Here is a short segue I request you to indulge me:
In 1998, the Delhi Jal (Water) Board (DJB) had approached the World Bank for a loan. The World Bank suggested that the DJB hire a consultant to help make recommendations for improvements, and even offered a $2.5 million loan to the DJB to do that same. Over the course of the next seven years, the World Bank agreed to provide a loan to the Delhi Jal Board for $150 million dollars for the privatization of water supply to the capital city. What made the saga intriguing was the insistence of the World Bank and its interference to ensure that Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) got selected as the consultant to the project. Thousands of pages made available as a result of RTI (Right to Information) queries filed by activists, it emerged that despite PwC failing to make the cut in the technical and financial rounds, the World Bank insisted on changes to the evaluation criteria, that the marks were given by one particular member of the evaluation committee be excluded from the final evaluation so as to favour PwC, and so on.
What most people were unwilling to put on record was that PwC had on its payrolls the son of a powerful person in the government of India and who had long-standing ties to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Thanks to India’s legendary bureaucratic inertia and apathy, the privatization of water distribution in the nation’s capital never came to fruition. Else the cost of water in the city of Delhi would have increased an estimated five times.
Why is this relevant to the review of Yasha Levine’s (@YashaLevine) book, “Oligarch Valley“? Because both are tales of corruption and collusion between big business, politicians, and, in Oligarch Valley’s case – the judiciary. In Levine’s account lies a cautionary tale for those in India willing to listen.
Oligarch Valley, in case you didn’t know, is the “area along the [Interstate] 5 from Silicon Valley to Los Angeles County [and] is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the United States.” That by itself is neither here nor there, and certainly not half as interesting as the question – “who owns this land.” The answer – “a small group of billionaires who can trace their roots back to the landholdings of America’s most notorious criminal visionaries and syndicates” – leads to the rest of the fascinating book.
In 2009, California was suffering from a drought, and the “local water agency was forced to replenish its dwindling supply by buying $73 million worth of water from a Central Valley family farm.” The farm in question was owned by a real estate development company called Sandridge Partners, owned by the Vidovich family, which had received $11 million in subsidies since 1995! Which leads to the next question – water is a public good. How could it be sold for outrageous sums to the public?
To understand how California’s water theft came about, you have to travel back in time a century and meet a person named Harry Chandler. He was the son-in-law of the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Harry Gray Otis. Harry was an unapologetic racist, and used the LA Times to pitch the city of angels to “eager Midwesterners, advertising Los Angeles as the “white spot of America”.” His greater claim to notoriety lies in how he engineered the scam more than a century ago:
“In the early 1900s, Harry Chandler mounted a shrill campaign persuading Los Angeles residents that their city was running out of water and then pushed people into supporting a costly bond measure to build an aqueduct from the Sierra Nevada mountains over 200 miles away, only to divert the aqueduct away from the city and into the San Fernando Valley just north of L.A. … He headed up a secretive syndicate that included railroad baron Henry Huntington. This syndicate snapped up massive chunks of land in the Valley on the cheap before anyone realized the aqueduct was not going to L.A. … Desert land that had been purchased for $3 million was worth an estimated $120 overnight. The syndicate made a huge pile of money divvying up the land into several towns, building railroads, trams and selling land parcel by parcel to tens of thousands of eager investors and would-be residents.”
If this sounds at least a little bit familiar to you, the movie “Chinatown” was about this saga. In case you further wonder why no one made any noise about all this, the answer is fairly obvious – “The whole city, from police to the courts, was sewn up tight. Any real critics were either paid off or quietly disappeared.”
Another investment of the syndicate that, however, did not pay off as quickly as they thought was Tejon Ranch – about 425 square miles of land – “Ten times the size of San Francisco, it is considered the largest single piece of private property left in California.” At one point, Harry Chandler bought out the syndicate’s stake in Tejon Ranch.
And Tejon Ranch is where the rest of our water story continues.
“in the 1960s, … Governor Pat Brown … successfully pushed to build the California Aqueduct, a massive concrete river over 700 miles long that could suck fresh river water from the southern edge of the San Francisco Bay and pump it all the way down to Southern California. The Chandler family used all of its political clout and media muscle to boost the project. The reason was simple: the aqueduct would traverse the length of Oligarch Valley and run right through the Chandler family’s Tejon estate. The water would enrich all the big landowners in its path with nearly free water—the $3 billion bill would be picked up by California taxpayers. But that’s not how the project was sold to gullible California voters. Governor Brown and his Oligarch Valley backers launched a campaign to scare Southern Californian suburb dwellers into believing that their water supply was on the verge of being totally exhausted. They sold the California Aqueduct as a way to diversify the over-tapped water supply of urban districts.”
Does the modus operandi sound familiar to you? I would be disappointed if it did not.
Water stress and outright scarcity is a reality across most of India. Matters are fast reaching crisis point. Like standard operating procedure in India, only once matters reach crisis point does action take place. Money is seen as the only solution to the crisis. Obscene sums of money are thrown at the problem, channelled towards solutions that achieve the end of enriching select businessmen, politicians, and bureaucrats more than solving the said crisis.
For the second story, we look at another respectable citizen of the so-called Oligarch Valley – Harris Ranch.
It is located about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and is California’s largest beef “producer.” Every year, it kills 250,000 cows (that would be approximately two cows every minute, every hour, every day of the year) to make into beef products.
How does Harris Ranch describe itself? A bucolic paradise for its cows, that live happily in its pens and even more happily lay down their lives – “cattle are cared for by cowboys who ride the pens every day to ensure the health and well-being of every animal in their care. Shade has been installed and all cattle are fed in large, well-maintained, outdoor pens that are equipped with an automated sprinkler system to reduce dust and cool cattle during the summer months.”
The reality? [bold emphasis mine] “They are huddled together in a cooling sea of excrement. Most of them are black, some are brown and there are plenty of calves. It’s pushing 100 degrees now, but summer temps are consistently over that in Oligarch Valley. The sprinklers, which are meant to cool the cows, have turned the ground into a vast puddle of liquefied shit, piss and mud.
Right next to the feedlot is a gigantic pool containing tens of thousands of gallons decomposing, liquefied cow manure. It festers for a time before being shovelled out with a tractor and dumped on a plot of adjacent land.
Living in this toxic danger zone— this giant disease incubator—it’s no wonder the cows have to be constantly juiced on antibiotics, creating an accidental R&D lab for antibiotic-resistant superbugs.”
The third story will also be familiar to many urban Indians, especially those in Bangalore. Once known as the city of lakes, most of Bangalore’s lakes have been killed and swanky apartment complexes and high-rise commercial buildings stand over dried lakebeds. The lakes that are not yet dead are being killed off, slowly, surely, systematically.
With that preamble, let’s dig into our third story and travel to Lake Tulare. It was, at one point, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the United States and the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, covering an area of almost 700 square miles.
“Lake Tulare used to be a sight to behold. During the summer months it would all but disappear, but then in winter and spring it would grow to an immense size as it filled with runoff from the Sierra Nevada mountains.”
“Today it is mostly fields and a sprawling new prison complex, the largest and most violent state prison in California where it was revealed by the Los Angeles Times, guards regularly staged gladiator fights between prisoners for sport.”
What happened? In the 19th century, when ranchers arrived in the valley, they saw the lake as a threat to “prime farm and grazing land,” and started containing it with dykes and channels. This was all legal and was called “reclamation” of swampland, but with one caveat – the federal Reclamation Act capped such free reclaimed swampland given to farmers to 1000 acres per farmer.
“So the growers hit up on a novel idea: they’d pretend like they weren’t damming a natural lake, but simply erecting barriers to prevent a natural disaster. The
And that’s exactly what they did, despite opposition from Congress and two presidents: FDR and Harry Truman.”
Read this short book not only to learn about California’s Oligarch Valley but also the parallels that can be drawn with India. Where there is an opportunity, there is money, and where there is money, there is corruption. In many ways, history does repeat itself, albeit with a displacement of geography. What happened in the United States, a century or more back, is happening in India. Good or bad depends whether you are on or off the gravy train.