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NEW DELHI, Oct 19 2009 (IPS) - Globalisation and trade liberalisation policies have led to the privatisation of water and biodiversity and the concentration of land ownership in India, reversing six decades of land reform and introducing a new form of corporate zamindari -a feudal land tenure system- through instruments like "special economic zones".

Historically women have been the seed keepers and water keepers in communities. Land, too, was utilised individually but owned collectively. Rulers had rights to a share in the produce of the land, not rights to ownership of the land.

The Land Acquisition Act goes back to 1894 and was passed under British colonial rule. Since independence in 1947 various amendments were made to the act, the latest of them being in 2007. This amendment bars civil courts from entertaining matters related to land acquisition for a ‘public purpose’, and the definition itself has been criticised as superficial and inadequate.

The government has used the right it has claimed for itself under the eminent domain principle to hand over large tracts of fertile farmland to corporations. The conflicts that ensued forced the government to modify the Land Acquisition Act in order to appropriate peasant farmers’ land. Agricultural land furnishes the livelihood for millions of peasants -landless, small, and marginal- but these are being appropriated for transfer to corporate ownership. Village commons were categorised as "wastelands" under the British revenue system because the colonial powers could not collect revenue from them. Today, these commons are being transferred to industry despite the fact they are the most important source of resources and livelihood for the poor.

On May 2007, the provincial government of western Rajasthan state passed "The Rajasthan Land Revenue Rules", which allow 1000-5000 hectares of village common lands to be transferred for 20 years from the village community to the biofuel industry to use for plantations (usually of jatropha) and processing facilities.

Rajasthan’s new Rules for Biofuels have thus brought about two major changes: first, the illegitimate transformation of community rights into private property rights without the consent of the community -in effect, an enclosure of the commons- and second, a stark shift from equity to inequity and from sustainability to non-sustainability as land essential to the rural economy and used to generate fuel, fodder, medicine, and food for the community is rededicated to grow raw material for the fuel for the cars of the urban rich.

In addition to privatising common lands, the jatropha plantations are also privatising water. The Rajasthan Biofuel Law makes it compulsory to use sprinkler irrigation. In a desert state this is a recipe for diverting scarce water resources from drinking water needs and agriculture to jatropha cultivation. It is also a recipe for depleting ground water. In the case of water and biodiversity, corporations seeking privatisation of common resources are using international institutions such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to create new kinds of private property.

The expression increasingly used for this type of privatisation is "asset reform". But the life support and livelihood base of the poor is not an "asset" to be bought and sold and traded. Referring to vital life resources as "assets" is in fact the beginning of the commodification and privatisation of the natural resources necessary for survival.

The World Bank’s water sector reform projects are transforming rights to water; through its loans, is redefining India’s water acts and rewriting water policies and laws. This amounts to an outsourcing of legislation that undermines the Indian constitution and Indian democracy, robbing the people of water rights and water laws that were democratically established and articulated by the panchayati raj (village council), state legislatures, and national parliament.

Urban water privatisation projects also directly impact farmers’ right to water. Five farmers of Tonk district in Rajasthan were killed by police when they protested the diversion of their river Banas to Ajmer and Jaipur as part of a privatisation project. The farmers had been left with no irrigation water and even their wells went dry because of the blocking of the flow of the river. Then the contract awarded to Suez-Degremont to build the Sonia Vihar Plant involving the diversion of Ganges water to Delhi has deprived farmers of irrigation water.

The result is clear: when natural resources which should be held in common are privatised, common people are deprived of their sources of sustenance, their means of making a living, and their collective wealth. The consequences are dire.

The future of farming and women farmers rests on the shared care for the vital resources of the earth -the soil, the biodiversity the water- that make agriculture possible. And women, who are the majority of the farmers in a country like India, have the expertise to manage this vital natural capital based on social equity and ecological sustainability. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Vandana Shiva is an author and international campaigner for women and the environment.

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