A friend shared with me a document about a disputed asset usage by a well-known private organisation. As I do not like to go into political disputes and discussions, I am sharing my general thoughts on the subject. I am not talking about what happens the world over, but I will restrict the discussion under Indian scenario. I will not be specific about names and projects for obvious reasons.
Air, Sunlight and Water are three primary natural resources. Air and Sunlight are unlimited, but potable water is not! Water may be abundant in the sea, but fresh water is not unlimited. The availability of potable water in the right places at the right time is also critical. That is going to be essential in future. Any new asset creation is controlled by availibility round the year. Like in Rajasthan, the government is putting Sunlight to good use by putting up a large number of Solar plants. In various areas in different states, wind energy is harnessed by putting up windmills for power generation. The asset I am discussing is water. Government is taking up measures to catch rainwater by inexpensive methods in the state. Creating dams, diverting river water are long term projects and take huge money and a lot of time. So instead of going for complex ideas, it will make sense to achieve this by more straightforward methods.
The specific document shared by the friend is talking about a contract this private company and the then British government. I am sure that since the project is enormous, there must have been a legal contract between the government and the company. Assume that a similar agreement is made between today’s government with a multinational. Will the deal be challenged after 100 years? The only difference would be the original contract I am talking about was with the British Government in India of those times. The hypothetical case that I have said is about the contract with sovereign government of India. Let us not forget that India as we know today, did not exist before 1947.
When I read the document shared by my friend, thoughts about the problems discussed in the report look unimportant to me. A society, a government and hence the nation works on ethics that is followed. The document demands that the old contract made by the company with the government should be annulled. The resources used by the company should be used for the benefits of the rural poor and farmers in the different area of the state, deficient in water.
If we take this logic further, which agreement should remain valid? There are significant beneficiaries of assets due to awards made by Shivaji Maharaj. It was the method of those times. To keep the different sardars together, they were awarded large chunks of land. Sardars would collect the taxes from the people in the area and share taxes with the Shivaji’s government. It was the way of paying sardars for the services rendered by them to Shivaji. During the last 50 to 70 years, land prices all over are shooting up. The descendants of the sardars have enjoyed the fruits of the ancestral property they had received from Shivaji. Some have become multi–millionaires by selling the land, and a few have become billionaires! Should the gift that was given to these families be valid today? Was that land not owned by somebody else? Honestly, I have no issue with the old system, but it should be consistent to all, whether an individual is involved or a company is involved.
These days there is a lot of discussion going on about poor farmers and their issues. These need to be handled with a lot of genuine care and love. Add to this the problems that come up because of market vagaries; farmers do not get reasonable rates and many a time they have to sell their products at a loss, as the product is perishable. But lest we forget, there is an equal number of poor living in the towns and cities. They live in squalid conditions and have a daily struggle to make two ends meet! When we talk of “helping” the rural poor, we should also find ways to “help” urban poor.
What has this company done? When they took over the assets, they built dams to produce electricity. Remaining water after production was used by (and is still being used) poor people from certain area. The power helped Bombay to grow in the last century. In those days private industries did not have the money to take up such massive operations. Does the contract have an end date for the lease? Does it have an escape clause from the deal? If this contract is valid then what is the reason to ask the company to opt out of it?
Before 1947, many things had happened for which land and other assets were taken over by the government. Indian Railway is a prime example of this. Does it mean that old owners now should be compensated for the land at today’s rates by paying the difference? Mughals in their time had given lands as an award or a reward to many. Are these contracts to be reopened? These contracts were also not made with Indian Government after 1947. Airports, Harbours were built in olden days and continue to be used after modernisation by the Indian Government. Is it only because an asset similarly is used (in the language of people against this- exploited) by private industry, it is wrong?
A valid contract between any two parties, the government or private is a contract that should continue. The demand mentioned in the document, has asked the government to change the agreement and use the water as deemed suitable by this group of people.
There is one valid argument. The contract was created more a hundred years back. Requirements of those times were different as there was hardly any industrialisation and urbanisation. Availability of natural resources was also different, per capita. With increased population, the reduction in per capita availability is causing stresses, and hence there can be a demand to use natural resources for a different reason. Saying this is easy but to bring such significant changes into practice will be extremely complex, and very expensive. So instead of using existing resources for a new use, invest the same money for creating the required infrastructure.
It is said that the future wars will be about water. Is this dispute forerunner of things to come in future? I am sure good offices will prevail, and the situation will be resolved sensibly without any coercion.
What is right or wrong, only time will tell!