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Coal mining project, West Bengal ;

India's interest groups and the environment – How many are there and how do they operate?

India is one of the world’s largest democracies and has a prevalent history of interest group mobilisation and activity. However, our knowledge of broader interest groups systems in India, including the groups’ population and activities, is limited. Present research focuses upon individual environmental cases, such as controversial coal projects with a case study approach to studying advocacy limiting the possibility for broader international comparisons.

As environmental questions gain more traction, gaining a greater understanding of interest representation and lobbying on these questions becomes imperative.

To address this, my research consolidates population data on interest groups in India to better understand the actors, dynamics and political context within which interest groups operate.

India and the grey area of interest groups

An interest group is commonly identified as an ‘organized body of individuals who share goals and who try to influence public policy’ (Berry, 1989), encompassing groups such as think-tanks, lobby groups, activist groups, NGOs and trade unions.

The concept is broad and the perception in India ranges from seeing the groups as an essential democratic link between society and state, through to viewing them as a distorting the democratic process.

Interestingly, in India the term ‘interest group’ is not identified unilaterally as a legal body and their activities, notably lobbying, is not recognized in statutory or non-statutory form. The only law with some relevance to lobbying is one that associates lobbying with illegal actions and corruption.

This is not unique to India. Interestingly, many EU states, such as Spain and Italy, have little to no direct legislation regulating or recording lobbying – in comparison to the UK which is regulated and monitored.

Environment regulation and interest groups

India has a broad range of environmental legal provisions and regulations, with over 200 laws made for environmental protection. Alongside this is the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which is specifically designed for environment cases.

However, environment regulation enforcement and governance is generally poor. State laws impact the space for group formation and corruption is rife across industries. A good example is the coal industry, where the consultation process with communities is often bypassed.

Community groups that are looking at how to fix these issues are primarily active on a regional level.

Understanding interest groups in India

India has a prevalent history of interest group mobilisation and activity, particularly within agriculture, such as the Tebhaga Movement in 1946-50 and the farmers protests during 2020-21. Surprisingly however, there is no substantial mapping of the density of interest groups. To better understand interest group populations and strategies, I undertook a systematic review of an NGO registry, focussing on NGOs commonly cited as highly prevalent actors involved in environmental activities and among affected communities.

In my research I focussed on three states in India: Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Odisha. These neighbouring states on the East coast hold the largest coal reserves in the country, as well as some of the largest forest and wetland coverage in the country. Concurrently, the states also had the largest number of cases put in front of the NGT by interest groups on grounds of violation of environmental policy.

Farmers protest, Delhi India, December 2020

Across the three states, 81% of the reviewed NGOs were classified as ‘Unknown’. The minimal presence and information available online for NGOs indicates a potential behavioural trait of limited interest group activity online, resembling themes of informality found across India.

It might also be that NGOs don’t have the resources available to create an online presence. In 2021, the Indian government came under criticism for amendments constraining funding sources and process for NGOs – particularly during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On average, over 70% of NGOs reviewed were also not listed on the government registry, NGO Darpan. Although the government registry is intended as a medium between groups, government departments and opportunities to apply for grants, the reality is far from the proclaimed intentions.

The contemporary dynamic between NGOs and the Indian government is conflicted and in many cases hostile – with criticisms particularly weighted towards the role of external funds and agents in NGO activities.

The lack of online presence may also reflect the conflicting relationship between NGOs and the government, with NGOs potentially avoiding government scrutiny by choosing not to have an online presence.

In a period where the culture between NGOs and government is seemingly discordant from national perspectives, understanding environment interest group populations, activity and interplay from a state and local level is ever more important. In particular, analysing their role amongst communities, influencing policy and comparing internationally.

School of Global Affairs Student Conference

This article is based on Ashwin Patel’s presentation at the School of Global Affairs Student Conference, which took place on 16 March 2022.

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Ashwin Patel

Ashwin Patel

Project Coordinator

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