic outcomes has turned out to be a powerful tool to attack elected legit governments.

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Most NGOs are members of the World Social Forum, a body established to counter the World Economic Forum. Most NGOs are left-leaning and socialistic, and are opposed to free market and capitalistic economic development. They are dead opposed to modern industries and multinational corporations, and most modern technologies like nuclear and biotechnology. Most of the NGOs draw inspiration from Marxist philosophies, and oppose science and technologies that have developed since the Industrial Revolution unless they provide ‘social justice’ to the working class. Most of these NGOs demand that states provide for the basic needs of their citizens, and they militate and agitate for this and mobilize public opinion through persistent campaigns.

To really understand how activists are making and breaking new markets, products and services, one should read Stanford University’s Hayagreeva Rao’s Market Rebels: How Activists Make Or Break Radical Innovations. Radical innovations have floundered because their innovators overlooked social and cultural mobilization. Activists are really good at emotionalizing any public issue, and thus arouse public sentiments against market-driven innovations. Activists foster the defence of the old and attack modern industrial innovations as being heartless.

In 1895, when the automobile industry was just taking off, there were individuals and groups who scared people by portraying cars as killing machines on the road and as explosive material because they used gasoline to power themselves. Cars became acceptable only when laws licensing drivers and mandating speed limits were implemented. Opponents of biotechnology drove it out of Germany, which was the pioneer in biotech innovation as early as 1972. Activists depicted biotech as a Faustian bargain that risked resurrecting Nazi eugenics and genetic discrimination. They recruited sympathizers and allies from among workers within the biotech industry, school teachers, church groups, politicians across the political spectrum, and yes, some from within the scientific community. Borrowing the phrase ‘incalculable risk’ from the campaign against nuclear energy, activists drove biotech investments out of Europe into America. Thus America became the world leader in modern biotechnology and genetic engineering.

A European parliamentary commission in 1984-85 released a report written under pressure from activists, titled Opportunities and Risks of Genetic Technology, whereas the Office of Technology Assessment in the United States released a report titled Commercial Biotechnology, which captured the economic prospects of this new technology, and argued for how the federal government could help support its development. When the World Bank launched a multi-million dollar global assessment of agriculture called the International Assessment of Agricultural Science & Technology for Development (IAASTD), activists took it over to turn it into an anti-modern-science-and-technology report. It is another matter that this report has been shelved from where no one else can redeem it.

Rachel Schurman and William Munro of the University of Minnesota argue that a “critical community” of activists forged an anti-GE movement in agriculture by constructing a grievance process using social networks. This is evident in India when you see that a variety of actors who have no knowledge of science have come together to oppose GM crops. They have cultivated sympathetic politicians across all parties including the BJP to halt progress on GM crops. This technology is in political limbo, and no politician wants to touch this tar baby.

Ji Giles Ungpakorn, an international socialist and a former faculty at the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, writes that NGOs proliferated in the 1980s due to new funding opportunities, increasing opportunities for NGO recruitment by national governments with neo-liberal thinking that NGOs can deliver services cost-effectively, and fragmentation of left-wing class-based movements due to the collapse of Communism. NGOs have also thrived where there was strong State repression of left-wing activities and bureaucratization of left-wing parties, as in India.

The NGO proliferation occurred with the rise of new non-class-based social movements, identity politics and the revival of the need for a “civil society”, as a process of democratizing the capitalist State.

The 19th century black and white days when Luddites, mostly textile workers in England, opposed technologies that favoured the progress of the Industrial Revolution. Today the term is associated with anti-technology altogether.  The 19th century black and white days when Luddites, mostly textile workers in England, opposed technologies that favoured the progress of the Industrial Revolution. Today the term is associated with anti-technology altogether. 

In the same vein, anti-technology activists have started a new movement to ‘democratize’ modern technologies. NGOs also work with old social and political movements belonging to the left, like trade unions or peasant movements, and usually play identity politics with single-issue campaigns at any given time. Most often, they take up causes where there is good money to be attracted from overseas, and which also bring instant fame and notoriety. Jumping on the bandwagon of successful single-issue campaigns for fame and comfort of international travel to the West for more fund raising is an added attraction. In such cases, the cause becomes secondary, and the chase for money becomes the eternal goal.

The pattern is the same all over. If a new technology or new innovation crops up from a capitalist economy (read USA), mobilize public opinion to kill it. This is what is happening with all developmental projects in India. The public and politicians will have to realize that for a country like India that is home to 1.2 billion people that runs short of almost all basic necessities of life and more importantly jobs, rapid development is imperative, and in that process, a certain degree of environmental degradation is inevitable. However, with all the modern knowledge at the nation’s beckoning, one must assess environmental risks and devise ways and means to mitigate it during project implementation.

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The technology debate must be depoliticized with the active participation of technology purveyors. Stubborn NGOs who do not yield to reason must be politically jettisoned for the sake of development. India needs rapid development, and those who cannot be a part of problem solving, should be isolated.

This article was published in the May 2016 Issue of Swarajya Magazine. To subscribe, click here.

Dr Shantharam is an Adjunct Professor of Biotechnology, University of Maryland—Eastern Shore, Princess Anne. A former biotechnology regulator with the United States Department of Agriculture, served as a biotechnology consultant with the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, UNIDO and UN-FAO. He is also a Visiting Professor at the Seed Science Center at Iowa State University, Ames.

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