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Water Politics

The Politics and Poetics of Water: Naturalising Scarcity in Western India by Lyla Mehta; Orient Longman, Delhi, 2005; AMITA BAVISKAR Despite being as important as caste in terms of how people identify themselves, sometimes even more so, the region has been a neglected category of social analysis. As an enduring cultural formation, the region requires a closer attention. Its internal configurations and the role it plays in the larger geographical imagination of the nation need to be studied more carefully. Kutch is one such region: its distinctive topography and ecology give rise to unique modes of living, language and cuisine that mark it off from its parent state Gujarat. People from this region, many of them extremely successful in business and now spread across the world, identify themselves as Kutchi and not as Gujarati. Yet Kutch figures in the collective imagination of Gujarat only in terms of lack. It is a region defined by aridity, where starving cattle collapse on cracked earth and people migrate in droves in search of water. Such imagery was used to great effect in making the case for the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP), the dam on the Narmada that its supporters declare to be Gujarat

Water Politics

The Politics and Poetics of Water: Naturalising Scarcity in Western India

by Lyla Mehta; Orient Longman, Delhi, 2005; pp 396, Rs 695.

AMITA BAVISKAR

D
espite being as important as caste in terms of how people identify themselves, sometimes even more so, the region has been a neglected category of social analysis. As an enduring cultural formation, the region requires a closer attention. Its internal configurations and the role it plays in the larger geographical imagination of the nation need to be studied more carefully. Kutch is one such region: its distinctive topography and ecology give rise to unique modes of living, language and cuisine that mark it off from its parent state Gujarat. People from this region, many of them extremely successful in business and now spread across the world, identify themselves as Kutchi and not as Gujarati. Yet Kutch figures in the collective imagination of Gujarat only in terms of lack. It is a region defined by aridity, where starving cattle collapse on cracked earth and people migrate in droves in search of water. Such imagery was used to great effect in making the case for the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP), the dam on the Narmada that its supporters declare to be Gujarat’s lifeline, a claim that persists in spite of the comprehensive critique compiled by the anti-dam movement and independent researchers and activists.

Manufactured Scarcity

The Politics and Poetics of Scarcity focuses on the part unwittingly played by Kutch in legitimising the SSP. In this book, Mehta argues that, in the pro-dam discourse, Kutch was represented as a region stricken by drought, which demanded a drastic intervention to improve the situation. The SSP was promoted as the only answer to the region’s water problems. This, according to her, was an instance of “manufactured scarcity”, where a (false) narrative about scarcity, its causes and consequences, and a solution was created. “The book… contends that scarcity is often ‘manufactured’ to suit the interests of powerful actors” (p 9). “Manufactured scarcity” suggests that problem is natural and not human-induced, and universal rather than cyclical (ibid).

As against the dam-builders’ promotion of manufactured scarcity, there is the scarcity “lived and experienced” by Kutchis. Mehta argues that while the region is indeed marked by a paucity of rainfall, its people have devised intricate mechanisms for coping with lived/experienced scarcity and uncertainty. Drought is understood to be a cyclical phenomenon, not a linear slide into hardship and impoverishment. Bad years are followed by good ones; people who leave also return to plant new crops and graze their livestock on the rejuvenated Banni grasslands. There are traditional sources of water – wells, ‘virdas’ (holes in dried river beds) and tanks, now supplemented by government-funded tankers and pipelines, which sustain villagers through the year. However, the “culture of resilience” has been undermined by state intervention and a “culture of dependency” has set in. Despite decades of expenditure under the drought prone areas programme (DPAP), water scarcity remains severe and yet people look only to the government for ameliorative action.

Flawed Policies

Mehta argues that state policies, programmes and projects have worsened the water situation. Dams in the upper reaches of Kutch’s rivers have reduced the flow of freshwater, causing salt water to enter farther into the Rann. Subsidies have accelerated the extraction of groundwater by the well-to-do and the water table has dropped precipitously. Caste-class disparities are more marked as rajputs, the dominant landowners, have prospered as result of growing cash crops irrigated by tubewells. Gender inequalities in the villages have intensified as women strain to fetch water. The water supplied through pipes and tankers is not fit for drinking. The fights that regularly break out around these irregularly supplied sources reflect how social strife has increased. Thus, in this arid region, water scarcity has been amplified by anthropogenic factors, in particular vitiated by “structural inequalities and dominant discourses” (p 322). “[T]he naturalisation of scarcity at the discursive level leads to its exacerbation at the physical level”, adversely affecting the lives of the rural poor (ibid, emphasis in original).

A somewhat convoluted style of presentation complicates what is otherwise a fairly straightforward and persuasive argument: water scarcity in Kutch has deepened because of flawed policies that have failed to regulate burgeoning demand; limited supplies of water are grabbed by the rich and powerful. Instead of promoting greater equity and sustainability, the government is building a costly project that will not address the needs of the region’s poor. These processes are legimitised through state and popular discourses of scarcity that are at odds with “objective reality”. Planners need to overcome their “dryland blindness” and recognise that bringing water over hundreds of miles will not transform Kutch into Punjab. The region needs site- and context-specific solutions.

Economic and Political Weekly March 17, 2007

The call for planning that is sensitive to local specificities of ecology and equity is one that most readers will endorse. However, Mehta’s village ethnography shows that such initiatives are unlikely to come from the villagers who are either poor, oppressed and vulnerable, or rich and disinterested in collective action for public benefit (pp 152-53). On the other hand, the state, politicians and bureaucrats are all depicted as corrupt or in thrall of the megaproject mode of intervention. Who will break this impasse and lead the way? A discussion of the small-scale rural initiatives supported by NGOs such as Utthan-Mahiti, Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme and others who work in the region, would have helped explain how workable solutions to water scarcity (and the related questions of livelihoods) are being devised and refined.

Across the Indian Ocean

Also, a more detailed consideration of Kutch’s outwardly oriented culture, its history of sea-faring trade across the Indian Ocean, would have illuminated how the region could overcome its biophysical constraints (large tracts of arid and saline land) and turn its proximity to maritime routes into a “natural resource”. Such an analysis would have strengthened the author’s argument that scarcity is a matter of perception; it would also have allowed the book to provide a more nuanced view of village economy, showing how Kutchi villages are shaped as much by global processes and relations as by local circumstances. Given the importance of migration and trade in shaping Kutchi identity, it is odd to find the region described as “insular” (pp 66, 184). A broader consideration of the resource flows created and harnessed by Kutchis, of which water is one part, would also correct the impression that Kutch is merely at the receiving end of other people’s (notably Gujarat state’s) projects and fantasies, and has little agency and consciousness of its own.

In the prevailing climate of economic liberalisation, it is clear that social welfare and ecological security are being sacrificed for the sake of skyrocketing growth and profit for some. As an element essential to life, precious and finite, water has to be protected from predatory capitalism whether in the form of state or corporate usurpation. The challenge before us is daunting: neo-liberalism normalises social inequality even as it celebrates consumerism and vaulting material aspirations. As rising demands and expectations lead to increased competition over scarce resources, the rural poor in Kutch and elsewhere have to struggle even harder to stake their rightful claim to water. At this crucial juncture, Mehta’s attempt to critically examine how the discourse of scarcity is cynically deployed to “make water flow uphill towards power” is a welcome intervention.

It is unfortunate, though, that the book is poorly edited and littered with numerous errors. That an academic press of Orient Longman’s repute should publish a book with sentences like “The dialogic computer as I wrote this book” (p 56), factual errors (Bhuj, Kutch’s capital is stated to be in the north whereas it lies in the south-west), and spell rajputs as ‘rjputs’ through most of the text (on the ground that this distinguishes them from Jadejas) is strange indeed. More stringent editing would have caught these and other typos and perhaps we would even have found out what the reference to “poetics” in the book’s title means.

EPW

Email: baviskar1@vsnl.com

Centre for the Study of Culture and Society

(affiliated to Manipal University and Kuvempu University) invites applications for its Ph.D. in Cultural Studies

Eligibility: A Master’s degree from a recognized university with 55% marks or its grade equivalent. 5% relaxation will be allowed in the case of SC/ST students.

Applications should include a covering letter and the following documents: a) the applicant’s curriculum vitae, b) copies of mark-sheets of undergraduate and graduate degrees, c) a writing sample (no more than 15 pages or approx. 4000 words), and d) a two-page research proposal.

Broad research areas at CSCS include: gender studies, law and culture, education, film and new media, history and philosophy of culture. Applicants with other interests are also encouraged to apply.

The application and supporting documents should be sent in an envelope marked “Ph.D. Programme” to reach

The Administrative Officer, Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, 466, 9th Cross, First Block, Jayanagar, Bangalore – 560011, no later than April 30, 2007. Shortlisted candidates will be called for an oral interview in the first week of June 2007. Registration: The Ph.D candidates will be registered either with Manipal University or with Kuvempu University, Karnataka. Financial Support: Selected candidates will be given fellowships/financial assistance for a period of one year. CSCS also offers a one-year Diploma in Cultural Studies. For further details, write to us or visit the CSCS website at www.cscsban.org

Economic and Political Weekly March 17, 2007

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