Faced with reports of land grabbing by Indian companies in some African countries, especially Ethiopia, the government says the Indian companies have taken land on lease as per rules of the country concerned. Moreover, during regular industry-government meetings here companies operating in Africa have been asked to remain sensitive to the concerns of host countries, said official sources here.
“We have the Africa Committee of the Confederation of Indian Industries and our message there is that Indian involvement is not short term. We are there for long-term engagement and Indian companies should learn lessons from the situation created by others.”
Officials were referring to China’s travails as well as answering criticism by NGOs of Indian companies taking up huge tracts of land on lease. The NGOs have claimed that acquisition of vast tracts of land raises the question of sovereignty. That is, in case of trouble or resistance from locals, would the new land owners take up arms? Another oft repeated apprehension is about the proceeds from such land leases being used by the host regime to purchase military equipment to suppress the population.
Lessons from Chinese experience
By drawing attention to New Delhi’s aversion to China’s experience in Zambia, officials indicated that the government would not interfere in a sovereign country. “We know that interference is not liked. A case in point is the way in which China sided with one of the political parties in Zambia during the elections. The Opposition raised its voice and the issue became controversial. There was also some trouble in a Zambian mine and the Chinese general manager opened fire. He had to be repatriated with great difficulty amid demands for his trial.”
Officials acknowledge having received a couple of complaints and say they have been active trying to ensure Indian companies with “experience and not influence” get contracts for diverse requirements such as laying railway lines and building transmission lines and roads. At the same time, they point to the difficulties of drawing a line between people holding Indian passports and people of Indian origin (PIO). People in the second category are citizens of other countries, but in local perception they are clubbed with Indian nationals.
One company in the cross hairs of activists is Karuturi Global, which has taken one lakh hectares of land on lease in a west Ethiopian province and is negotiating for more. Officials point out that the company earned foreign exchange for Ethiopia when there was none. Karuturi has today made Ethiopia the second largest exporter of cut flowers in Africa after Kenya.
Motivated by altruism
India’s credit line of $640 millions to Ethiopia has also come in for criticism, but officials attribute an altruistic motive for the loan — it is for the rehabilitation and modernisation of three sugar plants after the recently deceased Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi launched a plan to increase the carbohydrate intake of people and found that increasing sugar production was the best option.
South Block feels the bulk of the criticism is coming not from the people living in Ethiopia but from the tens of thousands of Ethiopian expatriates who have fled the country since the early 1980s when a famine hit the region. The next decade made things worse as Ethiopia was embroiled in armed conflicts with Eritrea and Somalia.
“Land is a very sensitive issue. If it was done forcefully people wouldn’t have let that happen. Most of these voices are those of overseas Ethiopians, many of whom were not in agreement with the policies of Zenawi, who they felt was an autocrat,” said officials.