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India shuts down aid groups over anti-nuclear protests

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NEW DELHI — First it was the fault of the news media, then of his coalition partners, but now Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is blaming someone else for his government’s inability to carry out planned projects.

On Friday, the Indian government decided to shut down three aid groups after Singh raised the Cold War-era bogy of the “foreign hand,” accusing U.S. and Scandinavian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of stalling the commissioning of a nuclear power plant in southern India and delaying implementation of government plans to commercialize genetically modified crops, by supporting protest groups.

The Indian government said it was canceling the licenses of the three organizations because they were illegally diverting funds meant for helping physically disabled and eradicating leprosy to anti-nuclear protests. At least two of the groups denied the government’s claims, the Associated Press reported.

Singh’s comments attracted a barrage of criticism in the Indian media.

In a front-page story, the Mail Today newspaper accused the soft-spoken and mild-mannered Singh of emulating the late
Indira Gandhi, referring to
the strong-willed, self-assured prime minister who “used to conveniently blame the ‘foreign hand’ for all the ills plaguing her government” in the 1970s.

The business newspaper Mint said in an editorial that Singh’s statement was “indicative of the deep crisis of governance facing India today.” Instead of blaming other people, it said, Singh should engage members of the opposition and persuade them to cooperate on important projects.

In an interview with Science magazine that was published this week, Singh said the proposed Kudankulam nuclear plant site in the southern state of Tamil Nadu “has got into difficulties because of these NGOs, mostly I think based in the United States, who don’t appreciate the need for our country to increase the energy supply.” 

U.S. ambassador to India, Peter Burleigh, responded to Singh’s remarks, saying Washington “has certainly no objection” to India’s civilian nuclear programs.

Singh’s words appeared out of character for the bookish economist, who is not known for promoting conspiracy theories.

But the pressure of office, along with persistent criticism of his government’s policy paralysis and alleged corruption, may be telling.

Last year, Singh accused the news media of undermining India’s self-confidence through their relentless campaign against corruption.

Then his government threatened to clamp down on Google and Facebook for disseminating defamatory content about Singh and coalition leader Sonia Gandhi.

Singh has passionately advocated the expansion of India’s civilian nuclear energy program and is also the architect of a controversial nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States.

But work has not yet started on any of the new nuclear power plants proposed as a result of the pact because of local opposition.

Singh’s statement was rejected by a coalition of women, fishermen and farmers from 17 villages that has been protesting against the plant.

“By making these absurd allegations, he is diverting everybody’s attention from the real issues here,” said V. Pushparayan, an activist from the Coastal People’s Federation.

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