May 27, 2015; Mint

Greenpeace India has won some breathing space in its ongoing fight with the Indian central government. The Delhi High Court has ordered the government to unfreeze two of the charity’s domestic bank accounts. Other bank accounts used to receive and distribute foreign donations remain frozen.

Greenpeace India has been under heavy pressure from the Indian government ever since its Intelligence Bureau (IB) put forward a report saying that protest activities by Greenpeace and other foreign funded NGOs were damaging the national economy. The report did not provide any empirical evidence to support this claim.

Sixteen foreign funded NGOs, including Greenpeace, have been placed on a government watch list. These 16, which also include U.S. nonprofits such as the Ford Foundation, Mercy Corps, and Climate Work Foundation, must now obtain government permission before spending any foreign funds in India on Indian domestic activities.

Greenpeace, though, has been singled out for additional action by the government. The bank accounts the charity uses for receiving foreign funds were ordered to be frozen and the charity was asked to provide evidence why its registration under India’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) should not be cancelled. The government said that acceptance of foreign contributions by Greenpeace had “prejudicially affected the public interest” and “prejudicially affected the economic interest of the state.”

Later, certain of its domestic accounts were also frozen. Greenpeace announced that without access to the funds held in these accounts, it would not be able to meet domestic operational expenses—including paying staff wages. Greenpeace staff soon after said that they would be prepared to continue work without pay.

Meantime, the charity began an action against the Indian government in the Delhi High Court to seek reopening of its accounts. It argued that the government had acted unconstitutionally and illegally. In response the government counter-claimed, citing “serious violations” on three counts. These were that Greenpeace had opened five “utilization accounts” (a utilization account is defined in the FCRA as an account used to access foreign contributions), mixed foreign contributions with domestic donations, and used foreign contributions for administrative purposes.

High Court Justice Rajiv Shakdher has allowed Greenpeace to access domestic contributions in two of its accounts as a temporary measure. Greenpeace was set to receive approximately Rs.1.25 crore (USD$196,000) in June, it said in court. The organization will also be allowed to use its fixed deposits of nearly Rs.7.8 crore (USD$1.22 million).

In a statement on Wednesday, Greenpeace called the interim relief a “lifeline” and vowed to immediately restart its campaigns to reduce air pollution, protect forests, and boost solar power.

“We’re enormously relieved that the court has given us this lifeline. We are now able to continue our campaigns on air pollution and solar power while we prepare to fight the main case. We trust that the MHA (ministry of home affairs) will respect the judge’s decision and not take any further arbitrary actions between now and then,” said Samit Aich, executive director of Greenpeace India.

The court has also asked the government to decide within eight weeks a plea by Greenpeace to release up to 25 percent of their foreign contribution.—John Godfrey