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India’s War on Environmental Activists

Prakash Singh/Getty Images

Within a month, Greenpeace could close its India office of 300 staffers, because Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration has frozen its assets

The situation isn’t unique to Greenpeace, whose troubles in India began over a year ago. Last week, the home ministry—responsible for domestic affairs and national security—revoked licenses of nearly 9,000 foreign-funded nonprofits it said failed to disclose financial sources. Groups like and Sierra Club have been added to watch lists, and the ministry is now turning its attention to other charities, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation. 

Modi’s administration appears to be motivated by a distrust of foreign funding. “Prime Minister Modi, I know, has a more skeptical attitude towards NGOs than his predecessors may have had,” said Arch Puddington, a senior vice president of research for the think tank Freedom House, which promotes democracy. The U.S. ambassador to India, Richard Verma, also expressed his concerns that the regulatory steps could have "potentially chilling effects" on the country. 

Greenpeace's struggle is a familiar story for environmental activists. Around the world, environmentalists are usually at odds with political and corporate interests—Greenpeace especially, because of their historically dramatic demonstrations—so they find themselves common targets for backlash. “Where environmentalists are perceived as posing a threat to people’s economic interests, you have a combustible situation,” Puddington said in a call. And sometimes, the authorities make them pay.

One of the more extreme examples: Russia arrested 30 Greenpeace activists in 2013, seizing their boat after a few of them attempted to board an Arctic oil rig to protest drilling. Despite international protests, they were charged with piracy, a serious crime that carries a 15-year prison sentence. Eventually, Russia dropped the charges and released the activists—after they spent 100 days in jail.

With less authoritarian governments, pushback takes a subtler form. For instance, Canada’s national police force and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (its version of the CIA) labeled environmental activities as “forms of attack,” an “activity that undermines the security of Canada.” The extra scrutiny is questionable; environmentalists oppose development of Canada's tar sands, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s favorite project. On the other hand, the largest operator of nuclear plants in France—owned largely by the state itself—hired a private firm to spy on Greenpeace offices there.

Environmental advocacy is inevitably inconvenient. Activists’ job, after all, is to challenge the status quo, whether that’s critiquing countries’ overreliance on fossil fuels or protesting corporate abuses of the environment. Of course, not all activists disrupt equally. Greenpeace’s tactics are especially controversial; they're best known for unfurling banners on landmarks (like Mount Rushmore) and staging highly visible stunts that sometimes spectacularly backfire, as when activists disturbed ancient markings in a Peruvian desert.

In India, the conflict between political and environmental goals is pronounced. Greenpeace is fighting air pollution that's suffocating dense cities and coal projects that threaten tribal people, which can mean opposing projects that also expand needed electricity in the developing nation.

“Like any other country Greenpeace in India raises questions about government and corporate practices,” Greenpeace India campaigner Areeba Hamid told me. The problems they face in India aren't just about environmental activism, she continued. "It’s about civil society at large."