The Cultural Politics of a Natural Resource
Edited by Amita Baviskar
Rohan D’Souza’s piece is about flood control in deltaic Orissa alongside comparisons with similar schemes in the USA and China. The author points out the conflicting views on controlling floods by constructing embankments and dams and how the views swung from seeing flood waters as a calamity to seeing it as a nutrient-rich resource. The history is not quite up-do date as it stops with the 1950s. What lessons does it have for contemporary matters relating to flood control?
Precious little, one would think. Whatever may have the situation earlier matters have changed since the 1850s, from when the author traces the history. Two major changes can be pointed out. One, that nutrients to enrich soils are now increasingly supplied by artificial means and with greater effectiveness and control.
The second and the major change, however, is in the impact of floods. Urban areas and populations (both absolute and in relation to rural areas) have increased dramatically. Now urban areas don’t derive any benefits from floods but bear huge costs. Even in rural areas population densities have increased. What earlier may have been a relatively simple expedient of moving away when waters flooded homes is these days nothing short of a nightmare (even if it were simple to shift in the past it must have been a terrible experience though the author doesn’t discuss this aspect).
In contemporary India we are quite familiar with what happens when floods strike and images of people marooned and forced to spend days and nights on tree-tops under rain with scarcely any food or amenities are grim reminders of the heavy costs that people face. Even the army needs to be called in at many places to rescue people. Unfortunately, waters don’t confine themselves to farm land but enter houses and offices destroying life and damaging possessions. Not only is life at risk but even in rural areas large scale inundation is extremely disruptive of economic, social and educational activities. These days there is more infrastructure (roads, banks, schools), more material possessions (household durable goods, for example) and more equipment (tractors, pumps, engines) whose submergence is hardly an inconsequential matter.
In other words India can’t afford to have large tracts of land inundated with water every year. The author quotes a source that 12-20% of the land area of the country may be flood-prone. If true, it would imply a population at risk in such areas of 100-200 million.
So the notion of floods as a resource is now merely an academic curiosity. This, however, doesn’t and shouldn’t be construed as a plea or a case for building dams or embankments. There are other important aspects to inundation and hydrology that the author doesn’t discuss - the most prominent omission is drainage – and which are critical to understanding, regulating and preventing floods and the terrible consequences they bring.
Most of the papers in the book are not about surfeit but scarcity of water. On groundwater there are two articles – both about Gujarat and oddly enough David Hardiman’s paper relies a lot on the work of the other contributor - Navroz Dubash. Not only does it make the essays repetitive but one also misses perspectives from other states. For example, even communist-ruled West Bengal has fairly extensive groundwater markets.
Both Hardiman and Dubash are critical of and reject work claiming competitive water markets. They don’t, however, demonstrate that prices deviate from competitive outcomes but merely assert that this is so. This is clearly not sufficient.
On the other hand they do claim roles for institutional factors and historical development in water markets. Dubash makes the case that kinship and caste-based understandings play an important role in determining outcomes. Hardiman also claims that in one village (of the 2 studied by Dubash) a price cartel has been at work.
In that particular village the dominant community makes up 64% of the households and owns 97% of the land and 100% of the wells. Hence the thesis that kinship and caste play an important role is a trivial conclusion and not particularly insightful. After all given the ownership pattern is it a surprise that all decisions and outcomes will be internalised within the particular community? And if as Hardiman says they have formed a price cartel it is not clear who the cartel is exploiting or targeting. After all, the cartel is itself the market!!!!
The second village is more diverse and market forces play a greater role and caste and kinship forces seem to be weaker. The thesis thus propounded by these two authors suffers from lack of evidence and seems quite tenuous.
Overall, in the book, several important areas such as pollution, urban water scarcities, waterlogging and salinity of irrigated land are missing and while no book can be expected to be comprehensive this one has a lot of articles of questionable relevance if not questionable scholarship.
Take the editor’s own article. It reads like a diary – a travel diary – of her journey through Jhabua evaluating its watershed programme. With little else apart from her own impressions and of those she met how seriously can one consider it? And one searches in vain for something on water, and then finally the last paragraph of the paper begins “Finally, water………..”
Other essays, for example in the section entitled “Imagining Communities” are not that neglectful of water. However, and in spite of what the editor says in the introduction there is no ecological specificity about these essays. They are not water-distinctive at all, they could have been about any resource, indeed about anything. For example substitute school for the tank in Arun De Souza’s piece and it would still read right. Or if in R Brara’s it were electricity instead of water it would still ‘enlighten”. So whatever be the other merits of these essays they don’t deepen our understanding of water issues.
The redeeming feature of the book is the essay on south Indian tank irrigation by David Mosse. It questions the idea of a pre-colonial ‘ideal’ water and irrigation regime and associated conceptions and roles of the state and the community. But it doesn’t stop there. Instead it also draws implications relevant for our times and can be read as a critique of attempt to recover or recreate the past. One does miss, however, what could have been a dialogue with another contributor with different views on the subject.
The book’s jacket has a colourful water painting titled “Small Pond, Many Fish”. I wonder if the artist is alluding to the billions of humans on planet Earth. Interesting all the fish are of the same size - no small fish, no big fish - and no fish is eating other fish!!! The rest of the landscape is verdant with trees and birds and women around a handpump giving plentiful water. Has the artist not read the book or is she making a point of her own?