Green NGOs in China and India: surprising developments

3 June 2015

In spite of the tensions between them, China and India are seeking to cooperate with one another, as shown by PM Modi’s recent visit to China.  In the environmental field, however, they are missing opportunities to learn from each other. Internal politics are interfering in a surprising way, and appear to be taking them in very different directions. 

Greenpeace activists dump nearly one ton of toxic sludge from the Asanikunta Lake in Medak District, at the doorstep of the APPCB in Hyderabad. Credit: GreenPeace India - Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

We are closely observing the progress (or lack of it) being made by China and India towards sustainability. Given their substantial size and rapid growth, these two countries have a considerable influence on the future of human life on our planet.

Our Green Transformation research and knowledge cluster’s calling card is that progress is driven by transformative alliances, resulting from alignments between governments, businesses and civil society. In our view, no single actor can bring about the kind of green transformations required for us to operate within our planetary boundaries. 

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can play an important role in such alignments. It seems that, in China and India, the political spaces for NGOs are developing in opposite ways, and this could have important implications for if and how these countries are able to drive green transformations and learn from each other.

NGOs as new Watchdogs in China?

On January 1, 2015 China’s new law on Environment Protection came into effect. While there is widespread debate on the content of the law, there is near consensus that China needed to enhance its commitment to environment protection. Other than the bad press in Western media, the change was necessitated by the rising number of protests over air quality in the cities and due to pollution in industrial areas.

The new law has made substantial revisions including, amongst others, a provision for incremental penalties, public disclosure of data by enterprises and regulators as well as whistle-blower protection. A remarkable feature of the new law is the role it assigns to environmental NGOs and civil society organisations.

For the first time, there is explicit recognition of civil society organisations as watch-dogs (PDF) who could initiate public interest litigations against companies/local government violating the law.

Given the role played by civil society organisations in informing citizens about environmental hazards and mediating conflicts between angry citizens and municipal agencies, the government seems obliged to surrender space. Of course, this space is provided with the usual Chinese caveat that only those NGOs which meet certain official criteria will be allowed to have this watch-dog role.

In contrast, NGOs being portrayed speed-breakers in India...

In contrast, the political space for green NGOs in India seems to be shrinking. This is surprising because historically such NGOs have played a significant role on many landmark decisions around environmental policy. The law of Municipal Solid Waste, battery waste, electronic waste as well as other environmental legislations were all a result of the judicial activism by environmental NGOs.

However, more recently, these NGOs have been portrayed as the speed-breakers on the road to progress.

Last July, a report by the Ministry of Home Affairs identified environmental NGOs as being anti-industry and anti-national because they were retarding the progress of the country. Organisations like Greenpeace and Climate Works were singled out as the major deviants. In January, a Greenpeace activist was prevented from boarding a plane to the UK. She was on her way to address UK Parliamentarians about the violations of human rights due to land acquisition for coal mining in Madhya Pradesh. More recently, a report is claiming that a law on foreign funding to charities is being used to lodge complaints against non-profits that do not agree with government policy.

Will India take the opportunity to compete on the high road – or take the low road?

India’s Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change is busy rebranding itself - from a Ministry that created obstacles to a Ministry fit for purpose. In his last two meetings with delegations from the US and Germany, its Minister emphasised how they are making it easy for businesses to operate in India. 

Behind this are complaints from the business community – widely reported in the Indian press – that environmental regulations are holding them back. There are indeed some regulations which are poorly devised and/or implemented in over-zealously. Some red tape (or should we say green tape?) needs to be revised. But there is a more fundamental issue to be considered.

The Government is at a critical juncture now, where it needs to decide whether it wants India to compete on the high road or the low road. 

The low road means seeking competitive advantage by cutting corners, disregarding environmental regulations or dodging taxes. The high road means competing by innovating. Forces within government – and outside – are pulling in both directions. It is hard to predict who will gain the upper hand in the current rethinking about environmental governance.

Those in favour of competing on the high road and arguing for strong environmental governance seem to rely too much on what the state itself is capable of delivering. For example, recently the Ministry announced that it was hiring consultants to advise it on the setting up of an Environmental Management Authority at national and state levels.  Is this realistic?  State capacities for environmental governance are overstretched as it is. State Pollution Control Boards find it difficult to fulfil their mandate due to severe understaffing and limited capacities (PDF)

This brings us back to the NGO issue raised earlier. While environmental NGOs can of course never be substitutes for the state, they can play an important role as allies, in supporting the processes of oversight. Challenge from green NGOs can help government to embark on the high road to competitiveness. Perhaps some change of thinking is needed on both sides.

What can China and India do together?

There is a case to be made for India and China to share experiences on environmental governance. The Chinese experience suggests that the focus on growth at an unparalleled pace has led to severe environmental degradation and environmental protests by the citizenry. In fairness to the Chinese government, it has only taken two decades to recognise this as an issue as opposed to nearly a century, as was the case in the West. In its latest Five Year Plan, China is prioritising the environmental protection industry as part of its 12th five year plan, as well as carrying out the kinds of legislative reforms mentioned earlier.

The Government of India could avoid this path of grow first, clean up later by also redirecting its industrial policy towards environmentally benign, GHG-mitigating industries. Large-scale transformations are driven by alliances of different interests. Environmental NGOs, especially vibrant in India, could play a critical watch-dog role and become an integral part of state-civic-business alliance.

Otherwise, much like China, an exclusive focus on state-business alliances could lead to popular protests, which would have the opposite impact on the progress the Government seeks to foster.

‘Faster together’ may sound like a cheap slogan but it is true.

Image: Greenpeace activists dump nearly one ton of toxic sludge from the Asanikunta Lake in Medak District, at the doorstep of the APPCB in Hyderabad. Credit: Greenpeace India

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