Monday, August 03, 2009

700,000 acres in Ethiopia

Rana Dasgupta writes of the profligacy of Delhi's affluent: their obsession for fancy foreign cars, diamonds, wasteful parties, bodyguards and the like. But what interested me most was this conversation with MC, the son of a billionaire, who has a major business plan:
‘We’ve just leased 700,000 acres for seventy-five years; we’re opening up food processing, sugar and flower plantations.’

He is so matter of fact that I’m not sure if I’ve heard correctly. We have already discussed how laborious it is to acquire land in India, buying from farmers at five or ten acres a time. I can’t imagine where he could get hold of land on that scale.

‘Where?’ I ask.

‘Ethiopia. My father has a friend who bought land from the Ethiopian president for a cattle ranch there. The President told him he had other land for sale. My dad said, This is it, this is what we’ve been looking for, let’s go for it. We’re going in there with [exiled Russian oligarch] Boris Berezovsky. Africa is amazing. That’s where it’s at. You’re talking about numbers that can’t even fit into your mind yet. Reliance, Tata, all the big Indian corporations are setting up there, but we’re still ahead of the curve. I’m going to run this thing myself for the next eight years, that’s what I’ve decided. I’m not giving this to any CEO until it meets my vision. It’s going to be amazing. You should see this land: lush, green. Black soil, rivers.’

MC tells me how he has one hundred farmers from Punjab ready with their passports to set off for Ethiopia as soon as all the papers are signed.

‘Africans can’t do this work. Punjabi farmers are good because they’re used to farming big plots. They’re not scared of farming 5,000 acres. Meanwhile, I’ll go there and set up polytechnics to train the Africans so when the sugar mills start up they’ll be ready.’

Shipping farmers from Punjab to work on African plantations is a plan of imperial proportions. And there’s something imperial about the way he says Africans. I’m stunned. I tell him so.

‘Thank you,’ he says.

‘What is on that land right now?’ I ask, already knowing that his response, too, will be imperial.


MC is excited to be talking about this. His spirits seem to be entirely unaffected by the recession that currently dominates the headlines. He orders another beer, though we have exceeded the time he allotted me. All of a sudden, I find him immensely charismatic. I can see why he makes things happen: he has made me believe, as he must have made others believe, that he can do anything. I ask him how he learned to think like this.

‘I’m only twenty-eight,’ he says. ‘Why not?’

He becomes flamboyant.

‘We’re going to be among the top five food processors in the world. You know the first company I’m going to buy? Heinz.’

I’m interested in his Why not? Is it on the strength of such a throwaway reason that nearly three-quarters of a million acres of Ethiopia are being cleared and hundreds of farmers shipped across the world? I wonder what the emotional register of this is for him. It seems as if, somewhere, it’s all a bit of a lark.


Krishnan said...

21st century India turning into an imperialistic power ? God forbid.

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