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A preliminary inquiry into threats from business enterprises to land, water and food in the Himalayan watershed

Written By Krishna on Wednesday, May 08, 2013 | 9:07 AM

Presenting the paper at the Symposium on State of Art in Transnational Pressure on Land (TPL) and Food Security in South Asia on May 8, 2013 in Lalitpur, Kathmandu, Nepal, Gopal Krishna, a public policy analyst and founder of Toxics Watch Alliance (TWA) dwelt on his paper "A preliminary inquiry into threats from business enterprises to land, water and food in the Himalayan watershed".

The abstract of the same is as under. 
An early 19th century US author, Mark Twain said, "Buy land, they're not making it anymore". In a book titled ‘The Landgrabbers’ published in 2012, Fred Pearce, the author starts his reportage of ongoing land grab world over from Africa, Southeast Asia to Latin America with this quote from Twain. Prior to him Time magazine wrote a Memo to the US Congress in 2009 wherein it cited this very statement of Twain to argue that that the US government can respond to the financial crisis of 2007-2009 by buying land or real estate. It gave a caveat that ‘Buying land may be complicated because fraud is sometimes difficult to detect. Land in the ocean could be sold as dry land…” and suggested creation of "land inspectors" for verification. To begin with this paper argues that the proposition of Twain is factually and scientifically incorrect because rivers if they are allowed to flow freely have a natural land-building function. Rivers are constantly in the process of land building. This function of there is impeded by misplaced structural engineering interventions at the behest of business enterprises or flawed policies of the governments. This is especially true about Himalayan river basins.  

Land and water are ecologically linked in a natural system called a watershed. The paper considers Himalayan watershed as a better reference point than South Asia because rivers of Southeast Asia and China are also to be kept in mind. This is important because when watershed is examined both land and water has to be examined in the ecosystem in which they exist. In approaching a specific ecosystem there is a compelling logic to overcome the truncated approach of dealing with land, water and food as separate compartments.   

The paper submits that land and water policies of countries of Himalayan watershed vis-à-vis business enterprises merits review along with their relationship with proposed water grid, energy grid, infrastructure grid and data grid in the Himalayan watershed in particular. This is required in a backdrop where there are attempts underway to create a common land market by creating mega databases linking individuals with specific land titles. 

The paper explores the commercial forces behind the diversion of rivers through the proposed Interlinking of rivers project and the downstream concerns in the matter of proposed diversion of Brahmaputra which seem to be an exercise akin to re-writing the geography of the Himalayan watershed. Interlinking of rivers is the world's biggest project. If the topography of the Himalayan watershed is analysed, it will become evident see that there can be no acceptable way of making a water network in the country as it entails diverting the natural course of the rivers, which would lead to several Aral Sea type disasters (where two Siberian rivers were diverted). Networking rivers does not mean drawing some mega litres from one river and pouring it into another like one does with containers or even with canals. The ramifications are much wider because a river is not only the water that flows or the channel which holds the flow. A river is the dynamic face of the landscape. In the drama of history, the ecosystem is not the stage setting; it is the cast.  

The Writ Petition (Civil) No. 512 of 2002 in the Supreme Court of India is a historic case. In its judgment on February 27, 2012, the Supreme Court directed the Government of India to revive the long-dead, dangerous and disastrous idea of diverting rivers for interlinking them. While the judgment is based on a flawed assumption that there is consensus and unanimity among the states and perhaps the neighboring countries for Interlinking of rivers (ILR), the project, if implemented, could spell an ecological collapse in the Himalayan watershed. This entails unprecedented level of land use change with grave ramifications for food security due to drainage congestion and water logging as has been the case in the Kosi basin due to flawed Kosi treaty. 

Like India, Chinese government too plans dams on the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra. Its plan to build a 40,000 MW dam on it at the Great Bend will have adverse downstream impact. Such plans ignore the role of free flowing Tsangpo-Brahmaputra for centuries. There is an eerie silence about such projects and their possible environmental impacts. These plans need to be reviewed by situating them in the Himalayan watershed.

This watershed nurtures ten of the world’s most important river systems including Amu Darya, Brahmaputra, Ganga, Yellow, and Indus rivers. The characteristics of this watershed and its intricate ramifications have not yet been thoroughly studied. The relationship between Himalayan temperature, snow, glacier, rain, river and land building is still to be understood and factored in the decision making of the business enterprises and governments. It is clear that altering this relationship is bound to be have unintended consequences for the entire South Asian region.

Some 3 billion people are dependent on this watershed for their livelihoods. For instance, agriculture makes up 21% of India’s GDP and 10% of China’s. Some 80% of Afghans derive their livelihoods from agriculture. In Pakistan, agriculture provides 25% of its GDP.

Himalayan civilizations have been nurturing themselves with the rich alluvial deposits left after annual floods subsided for centuries. It is these alluvial deposits that contribute to land building which has not been recognized by likes of Twain and Pearce. The same has not been factored into the policies and programs of the governments and business enterprises in the watershed.  

The paper examines the massive resource takeovers that are spurring conflict in 130 districts out of 602 districts of India. The ongoing land takeover in India is captured in new findings released recently and illustrated on a map recording recent protests in 130 of India's 602 districts most of which took place in 2011 and 2012. The Indian government acts as a facilitator to the whole process rather than the main player. It is supporting the conventional new Greenfield foreign direct investments, merger and acquisition purchases of existing firms; public-private partnerships; specific tariff reductions on agricultural goods imported to India through the negotiation of regional bilateral trade and investment treaties and double taxation (avoidance) agreements. The largest single line of credit approved by the Exim Bank so far has gone to Ethiopia ($640 million) for its Tindaho Sugar Project and it is also widely expected to facilitate Indian investments. The soft loans, with an annual interest rate of 1.75 percent, are to be repaid over 20 years.

Indian companies are the second largest investors in the Ethiopian economy with approved investments worth nearly $5 billion and land lease agreements for over 4.4 lakh hectares across Ethiopia, 1 lakh hectares of which has been granted to a single Bangalore-based company, Karuturi Global Ltd. International. The land lease rate in Punjab's Doaba region is a minimum of Rs 40,000 per acre. In contrast, in most African nations, the land lease rate in terms of Indian currency comes to Rs 700 per acre. This means that for every one acre in Punjab, Indian investors can own 60 acres in Africa. With a per capita land holding of 1.5 acre in Punjab, agriculture is ceasing to be a sustainable activity. The paper will attempt to comprehend the ramifications of this phenomenon. 

In a significant development, in India Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2011 is about to be passed by the Indian Parliament that argues for a perfect land market, unrestrained urbanisation and industrialization. In effect, it will lead to increased control of agricultural land in the hands of companies of all ilk and compromise the food security of the present and future generations. The Bill does not disclose how Government of India is involved in land acquisition in other countries and how it will deal with it. The paper will dwell on the weaknesses of this legislation. 

India’s last Budget Speech, the Finance Minister read, “In September, 2012, Government accepted the main recommendations of the Dr. Vijay Kelkar Committee.” This acceptance of recommendations of the Kelkar Committee merits rigorous scrutiny by the Parliament and the informed citizens.  It merits attention. In Ethiopia land is owned by the state after a communist government came to power. Using such legal status of land Government of Ethiopia is facilitating takeover of its land by companies from China, India, Saudi Arabia and others.  

At page 23 of the Kelkar Committee report in para 3.3 regarding ‘Disinvestment Receipts, it has been suggested that “On the disinvestment front, in our assessment, Government should raise Rupees 30,000 crore in the next two years. In this regard, we would like to reiterate the Finance Commission’s recommendation that the current system of using disinvestment proceeds for meeting expenditure targeted towards creating capital assets should be continued. Over the next 24- 36 months, there is yet another policy instrument for raising resources for development and that is monetizing government’s unutilized and underutilized land resources. These resources can finance infrastructure needs particularly in urban areas. Such a policy has been effectively utilized in many countries including USA, France, Canada, Australia and China.  For monetizing land resources, the potential is considerable given the under utilized prime lands of PSU’s, Port Trusts, Railways, etc. Towards this we recommend setting up of a group to work out the policy framework and institutional modalities. These higher levels of disinvestment will be changing the composition of the balance sheet of the public sector enabling the replacement of capital assets with those that are more in line with emerging and new needs of the national economy.”

The recommendation of sale of government owned lands for private purpose, which has been acquired for ‘public purpose’ since 1894 is grave act of breach of public trust. In fact the land which has been acquired in access of the need since 1894 should be returned to the original owners. This recommendation appears to be a product of lobbying by real estate mafia. Land acquisition act enacted for British India by the British government empowered the government to acquire immovable property at, what was deemed to be, a fair and reasonable price for construction of roads, canals or other public purposes. This 1894 Act replaced all land acquistion laws of 1824, 1839, 1850, 1852, 1857 and 1870 was applicable to undivided India. This Act is relevant to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Independent India adopted the 1894 Land Acquisition Act. 

Given the fact that the government has accepted in principle that government owned land can be sold to private entities, it can safely be concluded that following the British Government’s path,  in independent India central government is grabbing lands using some 17 legislations for land acquisition. Besides these there are state legislations for the same.

Since February 2, 1899, the land acquisition process has been carried in India out under the provisions of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 which has been amended 17 times in pre-independence and post-independence. The amendment made in 1962 permitted acquisition by the State for a Company ―"which is engaged or is taking steps for engaging itself in any industry or work which is for a public purpose." The amendments made in 1984 in blurred any differentiation between acquisition for a State purpose and ―acquisition for a private enterprise or ―State enterprise by amending section 4 of the original Act to insert the words ―or for a Company after ―any public purpose.  As a consequence, the Courts have interpreted this amendment to mean that any notification of acquisition issued under section 4 need not specify whether the acquisition is for a ―public purpose or for ―a Company. 

The power of the government to take private property for public use was established in the colonial times but the power of the government to turn the land acquired for public use into private property is illegitimate and must be challenged. 

Kelkar Committee report claims that in USA, France, Canada, Australia and China, there is a policy to sale government owned land to private players without providing any reference is questionable.

The fact is that Parliamentary Standing Committee on Rural Development's report on in the matter of the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Bill, 2011 has examined the role of the governments in the countries mentioned in the Kelkar Committee report.

About USA, it says, "After the acquisition of land for private companies became highly controversial, and several State Supreme Courts, including those of Oklahoma, South Carolina, Illinois and Michigan, placed bans on the acquisition of land for private companies, the then President George W. Bush issued Executive Order No.13406 on 23 June 2006 mandating the Government to acquire land only for ―the purpose of benefitting the general public and not merely for the purpose of advancing the economic interest of private parties to be given ownership or use of the property taken."

In European Union, "There is no provision in their laws for the acquisition by the State of land for private enterprises."

In Canada, "The Canadian Expropriation Act of 1985 allows expropriation but only on an exceptional case-by-case basis where the ―real right is required by the Crown for a public work or other public purpose, but not to further the commercial interests of a private company."

In Australia, "There is provision for land acquisition in the Northern Territories but that is primarily aimed at protecting the interests of the local aborigines and their traditional rights to community ownership of land."

In China, "All land is owned by the State and, therefore, it is allotment by the State rather than acquisition by the State which determines the purposes for, and entities to which, land is made available."
If land acquired for public purpose is planned to be sold to private parties, it becomes evident that the acquisition of land which was done in the name of public purpose was ultimately meant to benefit the private entities. Therefore, the reference to the policy of these countries in the Kelkar Committee report appears irrelevant. This incorrect reference seems to have been made with ulterior motives to benefit private entities.  

It is clear that in all developed democracies, private purchase of land, not State acquisition, is the norm. There is no provision in their laws for the State acquisition of privately held land for profit-making private enterprises, nor, by extension, for public-private enterprises.

The report of Government of India appointed D. Bandyopadhyay headed Expert Group dealt with the magnitude of the large scale land acquisitions. The report was prepared for the Planning Commission in 2008. The report noted that around 60 million were displaced during the period 1947- 2004, involving 25 million hectare land including 7 million hectare of forest and 6 million hectare of other common property resources. Only a third of the displaced persons of planned development have been resettled. These findings were presented to the Parliament in May 2012. These displaced people have the first right over the government owned land. 

Instead of selling the government owned land to private entities as per the recommendations of the Kelker Committee, land which is a precious natural resource and is the main source of livelihood in the country should be distributed among the landless. As per 'Economic Survey of India 2011' over 1.8 crore rural families in India are landless. The fact is that even the landless are dependent on land for their livelihood.

Securing Himalayan watershed is important also because transnational and national business enterprises are taking over land to turn their fictitious financial capital into tangible capital unmindful of long term environmental and livelihood consequences. Such an approach has given birth to conflicts over control over land and natural resources above and below its surface. These conflicts are likely to aggravate more in future. Academic discourses and peoples movements appear to be overwhelmed by the massive scale at which myopic landscape changes are being engineered to monetize land and everything attached to it. In such a context, the paper examines the how commodities market –both present and future- is exerting pressure on land, water and food. In the paper food is treated as virtual water. Drastic land use change has the potential to cause serious public health crisis because of food and water insecurity. Unless the political economy that gives immunity to those indulging in vandalism of watershed is understood and the immunity is withdrawn, the Himalayan region is under a logical compulsion to move towards a precipice.     

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