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Updated: June 18, 2014 00:36 IST

The importance of dissent in democracy

Pushpa M. Bhargava
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Illustration: Deepak Harichandan
The Hindu Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

In a democracy, non-governmental organisations provide a platform to civil society to dissent in an informed and reasoned manner 

On October 31, 1570, Martin Luther nailed on the door of a church in Germany 95 objections to the Catholic faith that led to the emergence of Protestanism. Soon after, Galileo Galilei challenged the Church by stating that the Earth and other planets revolve round the Sun. He died under house arrest.

In 1927, Heinrich Wieland received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for discovering a structure of cholic acid which was proven to be wrong within a year. In 1959, Severo Ochoa and Arthur Kornberg shared a Nobel Prize for the discovery of enzymes that carry out the synthesis of RNA and DNA in living organisms. It turned out that these enzymes were not the right ones.

In fact, the history of progress of mankind is a history of informed dissent; much of creative activity of high quality in all areas of human endeavour at any given time has been a reflection of such dissent.

Today we favour democracy as the most acceptable form of governance because a citizen has a right to dissent without fear of victimisation — as long as such dissent does not lead to inhuman or unconstitutional action. By contrast, dissent in an authoritarian, dictatorial or colonial regime could lead to the severest of punishments — loss of life — as happened in colonial India, Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s USSR.

Platform for dissent

In a democracy, non-governmental organisations provide a platform to civil society to dissent in an informed and reasoned manner. They provide a mechanism for the ruled to keep a check on the rulers.

There are of course NGOs that engage in illegal or objectionable activities using Indian and/or foreign funds, much like how 34 per cent of newly elected MPs in Parliament have criminal cases against them. Just as the majority of MPs do not have cases against them, a large proportion of our NGOs operate transparently and legally.

The power that NGOs wield has increased concurrently with the increased demand for real and operational democracy. If it were not for our NGOs, we would not have the system of obligatory declaration of assets, now required by all those aspiring to be MPs. We would also not have the the Right to Information Act or the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act.

Denigrating good NGOs would therefore imply that our democracy is only notional and not functional. Such denigration would smack of a dictatorial attitude.

The recent Intelligence Bureau report on the “Concerted efforts of select foreign funded NGOs to ‘take down’ Indian development projects” casts serious aspersions on some of our best NGOs and distinguished citizens. The report also alleges that these NGOs would have a negative impact on GDP growth by 2-3 per cent by stalling, through agitation, development projects such as nuclear power plants, uranium mines, coal-fired power plants, GMOs, projects by POSCO and Vedanta, hydel projects, and “extractive industries” in the north-east.

By casting unwarranted and unproven aspersions on highly reputed NGOs such as Greenpeace and Nobel Prize-winning Amnesty International, and individuals such as Suman Sahai, Vandana Shiva, Aruna Rodrigues, Prashant Bhushan, Udayakumar, Admiral Ramdos and Praful Bidwai, the IB has indirectly indicted every individual and NGO that has voiced reasoned dissent in the interest of our country and its people, within our constitutional framework. Such an attitude on the part of the IB makes a mockery of our democracy.

What is wrong in receiving funds from well-meaning individuals or bona fide organisations abroad who want to help a worthwhile cause in India? Doesn’t the Indian government, for example, help worthwhile causes in Afghanistan? In fact, the Bureau should have looked at the damage caused by government funding to organisations like Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh. Medha Patkar’s Narmada Bachao Andolan started as a fully justified campaign on June 12 against the illegal raising of the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam from 122 to 139 metres, which will adversely impact over 2.5 lakh people engaged in various occupations. We know from past experience that nothing will be done for those who stand to be displaced by this move. But IB would probably condemn the above campaign in its next report.

Let us look at how specious and ridiculous the arguments in the IB report are. There is massive opposition to nuclear power plants around the world, and many countries such as Japan and Germany have decided to abrogate them in a time-bound fashion. In our own country, many highly distinguished individuals such as a former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, a former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and several former Secretaries to the Government of India, who are knowledgeable in the area, have opposed further investment in nuclear energy. None of them has any connection with Greenpeace, nor do they have any vested interest. They have provided valid reasons for their views.

Let us take another example — coal mining for coal-fired thermal power plants. Such mining requires destroying India’s forest wealth and the livelihood of tribals. What about our national commitment since Independence to have over 30 per cent of our area under forest cover? Why should we invest so heavily in nuclear, thermal or large hydel power plants, none of which will be environment or people-friendly, when we have far better alternatives staring us in our face: solar power, wind power, micro and mini hydel, biomass and biogas, lot of which can be produced and used locally? Isn’t it strange that our country does not have even one single institute totally devoted to research on solar power? We want to spend enormous amounts of money to buy nuclear reactors from the U.S. but we do not want to learn lessons on solar power from Germany. What is then wrong with NGOs in our country such as Greenpeace for taking a courageous stand against nuclear, coal-fired thermal or large hydel power plants?

It is hilarious that the possession of a map showing nuclear installations in India and a list of Indians who oppose nuclear power — all of which is public knowledge — is a crime in the eyes of the IB. The ignorance of the Bureau with regard to the Bt-cotton story in India, and of the problems with GM crops, is appalling. For example, Bt-cotton has totally failed in rain-fed areas that account for nearly two-thirds of cotton-growing area in the country. Even if, as the IB claims, there is a negative impact on GDP because of opposition to certain projects, so what? Our experience of high growth rate in some recent years has by no means been satisfactory, for it has barely touched the bottom 80 per cent of our population and has vastly increased the economic gap between the top 20 and bottom 80 per cent.

Action against illegal activities

It is only proper that the government takes action against those organisations that obtain foreign funds illegally and/or are not transparent in using them as required by law. Many organisations do not take money from the government or business houses. It is admirable that they survive on donations by individuals in India and/or abroad. They follow the provisions of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act and their accounting is transparent. I believe that in the long-term interests of inclusive growth in the country, it is much wiser to support such organisations than to have FDI in retail which will benefit a select few but adversely affect millions of people in the country.

(Pushpa M. Bhargava is the founder- director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology at Hyderabad, and chairman of the Southern Regional Centre of Council for Social Development.)

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