Food, Water, Air and the World Bank
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed
“At the moment of
death”, the learned Shaykh was describing a parable to his students, “three
angels appear one after the other. The first one declares: I am the angel
appointed to provide you with food. I have searched all of God’s creation but I
cannot find one single grain with your name written on it. Then the first angel
bids farewell and departs”
As the students
listened intently, striving to grasp the gravity of the last moments of a dying
soul, the Shaykh continued. “Then the second angel appears. He says to the dying
person: I am the angel appointed to provide you with water. I have searched all
of God’s creation but I cannot find one single drop of water with your name
written on it. And the second angel departs”
“Then the third
angel appears”, continued the learned Shaykh, “and he tells the dying person: I
am angel of breath appointed to provide you with air. I have searched all of
God’s creation and I have returned empty handed. I cannot find one molecule of
air with your name written on it. Then he too departs”.
thereafter, the angel of death appears, and by God’s command, takes the soul of
the dying person. There are no further questions asked and none to intercede”.
If the World Bank
has its way, it is not the angels who will determine whether or not you have any
food, water or air left, it is the multinational corporations (MNCs) who will.
It is not far fetched to imagine a scenario when every man, woman and child will
pay a price not just for the food he/she eats but also for the water he drinks
and the air he breathes.
In the name of
privatization, the World Bank has been pushing the agenda of Big Money for
control of the vital resources of the world. The control of oil is an old story
that is being written with increasing ferocity. The control of forests too is a
story, old and tragic, that is nearing its end. The story of food, water and air
is just unfolding.
The World Bank
has made no attempt to hide its agenda. In its report, "World resources sector
strategy, strategic directions for World Bank engagement”, the Bank argues, “…
water resource management is best done when all stakeholders participate,
including the state, private sector and civil society”.
And who are the
stakeholders? To obtain an answer to this question, I traversed National Highway
4 from Mumbai to Bangalore in India last month. About thirty kilometers from
Bangalore is a sprawling Pepsi processing plant. The company draws water from
bore wells so deep that they have dried up the wells in the neighboring
villages. The farmers must necessarily depend on surface water impounded in
tanks and when there is none available they must transport it from miles away.
If the monsoons are late, the crops fail, the farmers and their livestock
starve. But the Pepsi plant churns along. Is Pepsi a stakeholder in the water
resources of this neighborhood?
No longer is
water a human right, a divine gift for the sustenance of life on earth. It has
become a commodity that is to be exploited for profit. The global bottled water
business is worth $100 billion annually and is growing by double digits each
year. It will soon surpass the soft drink business in its profitability. The
margins are so huge that local governments and bureaucrats have become willing
partners in the great party. Recently, the government in Hyderabad, Deccan was
selling water to MNCs for one rupee per gallon while much of the city of six
million was thirsty and received a trickled supply for barely one hour per day.
It is a similar
story the world over. In Bolivia, Latin America, under prodding from the World
Bank, the government privatized the use of water. Prices soared. Water became so
expensive that the farmers were spending more than a third of their income to
buy water. The result was a mass upsurge of protest and the government was
forced to relent.
The World Bank
has altered the nature of debate on water supplies by inventing and imposing a
new vocabulary. No longer is water a human right bestowed by the Creator. It is
a commodity to be haggled over by “user groups”. No longer does it pour down
from heaven as divine mercy. It is owned by “stake holders”. The jargon skews
the debate in favor of the MNCs. If water is owned by the “stake holders” like
corporate securities, then who speaks for the “non users”? Is a water buffalo a
“non user” and must therefore become extinct to protect the “users”?
To be fair to the
World Bank, the situation is not entirely of its own making. It reflects the
graft and corruption so rampant in Asia and Latin America. In India and
Pakistan, wealthy landlords routinely divert canals and illegally tap city pipes
to divert water for their own usage. One does not have to go back to Mir Jamadar
who betrayed his Nawab and sold out Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757.
Dozens of bureaucrats are on the take and sell off scarce water for a pittance
of a bribe. This happens every day.
It is the
mismanagement of canals, dams and city water systems that has provided an
opening for MNCs and their sponsor, the World Bank, to make a bid for global
control of food, water and air.
Those who argue
for privatization offer as evidence the efficiency that private ownership brings
to bear. “Look at private toll roads”, they argue, “and see how efficiently they
are run and how well maintained they are. Just compare them to the public roads
and how poorly they are maintained”.
There is merit in
this argument. But the price of privatization is too high. Private investment
bestows benefits on the basis of returns and is weighted heavily in favor of
corporations and wealthy landlords. If water is a commodity, it will be rationed
and the benefits will invariably accrue to those who can afford it. As the
recent example of Hyderabad city suggests, the poor will be thirsty while the
rich pay a dollar a gallon to enjoy chilled bottled water in five star hotels.
Millions of little farmers will go out of business and will be forced to sell
their land. Consolidation in favor of MNCs will be the result. Control of food
and water by the super rich will be complete.
and monopolization of the food supply chain is already well on its own. The
introduction of hybrid crops is a good example. While the hybrids increased the
yields per acre, they also placed the MNCs that own the hybrids in a position of
near monopoly. Many of the hybrids do not yield seeds for the following year’s
crop. The farmers are forced to buy new seeds each year from the MNCs who
control the supply through their patents and licenses.
A march down this
road will lead to a world wherein a few individuals with Big Money control the
resources of the globe. The rest will be left as proletariat. Each morning vast
armies of workers will walk out and work for the MNCs to earn back the food,
water and air that God had bestowed upon them in the first place. It is an
inverted social pyramid standing on a sharp edge. It is inherently unstable and
has the potential for a chaotic world as was amply demonstrated by the example
solution to water usage must include three fundamental elements. First, there
must be a universal declaration that food, water and air are human rights, not
user assets. Second, water resource management must be the privilege of the
local population, not of multinational corporations backed by the World Bank.
Third, and this is the most difficult of all, corruption in the distribution of
food, water and air must be rooted out.
All life on this
planet depends on water and air. The lowly Asian buffalo has as much right to it
as the billionaire who runs a huge corporation. Each animal, every plant, and
every human being is an indispensable piece in the infinite mosaic of life on
God’s earth. You cannot take one piece away and not risk destroying the whole.