“If Modi is serious about sabka saath, sabka vikaas, now is the time for him to show that”


Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | December 1, 2014

 Kumi Naidoo, executive director, Greenpeace International
Kumi Naidoo, executive director, Greenpeace International

Kumi Naidoo, in his late 40s, is the first African to head Greenpeace International, the pre-eminent global green group of our times that is increasingly hogging headlines in India too. During his New Delhi visit recently, he sat down with Shreerupa Mitra-Jha to discuss the perspectives behind those headlines. Excerpts from the interview:

What is the India connection in your name?

My ancestors came from the Madras Presidency to South Africa in the 1860s and worked as indentured labourers in sugar plantations. Gandhi came to South Africa to defend the merchant class, not the majority. When I hear the Indian political establishment revere Gandhi, I tell them that we must remind you all that you sent a lawyer, we sent you back a Mahatma. He got his politics from our struggles. There are many people who contributed to the making of modern India. In my assessment, Ambedkar was as important as Gandhiji. The journey of justice for all is yet an incomplete journey. If Gandhi was alive, I have little doubt that Gandhi would be a Greenpeace activist.

An IB report to the PMO alleged that Greenpeace received Rs 45 crore from abroad to oppose coal-fired power plants and coal mining. Subsequently the home ministry issued a directive to the RBI to put on hold all foreign contributions originating from Greenpeace International. What is the status of your funding now?

The status now is that the high court in Delhi has given an interim ruling that the home ministry and the government of India had no basis to do this. However, they gave the government a grace period to show due course and instructed it to allow the RBI for money to go into our account and sit in a fixed deposit in the name of Greenpeace India. But we cannot use that money until the hearing is held which is scheduled for January 22 and we consider this an unfair, unjust and a violation of the rights of civil society.

I, as a person who has been involved in the struggle for democracy, human rights and promoting the rights of civil society for a long time, am just as worried not only about Greenpeace but the chilling effect that this seems to be having with other parts of civil society. There were two leaked IB reports; one was about a range of civil society organisations and the second one was solely about Greenpeace. In the second report there are details about everybody who came to visit Greenpeace’s office in the last couple of years. And let’s be clear, this happened in the last government but it was this government that leaked it [the reports].

I would say very strongly to this new government that everything we do is transparent— we publish everything, the flows of money are transparent. This stupid so-called intelligence gathering is a waste of taxpayers’ money; this money could take thousands out of poverty in India.

I would say that the allegation that we are acting against national interest is completely crazy. Do you know the work we are doing in Mahan [forests]? We are defending the Forest Act of 2006 there. If we are defending a current legislation, how can anyone say we are working against national interest? Yes, sometimes we will oppose laws as well and campaign against [them] but if you see what we have done, how can you say that we work against national interest? The high court here just recently ruled that in the last 20 years all the coal blocks were given off illegally, and we were exposing those things then and upholding the commitments made by the government.

Is it not true that when the French ship Clemenceau had come to dump its toxic waste that we campaigned against it because the government did not have the backbone to stand up to the authorities? Was this not in national interest? Was it not in national interest that we campaigned to get better legislation and quality of life for the people working in the ship-breaking industry here who were exposed to toxics?

Is it not in national interest that we try to keep the quality of food safe with the campaign against pesticides in tea-growing here and got Tatas to change that? And is it not in national interest that we campaigned for the government not to invest in outdated forms of energy provision killing our children and move to a clean form of renewable energy? India has such potential not only to fulfil its own need but also be an exporter of that energy. Is that not national interest?

There is no fear in my mind that it is only a matter of time that this argument will look so stupid and ridiculous. I would say this is [collusion of] the business community, the fossil fuel industry like Essar, which has brought us to court with a claim of Rs 500 crore. And not just us, it has slapped a suit against the community who are dependent on the forests. I was very influenced by Gandhi as a young person growing up. Gandhiji said that first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win. Good news is that they are laughing at us, they are ignoring us, they are fighting us and if Gandhiji was right we are one step away from winning.

Is it painful for us to go through this? Absolutely. Are we intimidated? Absolutely not. I told the home ministry that you have to show due course. Do you know what they did? They backdated letters because they did not follow any due course. Then they do a taxing inspection after the fact-finding. International agencies monitoring Greenpeace is not a new thing; Snowden’s leak showed that NSA and CIA had been doing it. What is surprising is the leak of intelligence reports. What kind of efficiency does the government have?

Do you see the clampdown on NGOs as a strategy for criminalising dissent and faster facilitation of the single window clearance for industrial projects espoused by the present regime? We have not seen much debate around, for instance, the softening of the Forest Rights Act or the Forest Conservation Act, after the leaked IB reports.

It would appear that this is the intention but I want to believe that this perception is wrong. It seems that there is an attempt to create a chilling effect and they are going after Greenpeace hard, according to some speculations, because Greenpeace is robust and has a huge constituency in India as well as globally. Greenpeace India, by the way, is quintessentially an Indian organisation; 60% of the resources come from here. To create the impression that it is foreign is wrong. The resources come from small donations on a monthly basis made by tens of thousands of Indian citizens but not a cent from the government here or business people from anywhere.

I would urge the civil society not to back down. If ever there was a time for civil society to show moral courage, it is now, for a country that has a rich history of civil disobedience, satyagraha, passive resistance etc. Do we support the government for less corruption, more efficiency? Of course, we support that. And there is plenty of room for that. But efficiency that undermines fundamental democratic rights will not give you efficiency. We don’t know how the conversations are happening at the higher echelons of power but the government needs to understand the consequences of clamping down on civil society. It will substantially hurt its reputation globally.

At the moment, Greenpeace International has not mobilised a campaign against the government for the actions it has taken [against Greenpeace]. Because we want to believe that we can resolve this in a constructive engagement with the government. I am here on a non-Greenpeace engagement. I hope to come back early next year by which time I hope sanity will prevail and I call upon prime minister Modi. If he is serious about sabka saath, sabka vikaas now is the time for him to show that. This is now subject to scrutiny by people who follow such issues but Greenpeace as an organisation have sought not to make this a huge global fight and we hope that we don’t need to.

Ahead of the UNFCCC Paris summit in 2015, the annex 1 countries want the Kyoto Protocol scrapped while the non-annex countries, including India, view it as the basic document for climate change talks. Given this major fault-line how do you see the negotiations panning out next year? What is Greenpeace's stand on the matter?

Let me take it at a higher level first. An overwhelming number of our political and business leaders are suffering from a terrible case of cognitive dissonance. All the facts are out that climate is affecting us now, we are losing hundreds of thousands of lives, we are seeing infrastructure being destroyed and agriculture being impacted, we are seeing water resources being challenged, and so on. But what we see from our political and business leaders is just verbalising and taking baby steps at best in the right direction. What is needed is a scale of ambition of change that is aligned to what science says; not incremental tinkering. In the last 10 years we have seen 100% increases in extreme events. Nature does not negotiate. The only thing we can change is political will.

When we look at the global governance system which has huge impacts on national governments we find that these systems are stuck in the geopolitics of 1945. Why should, for instance, Britain and France have a permanent seat in the security council given their population size? The only reason is that they were on the right side during World War I and they possess weapons of mass destruction. If you use that definition then India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel should also be on security council. But that is not going to happen anytime soon. So we must understand that the UN system is a flawed system. Even if you see UNFCCC all the inequities of power manifests itself there. Notionally everybody has the same voice, but the US comes armed with 300 negotiators to a UNFCCC while the small island states which are on the frontlines of climate impact rely on Greenpeace and other civil society organisations to help them in negotiations.

I have been going to climate negotiations for six years and I can tell you that even if I sit in some of those sessions I would be like – “What does that mean?” – in terms of complexities. Sometimes it appears to me that the dominant nations of the world want to keep it complex. So we must judge the UNFCCC as part of the UN system and a power dynamic that is stuck.

However, within the galaxy of the global governance systems, the UN is overall the best option we have where developing countries have some sort of chance to advance themselves. When the system fails, like in Copenhagen, who do you blame? There is so much you can do when the negotiating positions of the dominant countries are clearly to ensure that we do not get a fair, ambitious, binding climate treaty. I joke that we went to Copenhagen to get a FAB—fair, ambitious and binding—deal but we got instead was a FLAB—full of loopholes and bullshit—deal. So the thing that you have ignored like everybody else is that there is a climate deal next month in Lima, Peru. These negotiations are hallowed. Right now it’s really tragic that you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

To be honest, Greenpeace as a delegation has been reducing its size to UNFCCC since Copenhagen. We have been focusing our energies in building up the popular demand for transition to a new energy framework. We will be there in Lima and certainly be there in Paris. But following the seismic shift to the Right that we have seen in the mid-term elections in the US everybody I have been speaking to thinks, “My god, what chance do we have to get a fair deal in Paris?” What are these negotiations? When we go and ask for $100 billion a year for climate fund we are not asking for charity. We are asking the developed countries to pay their climate debt. It is climate apartheid.

At Greenpeace we will do the best to get a fair outcome from Paris. We are intensifying our efforts to influence political leaders. But we will not go to Paris by putting all our eggs in the Paris COP [Conference of the Parties]. We are gearing up for serious fights post-COP. We want 100% renewable energy access for all by 2050. We believe it is possible.

India aims to become a manufacturing hub under the Make in India tag. Also, there are plans for 100 smart cities. So the carbon intensity is bound to go up. At COP 15, India had promised a carbon intensity cut of 20-25% from the 2005 levels by 2020. Do you think this target can be achieved?

Yes, it is possible depending whether the political leadership of India will act in the interest of the majority in India or it will continue, like we have been seeing for the last decade, in the interest of the most powerful in India. We are not against the vision of 100 cities but the question is whether this will be cities built in an anachronistic ways of doing things or whether we will build those cities in a fundamentally sustainable way. Cities will always be there and more cities will emerge. No question about that. We have to be thinking of 100% renewable energy cities. They can achieve it if they have the courage to look at what science is saying and some of the values that supposedly India claims to embrace.

It surprises me when politicians claim to be religious on the one hand and abuse the environment on the other because if you believe in God then pick up any religious text – the Bhagwad Gita, the Koran, the Bible – they are gems of environmental wisdom. So if you buy into the notion of religion which plays a huge role in governance—I think the separation of state and religion has become blurred in too many parts of the world— then God created not just us but also the mountains, forests, oceans and so on. So I find it very strange that political leaders and business leaders who go and do their big pujas and then destroy the very things that were created for humanity’s benefit.

Let’s be blunt about it; it will not happen if our political leaders make incremental change but [they have to make] substantial systemic changes. This means questioning whether the levels of inequality that exist are acceptable. Nobody says they like poverty but poverty exists because there are some people in society who believe that they have the right to such high levels of consumption.

I was the chair of the global anti-poverty movement with the slogan ‘Make poverty history’. Somebody said it should rather be ‘Make excessive wealth accumulation history’. Do you know that 85 people in the world own more than what half the people of the world have? How did that happen? So how do we plan forward? Firstly we have to plan on the basis of absolute energy efficiency. The big problem is generating electricity through dirty means but we lose so much of the energy through inefficiencies. Secondly, even for domestic consumption or business, our buildings need to be retrofitted and that also has huge employment generation potential if we did it on a serious basis. We need to be looking at all our appliances for efficiency and also question whether we need all the appliances [that we own].

Do you know how buses are run in Uppsala? They are run on human shit. We should be thinking of building toilets that separate faeces and urine. A group of 15-year olds in Nigeria working on a science project just designed a generator that can generate five hours of electricity through human urine. If we build the cities on efficiency—recycling and so forth—and understand that there is real economic value in this, and think about high quality public transport [for the smart cities]. If you did all of those things, it’s possible that the vision of the current government is doable and it will get you to the commitments made in Copenhagen.

But for a country and for a people that has a culture that cares and articulates that caring for their children, as much as we do but for us to build our economies and cities in a way as if we don’t have children or their children coming after us, with absolutely no sense of inter-generational solidarity and justice is completely unacceptable. What leaders need to understand is that the struggle here is not to save the planet—the planet needs no saving—which will still be here, bruised, battered and scarred from humanity’s crimes on it but it is the question of saving human’s ability to be on the planet.

From China to the US it is the young people who are concerned. I told them, change your mentality and don’t invest any faith in the current generation of leaders. Take for instance gender equality. Now we have platitudes all around about how important women are but they get framed in a discourse which is extremely patriarchal.

We need transformative leadership that can take us to the direction of addressing the challenges that we face in what I would call inter-sectionality. You know this is a horrible, cumbersome word but a very powerful concept that came from the feminist movement decades ago. They argued that if you want to understand gender inequality then you need to understand its inter-sectionality where class, religion, ability intersect.

You also find a major disconnect between what the political leaders say when they go to the global arena and what they do. When George Bush was there, only he denied climate change because he was an agent of the oil industry. He did his job well and served them [the oil industry] well. History will judge him like that. But you cannot deny science. You may do as much puja as you want but you cannot change that.

Germany is a world leader in renewable energy. However, the energiewende (energy revolution) by 2040 is supposed to cost about $1.4 trillion, nearly as much as the country spent on the reunification of East and West Germany. In other words, it is an expensive affair. Given the situation that the developed countries have proved to be reluctant both in financing as well as technology transfer, how do you assess the possibilities of developing countries making the transition to renewables?

A month ago I had a meeting with Angela Merkel. She reiterated the commitment to move it [energy revolution] in the direction of 100% renewable energy. I believe that some of the smart political leaders of the world including Angela Merkel believe that the successful companies and countries of the future are not those who invest in the arms race, nuclear race and so on, but the ones who invest now in a substantial way in the green race. They develop technological capabilities in terms of renewable technology.

For example, China has very much accommodated this in their economic thinking. Of all the solar panels installed, say, two years ago, 90% of it came from China. China will surpass the US as the largest economy in the world and part of how they will do that is by becoming a major player in renewable technology. The [Nicholas] Stern report as well as the [Felipe] Calderon report essentially [argue] that every day we drag our foot with the transition [to renewable energy], the costs are rising. We [Greenpeace] said this before the reports came out but the reports only confirmed it.

The costs are in terms of life loss, infrastructure loss, bio diversity loss. Take the Mahan forests [oldest sal forests of Asia in Madhya Pradesh], for instance. The Mahan forests are an asset only so long as they are standing. Like with the Sumantran forests in Indonesia, the Norwegian government came up with $1 billion to put a moratorium on further deforestation, when Greenpeace lobbied [against it]. It was not an aid package, it was a direct grant.

If India and other countries lose forests they lose not just an ecological asset but also an economic asset. Coming back to your question, from a governance angle, the biggest problems we have with political leaderships generally and governance approaches are that they think in election cycles and not from a long-term perspective. Our political systems are being strangulated by short-termism. Clearly, it does not take a genius to say that a standing forest has serious economic and ecological asset for the global community. This argument, ‘Europe destroyed its forest, the US destroyed its forest, so why shouldn’t we?’ is a stupid argument. Why should we follow bad examples? They do not have that asset anymore.

The interview appaered in December 1-15, 2014, issue




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