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Greenpeace India may be forced to halve staff, operations amid government crackdown

Greenpeace India, the environmental non-governmental organisation, will scale back its operations and staff in the country by nearly 50 percent in the near future. This comes months after the Enforcement Directorate’s decision to freeze its primary bank account in October 2018. Greenpeace India staffers I spoke to said the government’s actions have put an enormous strain on the organisation financially. It is unable to pay its employees their salaries, and is currently restructuring its operations in the aftermath of a crackdown by the ED, which functions under the Ministry of Finance.

Greenpeace currently has close to 60 employees in India and is likely to lose at least 30 people. According to its employees, each of the organisation’s departments—campaign, administration, finance, human resources—is likely to lose half its members. Its campaigns on air pollution, renewable energy, power sector emissions and agriculture will also be pared down.

A mid-level Greenpeace employee said, on the condition of anonymity, that the loss of staff may be even higher. The employee told me that only a skeletal staff of ten to 15 people may be retained. The mid-level staffer added that although the Greenpeace office may not be officially “closed,” in actual practice, its operations could come to a halt.

“Because of the continued attacks on us, we are unable to pay staff salaries and people have been compelled to leave, while some of them are offering their time as volunteers,” Nandikesh Sivalingam, Greenpeace India’s campaign manager for climate and energy, said. “Most of our campaigns will be scaled down as part of the restructuring process, though we are currently working out the modalities.”

The action against Greenpeace India is part of a wider crackdown on NGOs, activists and civil-society groups that are perceived to be critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the government’s development policies. Amnesty International’s Indian subsidiary has also been targeted along similar lines, with the government freezing its bank accounts and compelling the organisation to cut down nearly 70 employees.

In June 2014, a few weeks after the Modi government came to power, the Intelligence Bureau submitted a report to the Prime Minister’s Office titled, “Impact of NGOs on Development.” The report claimed that foreign-funded NGOs protesting coal and mining projects in the country were stalling India’s development and had negatively impacted GDP growth by two to three percentage points. The report called Greenpeace a “threat to national economic security.”

Greenpeace has campaigned on issues related to climate change, land rights and the environmental impact of coal mining and burning. Greenpeace Australia has also campaigned against a multi-billion dollar coal mining project in Queensland, proposed by the Adani Group. In its campaign, the NGO described the project as a major threat to the environment. The conglomerate is headed by Gautam Adani, an Indian businessman known to be close to Modi. Modi’s time as the chief minister of Gujarat, between 2001 and 2014, coincided with massive increases in the Adani Group’s fortune. The conglomerate has continued to prosper under Modi’s prime ministership.

Since 2014, the Modi government has presided over a crackdown on civil society groups, cancelling the licenses under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act, or FCRA, of at least 20,000 NGOs—in effect, barring them from receiving foreign funds. An FCRA license issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs is a prerequisite for trusts and societies to receive money from foreign sources. In September 2015, the Ministry of Home Affairs cancelled Greenpeace’s FCRA license claiming that the organisation had violated FCRA norms by mixing foreign and domestic funds and not disclosing “the movement of money properly.”

Greenpeace has consistently faced punitive actions under the Modi regime. In 2015, Priya Pillai, a senior Greenpeace campaigner, was prevented from boarding a flight to London, where she was scheduled to speak to a British Parliamentary group about the ill effects of coal mining in central India. The Greenpeace staff also said that the organisation has been getting income-tax notices every few months.

The government’s latest allegation against Greenpeace, which led to the government freezing its primary bank account, is that it continues to receive foreign funds despite its FCRA being cancelled. On 5 October, the ED searched the Bengaluru office of Greenpeace and froze its account with the IDBI bank. Greenpeace staff said this is the primary account which holds the money from which salaries are paid. The investigative agency also searched the office of Direct Dialogue Initiatives India, or DDIIPL, a private limited company that raises funds for Greenpeace and is located in the same building. DDIIPL is at the heart of the ED’s case against Greenpeace. The ED argues that it was set up in 2016 to transfer foreign money to Greenpeace in violation of Indian law.

On 23 October, Greenpeace filed a writ petition in the Karnataka High Court challenging the freezing of its bank account. In an affidavit filed on 2 November, the ED stated to the court that Greenpeace had “clandestinely incorporated a commercial entity” called Direct Dialogue Initiatives India, set up after the NGO “failed to get funds through the FCRA process.” The ED added that between December 2016 and September 2018, DDIIPL received foreign direct investment worth Rs 29 crore from the Netherlands-based Greenpeace International. It claimed that this FDI was transferred to Greenpeace India, in violation of the Foreign Exchange Management Act. The ED told the court that freezing the bank account is essential to its investigation.

Greenpeace maintains that it has not violated the law. It argued in its petition before the court that although it has outsourced fundraising to DDIIPL, the money raised for it is collected entirely through domestic donors. It stated that DDIIPL reaches out to potential donors on its behalf, and any funds raised are transferred to Greenpeace directly by the donors themselves. The NGO has said in court and in its public statements that the ED has not been able to furnish evidence to prove its case. “The ED has not been able to track a single foreign transaction being routed from Greenpeace International to Greenpeace India via Direct Dialogues,” Nandikesh said. “There’s no such transaction, so there is no evidence.” He added that all the money Greenpeace India has gotten since the FCRA was cancelled is through domestic sources and donors.

I spoke to Binu Jacob, the Chief Executive Officer of Direct Dialogue Initiatives India, about the nature of the relationship between the company and Greenpeace India. He said Greenpeace India has a commercial agreement with DDIIPL through which it raises funds for the NGO and charges a commission on it. He added that Greenpeace Stitching Council—as Greenpeace International is officially incorporated—has a 99 percent equity stake in DDIIPL, which makes it the majority owner. But he emphasised that the funds raised for Greenpeace India are through domestic donors.

“We have gone to court saying there is no case because all the money is through banking channels and can be traced,” Jacob said. “The money that we receive as FDI is used for our staff and infrastructure, while our fundraising for Greenpeace India is entirely domestic. We enroll donors who give money directly to Greenpeace India, so there is no question of foreign money being transferred clandestinely to Greenpeace.” Jacob said that the ED was calling up their donors to verify if they are genuine because it thinks DDIIPL may be making up fictitious donors—a claim that he described as “creative thinking” on the part of the ED.

While the court case is ongoing, the ED’s crackdown has made it difficult for Greenpeace to function normally. In its 23 October writ petition, Greenpeace told the Karnataka High Court that they needed Rs 50 lakh towards salaries, office maintenance and other expenses. The ED argued in court that the account should remain frozen because any attempt to withdraw cash may hamper the investigation—a charge that Greenpeace’s counsel termed baseless. On 5 November, the court allowed Greenpeace to withdraw Rs 50,66,320, upon submitting a bank guarantee of the same amount to the ED. The court also permitted the ED to continue its investigation. Greenpeace gave the guarantee—essentially a security deposit—and paid its employees salaries in November. The NGO has paid its employees their salaries up till December, but its staff said the organisation was finding it difficult to come up with the requisite bank guarantees to release further funds from its blocked account.

During its investigation, the ED summoned Kshithij Urs, the executive director of Greenpeace India at the time—who has since quit the organisation—twice, on 27 November and 5 December. Urs declined to speak to me, but Moushmi Dhar, the interim executive director, told me that the ED has asked Greenpeace for a list of their donors. The summons served by the ED in November also asked Greenpeace for details of its bank accounts, a list of documents it submitted for the registration of the NGO, a list of their campaigns, its lease agreements for rented properties, its income tax returns and its employee details.

I reached out to the ED’s office in Bengaluru to speak to Basavaraj Magadum, an assistant director who has signed the ED’s affidavit to the Karnataka High Court. I was told that neither he nor anyone else in the agency would be talking to the media.

“If you look at what is happening to civil society, journalists, researchers, everybody is being targeted,” Nandikesh said. “It’s part of the narrative where the government wants to paint people who are asking for rights and environmental justice as enemies. Governments and corporates are unable to give clean air, there’s a huge water crisis in the country and when you can’t solve those things, you try and shut down people who ask questions.”

Las opiniones y conslusiones expresadas en el siguiente artículo son de exclusiva responsabilidad del autor y no necesariamente reflejan la posición del CETRI.