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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 29 New Delhi July 7, 2018

Preliminary Inquiry into Mega Projects of South America and South Asia

Simile of water flow for data

Monday 9 July 2018

by Gopal Krishna

Simile of Water 

In his Budget speech in July 2009 Pranab Mukherjee (as India’s Finance Minister) announced the setting up of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) as a major step in improving governance with regard to delivery of public services. He underlined that it was part of “projects of vital national importance”.1 (Mukherjee, 2009) He added: “The UIDAI will set up an online data base with identity and biometric details of Indian residents and provide enrolment and verification services across the country.” A document, titled Ana-lytics-Empowering Operations: The UIDAI Experience, states that “[UIDAI] is working to provide residents of India a Unique Identification (UID) number (branded as Aadhaar—Hindi word for foundation).The authority, in a short span, is set to become the largest biometric capture and identification project in the world”.2 (UIDAI, 2012) The document reads: “Data can be considered as the equivalent of water. There are a number of processes involved before the actual consumption of water and data. The journey begins with data, like water, being generated at multiple sources. These are then brought together into one central location.” The simile of water flow for data flow reveals the sensitivity of the controller and owner of the grids—be it water grid, power grid or data grid. Do people know about the forces that seek centralisation of every conceivable resource and its civili-sational cost?

The document goes on to explain how to handle “Big” data. It states that “Over time, data will increase exponentially, fuelled by data coming in from residents, vendors and partners.” Is the legal and political imagination of people in general and informed people in particular so barren that they cannot fathom its far-reaching ramifications despite the colonial experience? One of the key factors for colonisation was information asymmetry between the occupiers and the occupied.

Bioemtric UID/Aadhaar’s Centralised Iden-tities Data Repository (CIDR) is not a project in isolation. A five-year study, Biometric Recognition: Challenges and Opportunities, published by the National Research Council of the National Academies, concludes: “Human recognition systems are inherently probabilistic, and hence inherently fallible.”3 (Pato, 2010) It infers that biometric recognition is fallible. The proponents of the CIDR feign ignorance about it.

Because the simile of flow of water has been invoked, it is germane to recollect two of the lessons from natural science—one of the primary functions of free flowing rivers is to build land and the fact that water has memory like data. Drawing on Hernando de Soto’s book, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere, Nandan Nilekani, the first Chairman of the UIDAI, has disclosed the purpose of the UID number in his book, Imagining India, wherein he says that it can help create a national, common land market. And this common land market will lead to poverty alleviation.4 (Nilekani 2008) De Soto contends elsewhere that “the knowledge organised by property and transaction records plays the same role in credit that DNA plays in biology: it stores the long-term, measurable information that governs how the different cells of the body come together”.5 (De Soto, 2011)

What is not disclosed is that a common land market as property market creates a futures market in land disregarding the fact that commodification of land has actually created food riots in 37 countries.6 (Cuesta, 2014)

Land, once commodified, can be used for generating bio-fuels instead of foodgrains. Instead of filling the belly of the poor, for which crocodile tears are being shed, there will be incentives to produce bio-fuels if the price is good. In fact, the priorities of the automobile industry precede priority of any other industry. Instead of land being used to fill the bellies of the poor, it will be diverted for providing cheap fuel substitutes to the elite.

Like land, water and other natural resources, data too can be possessed and controlled. Data is both a tangible and an intangible property. It is being recognised as a new class of property. This realisation has led to the commodification and monetisation of data. The fact is that data has always been a sensitive asset.

Similitude of Mega Projects in South Asia and South America 

The Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) is the world’s biggest project that entails rewriting the geography of South Asia which is located in the Himalayan watershed. The claimed objective is to transfer water from surplus to deficit river basins to solve the drought and flood problems forever. India’s National Water Development Agency (NWDA) has proposed 30 major river-link canals involving 37 rivers throughout the country to transfer water from the so-called surplus basins to water-deficit basins as part of the Peninsular and Himalayan components of the ILR project. If one analyses the topography of the country, one can see that there can be no acceptable way of making a water network in the country as it entails diverting the natural course of the rivers, which would lead to several Aral Sea-type disasters and decline in human civilisation.

Interlinking of rivers in South Asia does not mean drawing some mega litres from one river and pouring it into another like one does with containers or even with canals. The ramifications are much wider because a river is not only the water that flows or the channel which holds the flow. A river is the dynamic face of the landscape. In the drama of history, the eco-system is not the stage setting; it is the cast. The river sculpts the terrain and the lives of people by its waters which are always in a dynamic state. Breaking this dynamics would indeed unleash forces of uncontrolled change and invite the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Like the ILR, which was planned in the 1980s unmindful of the cumulative environmental and social impact, the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA) was launched during the Summit of South American Presidents in September 2000 in Brazilia. It proposes a series of large-scale mega-projects that entail rewriting the landscapes, hydrology and ecosystems of the region, including dredging of rivers, construction of dozens of dams and diversion of rivers for the linking of rivers. The IIRSA is an initiative of 12 South American governments and three regional banks. It aims at increasing regional competi-tiveness and productivity through a series of steps by physically integrating the South American region and focuses on three sectors: transport, energy markets and telecomuni-cations. The IIRSA’s objective is on a model of growth through the export of natural resources and primary materials. Some 350 projects have been identified as part of the IIRSA, which will cause convergence of the landscape in the entire region.

The IIRSA plan seeks to integrate the region through the construction of inter-oceanic corridors by land along east-west links, manipu-lation of rivers through a complex system of industrial waterways and the building of hydroelectric dams throughout the region. In such an approach rivers are seen merely as a means for monetising wealth through connec-tivity, and rivers, mountains, forests, and wet-lands are seen as impediments to economic growth while rivers become the means for extracting natural resources.

Behind both the ILR project in South Asia and the IIRSA in South America appears to be means to establish free trade area zones of industrial and infrastructural corridors. These projects are akin to China’s One Belt One Road initiative, the mega infrastructure project involving transport and energy, roads, bridges, gas pipelines, ports, railways and power plants in some 65 countries. Banks of all ilk seem to have the blueprint for generating monetary profits in these regions disregarding the destructive impacts of such initiatives. Such impacts have the potential to cause conflicts, owing to increase in flooding of rivers and submergence of land due to disruption of the natural drainage system. Such land use change contributes to climate crisis. It is also a fact that land and water co-exist. Both are mentioned separately because the institutional imagination of these countries has been shaped by colonial thinking. This thinking “treats water as property. Most often it is enjoyed through the ownership of land.”7 (Iyer, 2009)

The richest river basins and ecosystems are under threat from such initiatives from the ongoing replumbing of the planet. The residents of these regions live in vulnerable ecosystems in the sense that interventions of mega projects inevitably have adverse geological impacts. Both the Himalayas and the coastal wetlands of South Asia and the region from the Andes to the Amazon, to the lower basin of the Paraná and Uruguay rivers are ecologically sensitive and fragile. International financial institutions have denied and are denying the natural right of rivers to flow freely because private owner-ship of natural resources gives birth to private rights over it by usurping the rights of communities over them through linguistic and epistemic corruption. A document titled, Where is the Wealth of Nations?, published by the World Bank, contends: “The estimates of total wealth— including produced, natural, and human and institutional capital—suggest that human capital and the value of institutions (as measured by the rule of law) constitute the largest share of wealth in virtually all countries.”8 (Hamilton, 2005)

The inclusion of institutional capital, an intangible capital as wealth appears to be a deliberate exercise in epistemic corruption, commenced in a document, Expanding the Measure of Wealth, published by the Bank. While assessing the wealth of the planet, it has been argued that collective institutions help explain unexpected differences between countries.9 (Bank, 1997)

River basins and mountain watersheds have guaranteed livelihood to millions of human and non-humans for millions of years in the past and if they are not mutilated through myopic structural and financial engineering, they can continue to do so in future as well. Both colonial and financial thinking disregard such possibility in their obsession with ownership of natural resources aimed at monetisation by under-mining community ownership and by denying the legal right to rivers.

Ownership implies control which includes not just the ability to access, modify, package, derive benefit from, sell or remove property (data, land, water and other natural resources) but also the right to assign these rights to others. Before the colonisation of countries in Asia, America and Africa, the data related to these regions were colonised through a mapping exercise that provided data to measure, manage and conquer native populations and the ecosystem. The history of the defeated regions of the world provides ample evidence that the mapping exercise generated huge quantities of data which opened new avenues for capturing natural wealth. In the 21st century, a data market is beginning to shape the landscape of the earth through monetisation of land and water. It is shaping and is being shaped by the futures market promoted by undemocratic economic institutions which have dwarfed democratic institutions to the detriment of communities and ecosystem.

Who all are behind Projects like ILR, IIRSA and Universal Database?

It is common knowledge that that International Financial Institutions (IFIs) and their national and regional clones will have us accept that it is a natural law that “the share of natural capital in total wealth tends to fall with income, while the share of intangible capital rises”. Its apparent implication is that the wealth of rich countries lies in their institutions owned by puppet masters but in poor countries the wealth lies in their natural resources which can be monetised by the former. In such a backdrop, monetary and non-monetary interventions of these institutions merit rigorous scrutiny to safeguard the essence of human life, water cycle and the life cycle of Mother Earth. Institutions like UIDAI incarnate themselves as “intangible capital” which owns centralised personal data and data related to natural resources like land and water.

One adviser to India’s Prime Minister, Sam Pitroda, said: “Once you tag people, places, and programmes, then it is easier to really organise information for delivering public services....The starting point for this nationwide network of fiber optics, wireless systems is to connect 0.25 million village councils all over the country....”.10 (Ramanthan, 2011) Such convergence of data and integration of landscapes through ILR, IIRSA and One Belt One Road Initiative of China paves the way for a global economy run by commercial czars and the end of people’s economy and government’s economy. It seems to be laying the foundation of property-based democracy for all times to come through measures like the World Bank’s e-Transform Initiative which is unfolding in 14 developing countries in its first phase.11 In the subsequent phase it will engulf the entire world population. The role of the BRICs Bank and Asia Infrastructure Bank also merits attention given the fact that surveillance is the central pillar of such IFIs.. It is also known that large telecommunications companies are in the middle of a bitter dispute over their role assisting in government wiretapping, and whether they can be sued or be given legal immunity.

The UID programme of India is part of a universal project that intends to document every resident and every entity on the planet and give them a unique identification (UID) number. Such a situation is fraught with both unintended and intended consequences impacting monetary, non-monetary aspects of people’s life and their civil liberties. This gives birth to an unprece-dented information asymmetry which can make inequality eternal.

All the data being accumulated is getting technologically concentrated in the hands of a few ‘trustworthy’ people in the government and few select companies of anonymous beneficial owners. By the time the people will come to know of the inhuman nature of the technological-institutional system, it might be too late and too hard to reverse the trend. A global technology-based social and natural resource control regime seems to be emerging at the behest of the beneficial owners of IFIs, corporations and new institutions with dehuma-nising ramifications and consequences.

Endnotes

1. Mukherjee, Pranab, 2009 (July). Available at https://www.indiabudget.gov.in/ub2009-10/bs/speecha.htm consulted on March 19, 2018.

2. 2012, Analytics—Empowering Operations: The UIDAI Experience, Report by Unique Identification of India, Government of India. Available at https://uidai.gov.in/images/FrontPageUpdates/uid_doc_30012012.pdf consulted on March 19, 2018.

3. Pato, Joseph N. et al., 2010, Biometric Recognition: Challenges and Opportunities, National Research Council of the National Academies, The National Academies Press, Washington, DC. Available at https://dataprivacylab.org/TIP/2011sept/Biometric.pdf consulted on March 17, 2018.

4. Nilekani, Nandan, 2008, Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century, The Penguin Books India (377).

5. De Soto, Hernando, 2011, ‘Who Owns This Mess?’, The International Herald Tribune, December 2. Available at https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/2011/12/02/opinion/magazine-global-agenda-who-owns-this-mess.html, consulted on April 14th, 2018.

6. Cuesta, Jose, 2014. No Food, No Peace, May 29, World Bank. Available on https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/no-food-no-peace, consulted on March 13, 2018.

7. Iyer, Ramaswamy R., 2009. Water and the Laws in India, SAGE Publications India (247).

8. Hamilton, Kirk et al, 2005, ‘Where is the Wealth of Nations?: Measuring Capital for the 21st century’, World Bank, Washington DC. Available at http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/2871714 68323724180/Where-is-the-wealth-of-nations-measuring-capital-for-the-21st-century, consulted on March 13, 2018.

9. Expanding the measure of wealth: indicators of environmentally sustainable development, 1997. Environmentally sustainable development studies and monographs series; no. 17*ESSD Environmentally & Socially Sustainable Development Work in Progress. Washington, DC: World Bank. Available at http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/5715214681 81494326/Expanding-the-measure-of-wealth-indicators-of-environmentally-sustainable-development, consulted on March 13, 2018.

10. Ramanthan, Usha, 2011, ‘The myth of the technology fix’, Seminar. Available at http://www.india-seminar.com/2011/617/617_usha_ramanathan.htm, consulted on March 13, 2018.

11. Miller, Josh, 2010, World Bank and Partners Launch eTransform Initiative to Maximise Technology’s Potential for Development. Available at https://www.devex.com/news/world-bank-and-partners-launch-etransform-initiative-to-maximize-technology-s-potential-for-development-66455, consulted on March 13, 2018.

Dr Gopal Krishna, a public policy and law researcher, is with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Patna Centre. He is also the editor of ToxicsWatch (www.toxicswatch.org)

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