Although some detailed exposés of India’s nefarious role in purchasing or leasing agricultural land in other countries — notably in Africa — have been surfacing in the last few years, the full picture of what some critics term a land grab and new form of colonialism has only emerged during the Rio+20 environmental meet in June. The Washington DC-based think tank, the Worldwatch Institute, released a report based on data put out by the Land Matrix project, a consortium of 45 NGOs, which has collated difficult-to-obtain information from investing and recipient countries.
Astonishingly, India figures as the country with the third most amount of such farm land acquired in other countries: between 2000 and 2012, Indian firms “grabbed” 6.3 million hectares (ha) in 121 separate deals. These tracts were acquired for agriculture (including floriculture, Bangalore-based Karuturi Global Ltd claiming to be the world’s largest exporter of roses), forestry for wood or fibre, industries and mineral extraction, including petroleum. Indonesia tops the list over the same period with eight million ha in just 10 deals, with Malaysia coming second. The US figures fourth with just over 3 million ha, followed by Britain and Europe, the UAE and China.
While Africa has been by far the biggest recipient of such Indian investments, Ethiopia in particular has been singled out. In May, a US-based Ethiopian activist wrote to our ambassador in the US, Nirupama Rao: “The scale of penetration by Indian firms that earned them the widely expressed name of ‘new farmland colonisers’ or as one local newspaper reported last year, ‘the new invaders’, is unprecedented. The Ethiopian Reporter confirmed last year that Bangalore-based Karuturi Global Ltd acquired the equivalent of 3,000 sq km of land, a staggering 311,900 ha (the size of Luxembourg bought at less than $1.0 per ha) in the Gambella Region. It owns 50,000 ha in the southern region, making it the largest Indian commercial farm owner in the country.”
The irony of a former British colony turning into a neo-coloniser should not be missed. In 2010, Oxford University and the UN Development Programme brought out a “multidimensional poverty index” or MPI which replaced the Human Poverty Index. The researchers analysed data from 104 countries with a combined population of 5.2 billion, constituting 78% of the world’s total. It found that about 1.7 billion people in these countries live in multidimensional poverty. If income alone is taken into account, at less than $1.25 a day, a standard measure throughout the world, this amounts to 1.3 billion only.
The startling fact that emerges from this analysis, which made headlines throughout the world, is that using the MPI, just eight Indian states have more poor people than the 26 poorest African countries combined. These sub-Saharan countries — like Ethiopia — are considered the worst-off in the world, with pictures of starving children there becoming symptomatic of a deep malaise. India, on the other hand, today enjoys the status of an emerging economic power, with a booming IT industry, vast industrial potential and a huge internal market. The averages have camouflaged these indices of deprivation within the country, “the internal colony”, where Madhya Pradesh figures at the bottom of the heap. And yet, the intrepid Indian government itself has acquired one million ha of land in Ethiopia to grow jatropha, which yields renewable energy.
The paradox deepens with the revelation that India also happens to rank among the top 10 countries in which farmland has also been bought or leased by other countries. What is more, this includes Indian companies which have been active in converting such land at home to non-farm uses. As of April this year, 4.6 million ha of agricultural land within the country has been leased or bought and converted into non-agricultural use in 113 deals. To cite just one example, Mission New Energy Ltd from Australia/New Zealand has acquired 194,000 ha to grow jatropha, which can be cultivated in arid land. This is no accident: the EU plans to switch over to renewables for a tenth of its transport fuel by 2020, so the global race is on to source such energy in developing countries. Incidentally, the steep hike in world food prices in 2008 was largely attributable to the insatiable hunger for biofuels.
Among Indian firms with the biggest such acquisitions of land domestically is Reliance Industries with just over 10,000 ha for industry (conceivably, for the ill-fated Maha Mumbai Special Economic Zone). Surprise of surprises, the Indian government itself is the worst offender, having converted two million ha, 180,000 ha and 150,000 ha to jatropha in three instances. The government has also acquired 1.4 million ha for industry (presumably another SEZ) in a single deal. Indian companies are shown by Land Matrix as growing rapacious for land and increasingly insensitive to the plight of small land holders — abroad or at home. Neo-liberals will argue that Indian companies are making use of land in other countries which is lying un- or underutilised and are employing local people in the process. This would be doubly problematic because it is reminiscent, to adapt Kipling, of ‘the brown man’s burden’, especially in black Africa.
Darryl D’Monte is chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India. The views expressed by the author are personal.