India Cracks Down on Critics of Coal

Photo for The Washington Post by Atul Loke/Panos Pictures
The Adani Power Plant in Godda, in eastern India. R. Sreedhar of Environics said he experienced what he called official harassment after refusing mediation in a lawsuit he had filed against the plant.

NEW DELHI – An independent think tank. A law firm. An environmental group.

On Sept. 7, Indian tax authorities simultaneously raided three seemingly unrelated nonprofit organizations without issuing a public statement, confounding many in Indian academia and politics. But one little-known thread connected the three groups: Each was seen by the government to be a critic of Gautam Adani, one of India’s richest men and a political ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

And each was seen to be standing in the way of a particularly contentious project: an Adani-operated coal mine in a lush forest in central India called Hasdeo Arand.

The story of the Hasdeo mine and the crackdown on its critics, which was pieced together by The Washington Post through interviews and public and confidential government documents, is a case study in how the Modi government uses state power to push through its economic policies and to aid Adani, a major operator of coal power plants and mines.

At a time when the Biden administration embraces Modi as a key partner in its geopolitical struggle against China, the saga also offers a glimpse into the Modi government’s distrust of Western nongovernmental organizations and governments.

Indian officials have never publicly commented on the September tax raids. But a Post review of six documents – including confidential follow-up notices sent by tax investigators to each nonprofit and detailed reports of their findings forwarded to the Central Bureau of Investigation – reveals the government’s anger that the nonprofits had opposed the Hasdeo coal mine by allegedly mobilizing protesters, filing lawsuits and voicing public criticism.

Officials were particularly incensed by ties between Indian activists and the West, the documents showed. In one inquiry sent to an Indian environmentalist, investigators cited emails he had sent to British and Australian researchers about Adani’s coal mining and coal power projects, and accused him of divulging “internal information of India” and “conspiring” against Adani. Investigators had obtained the emails when they seized computers during the raids. In a report on their findings, officials listed an Indian lawyer’s criticism in the press of the Modi government policies and his contacts with U.S. environmental lawyers among the reasons his license to receive foreign funding should be revoked.

Oxfam India, a humanitarian group that had funded Indian anti-coal activists, was accused of serving as “a probable instrument of foreign policy” that sought backing from the Irish government and the European Union, according to a government filing. Oxfam said it “has always been compliant with Indian laws” and cooperates with Indian authorities.

Government hostility has cast a chill over India’s climate campaigners, who fear that criticism of continued coal reliance – the country is the world’s second-largest consumer of the fossil fuel and third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases – has become too politically sensitive to voice and may even invite official reprisal.

“Everything is being lumped as an ‘anti-India’ campaign whenever it is a discussion about energy,” said the head of one Delhi-based climate advocacy organization, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation. “The government has a general fear that anything which comes with the tag ‘climate’ is very ‘Western-pushed.'”

Last year, a Post investigation found that the Modi government has for years granted tax breaks and preferential treatment to Adani’s coal business, raising questions about India’s commitment to transitioning away from the fossil fuel. At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021, Indian officials, along with their Chinese counterparts, frustrated Western leaders by blocking a joint statement calling for a “phase-out” of coal, arguing that it would unfairly burden poorer nations.

Indian officials maintain that coal is crucial for a fast-growing country with the world’s third-largest coal reserves but little oil, and some of them paint anti-coal activists as foreign-supported troublemakers.

“Foreign influence on energy security we will not accept. We want Hasdeo to be operational as quickly as possible,” M. Nagaraju, a senior Coal Ministry official, said in an interview. “We are very clear that all these projects are important for our energy security. . . . If somebody is trying to derail this process, that is unacceptable.”

For decades, Indian governments, including those led by other political parties, have viewed environmental campaigners as impediments to economic growth. But today’s administration under Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is stifling dissent in a way that has alarmed even those who generally agree with its coal-friendly policies.

A.N. Sahay, a former senior official at Coal India, the state mining giant, rebuked anti-coal activists for believing that India could realistically abandon coal power in the next 30 years.

“But if someone is doing anti-coal campaigns and [the government] is using the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation against the outfits – that should not be done,” he said, referring to India’s powerful law enforcement agencies. “People have to have their own views.”

Raj Kumar, a spokesman for India’s Home Ministry, which oversees internal security, did not respond to detailed questions seeking comment, nor did the country’s income tax department. In response to questions about the government’s actions in recent months, an Adani spokesperson declined to comment.

Asking questions

In 2007, a joint venture led by Adani received the rights to operate a coal mine in the Hasdeo Arand forest of Chhattisgarh state. Several government committees declared the forest, which held more than 5 billion tons of estimated coal reserves, too ecologically sensitive for mining because of its density of lush trees and rich wildlife. But Adani obtained approval from mining officials for the first phase of his mine. He began digging in 2013, carving vast pits across 1,882 acres where trees once stood.

Indigenous tribes that believed mining would threaten the forest’s biodiversity and their livelihoods launched a protest to block the mine. As the movement gained steam, villagers began to recruit help from a cast of sympathetic activists in New Delhi.

Lawyers associated with the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, a nonprofit known as LIFE, went to court to challenge the expansion of mining in Hasdeo. A local anti-mining activist named Alok Shukla, a former government bureaucrat, helped organize villagers on the ground. Shukla, the government would later allege, was funded by another key player: the Center for Policy Research, or CPR, widely considered India’s top independent think tank.

Meanwhile, R. Sreedhar, a former geologist and veteran environmental campaigner who runs the nonprofit Environics Trust, emailed environmentalists in Britain and Australia to spread the word about the villagers’ plight.

In June 2019, Sreedhar said, he received an offer from an intermediary to enter mediation with the Adani Group regarding a lawsuit he had filed against another project, a controversial power plant in the eastern Indian town of Godda.

Sreedhar declined, and within days, he experienced what he described as official harassment.

“When we refused, a week later we had the income tax authorities asking questions,” Sreedhar recalled.

The Adani Group called Sreedhar’s recollection of the 2019 mediation attempt and tax inquiry “totally false and misleading.” Sreedhar’s lawsuit against the power plant was eventually dismissed.

By 2021, there were further signs that the government was escalating its scrutiny of environmentalists. That year, The Post found as part of a joint investigation with the Forbidden Stories journalism nonprofit that a phone number belonging to Shukla, the local anti-mining activist, was on a list of potential targets for surveillance using the military-grade Pegasus spyware, sold by Israel’s NSO Group exclusively to governmental buyers.

The Indian government has never confirmed or denied its use of Pegasus.

Foreign conspiracies

India’s prime minister has long been wary of nongovernmental organizations, including environmental groups.

In 2006, Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat state, spoke at a book launch in the New Delhi offices of his Bharatiya Janata Party and warned about the “conspiracy” of foreign-backed nonprofits undermining India.

“Funds are obtained from abroad, an NGO is set up, a few articles are commissioned, a PR firm is recruited and, slowly, with the help of the media, an image is created,” Modi said. “And then, awards are procured from foreign countries to enhance this image. Such a vicious cycle.”

Words from Modi’s widely reported speech were echoed almost verbatim eight years later in a classified report that India’s domestic intelligence agency submitted to Modi’s administration weeks after it won the 2014 national elections. In its 21-page assessment, India’s Intelligence Bureau reported that nonprofits such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International and ActionAid “cleverly disguise” themselves as rights-focused organizations, but are in fact “tools for the strategic foreign policy interests of Western Governments” to stall “Indian development.” All told, these Western forces shaved as much as 2 to 3 percent off annual growth of gross domestic product, the report estimated.

After the intelligence report appeared in Indian newspapers and was later uploaded to the internet, where it remains widely available, the Modi government ordered a Delhi police probe into the leak. Then it announced a flurry of new measures.

Foreign contributions from Greenpeace International and the U.S.-based ClimateWorks Foundation to Indian organizations were restricted. Immigration officials barred an Indian Greenpeace campaigner from flying to Britain, where she was scheduled to speak before Parliament against a coal mine in India. The government froze bank accounts belonging to Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, forcing the groups to sharply cut back operations in India, and briefly placed the Ford Foundation on a watchlist as a threat to Indian national security. Under pressure from the government, Amnesty finally closed its India office in 2020.

Ashutosh Varshney, a political scientist at Brown University, said that during the 1970s, when anti-American sentiment peaked over U.S. support for rival Pakistan, Indian leaders often decried the Ford Foundation and the Asia Foundation as tools of U.S. intelligence agencies used to undermine India. And yet as U.S.-India relations soar today, Modi is harsher toward Western nonprofits than any previous Indian leader, Varshney said.

The prime minister has never addressed any of the closures or funding restrictions.

“Modi is confident that Western governments will not support their NGOs because Washington needs Delhi,” Varshney said. “It’s again a function of geopolitics: He is in a very sweet spot because of the rise of China.”

Clearing forest

In September, tax officials simultaneously raided the offices of the CPR think tank, the legal research nonprofit LIFE and Sreedhar’s Environics Trust.

At CPR, more than a dozen officials and armed police officers confiscated computers and phones and sealed the building, locking some employees inside their rooms, according to three people who were present.

In the ensuing months, documents showed, investigators pored through the nonprofits’ emails and phone records and laid out a lengthy array of allegations. The government cited the allegations as the basis for administrative actions that seemed designed to cripple the nonprofits, Indian and international activists and scholars say.

Environics was accused of using foreign funding, including from Oxfam, to mobilize and “agitate” labor unions against coal-based industries. Sreedhar was also accused of providing information about mining at Hasdeo to Western activists so they could criticize the Indian government and “strengthen the anti-Adani movement.” He was “involved in campaigning against established industries in India” and “conspiring against Adani’s Godda Plant,” officials alleged in a “show-cause” notice sent to Sreedhar.

Tax investigators accused Ritwick Dutta, a co-founder of LIFE, of using money from U.S. foundations to stall coal projects in Indian courts. Citing Dutta’s confiscated emails, officials highlighted in a document laying out their allegations how Dutta provided American environmental lawyers with a list of more than 20 coal projects in India. The Adani Group was involved in just two of the projects, but officials repeatedly named the conglomerate and accused Dutta of planning to hurt the “activities of Adani” and the “interests of nation.”

CPR was accused of improperly obstructing Adani’s Hasdeo mine by “giving directions” to protest leaders, the think tank’s correspondence with investigators shows. Authorities alleged that researchers affiliated with the think tank were using U.S. funding for litigation – something that is outlawed in India.

All three organizations have denied breaking any laws. Environics disputed that it used foreign contributions to mobilize protesters, while CPR said the think tank has never funded any protests and engaged only in environmental research, including the funding of research by Shukla. LIFE said that it has never participated in litigation and that its lawyers argued against the mine in their personal capacities. Dutta, the LIFE co-founder, declined to comment.

Oxfam India said it “will continue to work in [the] public and national interest. Oxfam India believes this is our constitutional duty as an organization, irrespective of obstacles and hurdles in the path.”

Within weeks of the Sept. 7 raids, opposition to the Hasdeo mine began to falter.

On Sept. 26, lawyers at LIFE withdrew from the lawsuit citing unspecified “personal reasons,” according to a letter they sent to their client, Sant Kumar Netam, an Indigenous tribal leader in the Hasdeo forest.

The same day the lawyers withdrew, forest department officials began to clear 106 acres of the Hasdeo forest for a huge expansion of the Adani mine, known as Phase 2. As logging crews felled trees, police confined residents to their homes, said Shukla, the local anti-mining activist. Shukla was out of town after being summoned to the capital by tax investigators, and desperate villagers were unable to reach him.

“There is no doubt about this being part of a conspiracy to cut trees while I was in Delhi,” Shukla said. “If I was present here that day, I would have protested.”

In October, officials paused logging at the Phase 2 site pending a hearing in the Supreme Court. If the project proceeds, an additional 2,700 acres of the Hasdeo forest is expected to be felled for mining.

Early this year, Indian authorities froze the foreign-currency bank accounts of LIFE, CPR and Environics, crippling the organizations, which derive 75 to 80 percent of their budgets from overseas donations. At LIFE, Dutta laid off six of eight staff members, an employee said. Sreedhar said Environics has also struggled to pay salaries.

Starved of funding, CPR, which had 200 employees at its peak, is likely to sharply downsize or shut down completely, according to seven current and former employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity about a politically sensitive issue. The government actions against the think tank, which publishes on a range of topics including energy and public health, stunned the international community of researchers studying India.

“This action is clearly aimed at undermining a leading research institution and jeopardizing its existence,” more than 100 international academics wrote in an open letter to the government in March. “It also sets a dangerous precedent that will impair the pursuit of research and independent judgment in the country.”

The repercussions of the government clampdown reach beyond the organizations involved, said E.A.S. Sarma, a former Indian energy secretary.

“To say that people should not approach the judiciary and delay projects runs counter to principles that are central to a democratic system,” he said.