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India Emerges as Leader in 21st Century "Scramble for Africa"

March 20, 2013
San Francisco Bay View

The rising presence of China and India in Africa has important implications for the continent’s development. While the two Asian giants provide a much-needed alternative to the old – and until now sole – paradigm of dependence on the West, both countries are accused of being part of the global land-grabbing group. Many African governments are complicit in this wholesale plunder of their land, which the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. has compared to the “Wild West.” India’s particular role in the land takeover underway in Africa raises serious questions about the direction of South-South relations.


Just before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the Indian food and beverage giant Parle Agro ran an ad campaign to promote its new LMN lemon drink. One commercial spot showed a couple of Bushmen digging in the sand for water, when their stick breaks. Suddenly, they see a water tap and wrench it off to use as a digging tool.

Fortunately, the Advertising Standards Council of India forced the company to make changes because the spot was racist and made fun of water scarcity, an acute problem in Africa and India.

The Parle ad is an apt metaphor for growing fears in Africa about India’s seemingly insatiable demand for the continent’s land and water. Water scarcity at home – and global fears of a looming water and food crisis – are among the reasons India has joined the club of land predators.

India now ranks third in the amount of land grabbed from other countries. It is, says environmental journalist Darrel De Monte, “The irony of a former British colony turning into a neo-colonizer.”

Colonization starts at home

This is a story of irony upon irony: India, a country with more poor people than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, a champion of South-South solidarity and an aid giver to Africa, is participating in the frenzied heist of its arable land. Africa, a continent which has seen more than its fair share of conflict and weather-triggered famines, is being taken over to feed the world while its own people starve.

The cherry on the icing is that India itself has been the target of land-grabbing by both domestic and foreign entities, in a case of the land-grabbed now grabbing land.

India is a leading – but by no means the only – member of this inglorious club. It includes Indonesia, China, Europe, the United States, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, as well as mammoth investment banks such as Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan. Pension, private equity and hedge funds – and even development banks – are all in on what has been dubbed “the great land robbery.”

Indian officials dismiss any criticism that its policies in Africa are a “neo-colonial grab” for resources and insist that Delhi is genuinely committed to Africa’s development. Unlike the “loot and leave strategies” of other nations, India seeks “sustainable partnerships” in Africa.

But recent history indicates otherwise. Anuradha Mittal, director of the Oakland Institute, which has extensively documented the issue, put it bluntly and succinctly: “The takeover of peoples’ land and water by corporations – even if they are from the Global South – is a new form of colonization.”

More than 80 Indian companies have acquired immense swathes of arable land in Ethiopia, Madagascar, Kenya, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Cameroon and Mozambique to grow food crops, as well as sugarcane and palm oil, both raw stock for biofuel.

Apart from the lust for quick returns, the Indian interest in African land is also triggered by a worrying drop in crop yields as a result of “Green Revolution fatigue,” climate change and the real challenge of feeding an additional few billion people in the coming decades.

Take Punjab for instance, once the wonder child of India’s Green Revolution and a textbook model for developing countries everywhere. Today, the state is reeling from a dangerously low water table, its soil contaminated by decades of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Worse, around 18 cancer deaths are reported daily, a high price to pay for sustaining the country’s food security needs for so long.

India’s food security concerns exclude using much domestic land for biofuel production. At the same time, its energy requirements have risen exponentially. Africa, with 60 percent of the planet’s arable land and compliant governments who make that land available at giveaway prices, is a dream come true for investors who put profits before people.

Breaking all the rules

Perhaps the most controversial Indian company operating in Africa is Bangalore-headquartered Karuturi Global. CEO Sai Ramakrishna Karuturi set out from Kenya, where he made a fortune farming roses for European markets, and decided to replicate the rose formula in Ethiopia where millions of people already depend on food aid to survive.

Today, Karuturi’s interests go way beyond flowers. His ambitious “African safari” has made him the quasi-owner of more than 300,000 hectares of fertile land in Ethiopia. The farmlands of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan, Tanzania, Mozambique and Ghana – what he calls “green gold” – are all in his sights.

The most documented Karuturi venture is in Gambela, one of the poorest regions of Ethiopia that borders the new state of South Sudan. The way Karuturi tells it, he asked for “only” 100,000 hectares but the Ethiopian government “insisted” he take 300,000 hectares, twice the size of Delhi, for 99 years at US$1.5 per hectare. A disastrous maize harvest in 2011 sent Karuturi Global share prices plummeting, but this didn’t dent Karuturi’s ambitions. He wants a million plus hectares in Africa to make his the world’s biggest farming company.

A recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report found that 70,000 people were forcibly displaced in a so-called “villagization program” in Gambela to make room for Karuturi’s operations. The company plans to grow oil palm, sugar cane, rice, maize, edible oils and cotton. Thousands of local Anuak farmers are being forced to become lowly-paid wage laborers on land that belonged to their ancestors. HRW also accused the Ethiopian army of arbitrary arrest, rape and torture of scores of residents in Gambela to make way for large-scale commercial farming.

Karuturi contends that the land had not been cultivated for centuries. People are leaving, not because of forced displacement, he says, but because of urbanization. As for any strictures from the Oakland Institute, he has never even heard of it. Karuturi wonders whether this might be a case of racism against non-European and non-American investors in Africa.

Apart from its press releases, there is little evidence that Karuturi Global is contributing to Ethiopia’s development through capacity building and making food affordable. What is certain is that the massive clearing of land and forests will result in the “loss and degradation of wetlands, decrease in wildlife populations and habitat, proliferation of invasive species and loss of biodiversity.”

Karuturi’s operations in Kenya have also come under criticism. Some 3,000 workers on his flower farm near Lake Naivasha recently downed tools – went on strike – to protest poor working conditions. An equally worrying concern is the environmental footprint left by the “king of roses” around Lake Naivasha, a wetland of international importance.

More major players: Siva Group

Another Indian player moving in on Africa, also from southern India, is the Chennai-headquartered Siva Group, a tangled conglomerate conveniently registered in the fiscal paradise of Singapore. Siva Group Chairman Chinnakannan Sivasankaran made a fortune when the PC and telecoms market started taking off in India. Sivasankaran is one of the richest Indians, with a net worth of more than $4 billion.

In 2010, he began acquiring shares in other Indian companies doing business in Africa, quickly becoming a major player himself. What the Siva Group website calls a “foray” in the palm oil sector in Africa translates today into a 50 percent share in a 170,000 hectare palm oil plantation in Liberia, shares in palm oil and soybean production in the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo), 200,000 hectares in Cameroon and at least 100,000 hectares in Sierra Leone, as well as in Ivory Coast.

Both Liberia and Sierra Leone struggle hard to feed themselves and rebuild after long brutal civil wars. In the DRC, despite the United Nations presence and resolutions galore, bloody confrontations that have already claimed up to 6 million lives continue. Land is the resource that is most likely to spark conflict in any country where the majority of the population depends on farming for their livelihood, as is the case in most of Africa.

The Siva Group, and its complex tangle of subsidiaries and holding companies, now controls close to 700,000 hectares of African land, nearly all of it for massive oil palm plantations.

Government gets in the game

But it’s not just Indian companies with their fingers in the African land pie. The Delhi government acquired a million hectares of land in Ethiopia to grow jatropha, a much-hyped source for biofuel. Contrary to the hype, jatropha does require water and nutrients and therefore presents a threat to food crops – impossible to justify amid recurrent warnings of an imminent global hike in food prices.

A full-scale assault on the African commons is underway, and Indian companies are part of the attack. Most of these mega-agribusiness projects, which require huge inputs of water and fertilizer, are located near major rivers that can be tapped to irrigate the giant industrial plantations. There are fears that if the current pattern continues, Africa is headed for “hydrological suicide.” It also means ceding decision-making power on the question of what is grown, for what ends and for whom.

Africa shining

During his last visit to Africa, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was widely quoted as saying, “The commerce between India and Africa will be of ideas and services, not manufactured goods against raw materials after the fashion of Western exploiters.”

India’s actions on the ground have rarely borne scrutiny in the mainstream press. Much like the official version, the Indian media narrative of Africa, with few exceptions, is of a continent of unlimited resources, where opportunity beckons for people prepared to take risks.

“Africa shining” is just as potent a mirage as “India shining”; the shine is restricted to the economic and political elite on both sides of the Indian Ocean. African leaders – both elected politicians and traditional chiefs share the responsibility for allowing the pillage of their continent in the name of economic growth and development.

The battle rages on into the new millennium

There is a complex and sometimes toxic combination of social, environmental, economic and geopolitical factors at play in the new scramble for the continent’s land and resources, but the stakes are deadlier this time.

When battle lines have been drawn over the control of land and natural resources in India, with protests and repression reported in more than a hundred districts, it is dismaying to see that Indian companies are replicatingthe same pattern in Africa.

Given their track record in their own country, it would be naïve to expect Indian companies to show real commitment to the people affected by their investments in Africa. Voices are rising on the continent, however, challenging the intentions of foreign investors. India would do well to take note, or it might find that the welcome it is currently receiving could quickly fade.