NGOs and Industry
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
NGOs and Industry

By Sandeep Sahu: On February 24, this columnist received a press release from an International NGO working for tribes the world over, forwarded by the Delhi office for verification. Under the rather sensational headline of “Crackdown on sacred ritual as Vedanta mine appeal approaches”, it said; “Security forces are cracking down on the Dongria Kondh tribes as they prepare for a religious festival this weekend at the top of India’s most contentious mountain”.

“NGO has received”, it went on, “reports of arrests and beatings and in the last week alone, police have shut down six meetings where food supplies were being organized for this weekend’s festival. Giridhari Patra from the Niyamgiri Protection Committee said, ‘Intimidating and threatening the Dongria before one of their most important festivals is unforgivable. The mountain is the seat of their god and the basis of their identity. We will never give it up to Vedanta.’”

Some frantic inquiries from Ground Zero revealed that there was NO CRACKDOWN going on and the annual three-day festival was, in fact, being celebrated by the Dongria Kondhs with all fervor and without any hitch whatsoever. Surprise of surprises, even the man quoted in the press release of that NGO, Giridhari Patra, did not have the faintest idea about any crackdown on tribals!

NGO gave the game away somewhat by adding these lines in its press release. “The tribe’s victory in 2010 over the mining giant, which wanted to dig an open-pit mine to reach the mountain’s aluminum-ore deposits, was historic. However, their way of life is once again in danger as the controversy is reconsidered by India’s highest court on April 9 this year.”

On being informed about the truth on the ground, the Delhi office, going by its sacred principle of “Reporter knows best”, decided to forget all about the ‘story’. But not every media house believes in the principle. In fact, there are large sections within the media, especially of the English variety, that is more than willing to lap up anything that International NGOs (INGOs) dish out without bothering to cross-check the veracity of the often wild allegations.

A case in point is the hullabaloo over the indecent representation of Bonda women by tour operators. “Tour operators offer titillating ‘human safaris’ in Orissa”, screamed the headline in a leading Indian daily. The report, filed by the newspaper’s London correspondent, sought to draw a parallel between the supposed indecent representation of Bonda women by Indian tour operators and the video of Jarawa women in Andaman and Nicobar Island being made to dance for the entertainment of foreign tourists that had led to a hue and cry a few days before. Given the standing of the newspaper in question, the fall-out was instant. The state government, which never had a problem with such tours before, suddenly woke up to the need to ‘protect’ the primitive tribe from the prying eyes of lecherous foreigners. Tour operators in the state faced the music in the form of a set of strict guidelines that would virtually make not just Bonda areas, but all areas inhabited by Particularly Vulnerable Primitive Tribes (PVTGs), out of bounds for tourists and tour operators. The outcry also had its fall-out on the Adivasi Mela in Bhubaneswar with the authorities banning photography inside the Mela premises – a knee-jerk reaction if ever there was one.

In this case, the state government was at least reacting to media reports. But both the Union and state governments have been known to be extraordinarily sensitive to anything said by foreign based organisations and individuals irrespective of their credibility and have gone out of their way to attend to their litany of complaints.
The alacrity with which the Centre and the state responded to a complaint by two individuals Queensland of Australia – lodged with the Indian High Commission in Australia about the possible danger by Vedanta’s red mud pond in Lanjigarh to Dongria and Kutia Kondh people living in the area is symptomatic of the way successive governments have dealt with such complaints in the past. The High Commissioner in Australia forwarded the complaint to the MEA, which in turn, referred it to the Resident Commissioner of Odisha in New Delhi. The resident Commissioner, on his part, forwarded it to the Chief Secretary, the Home Secretary and the Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister. How one wishes governments showed the same alacrity in dealing with the complaints of natives!    

Around the same time that the controversy over the ‘titillating’ human safaris was raging, the Kathmandu office of a human rights organization requested this columnist to verify and report back on the accuracy of a report published in one of the many news and current affairs based websites that have mushroomed in the state over the last few years. Written by a man who described himself as a ‘human rights defender’, it painted a gory picture of an incident at the Jindal Steel and Power Limited (JSPL) plant on the outskirts of Angul town on January 25 when company security guards allegedly went on a rampage attacking protestors seeking jobs and higher compensation for their land. Just one line in the report would give a fair idea about its tone and tenor. “XXX The beastiality (sic) of the goons reached most shocking and appalling limits when some of them inserted iron rods into the private parts of the women.”   It is nobody’s case that the security guards were not at fault or the attack never took place. But it was clearly a grossly exaggerated – and biased, one might add – account of what had actually happened.

The incidents narrated above have a common thread running through them. They were all driven by NGOs and civil rights organizations, directed against trade and industry and based on half-truths or downright lies. All of which makes one wonder if there is a definite pattern to it. If the victims of their collective campaign – mostly industrial houses – believe that the vilification campaign is being orchestrated and choreographed by their international (read Western) rivals, can one really dismiss it outright?

As a media person, the more troubling question for this columnist is: why are sections of the media ready to play ball, jettisoning the cardinal journalistic principle of verifying and cross-checking facts on the ground before going to print or on air?
(This article appeared in the Sunday (March 18, 2012) edition of The Political and Business Daily)

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