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A Plea for Unpopular Wisdom

A Plea for Unpopular Wisdom Jasveen Jairath As an independent and bold voice from south Asia, Ramaswamy R Iyer

A Plea for Unpopular Wisdom

Jasveen Jairath

s an independent and bold voice from south Asia, Ramaswamy R Iyer’s book presents a challenge to received water wisdom that is manufactured in persistent defiance of reality and exported worldwide by vested interests. Abstaining from rhetoric and polemics, Iyer punctures the complacence generated by rationalisations of supply-side marketoriented water discourse with a gentle and sober touch that belies the depth of his critical observations. A quietly defiant book – it is written with a passion that is currently not in fashion.

Presenting an obstinate challenge to global efforts to hijack water discourse through aggressive marketing of the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) paradigm, the book exposes inconsistencies in the dominant water ideology that cut deep and sharp at the very core. Iyer’s book attempts a comprehensive and consolidated presentation of critique of mainstream water discourse and practices that warrants a “plea for sanity” through responsible water decisions and practices – a plea based on analyses that is objective without being neutral. Highlighting fallacies in the popular water thinking that are rooted in an equally untenable but prevalent understanding of what constitutes “development” and pointing alternative approaches that are not only possible but also necessary constitute the hallmark of the book. Written in a lucid style, the book holds the interest of the expert and lay reader alike and its simplicity and clarity of expression do not compromise depth of substantial content and analytics. It reaches out to a wide spectrum of audience taking the message of water wisdom beyond the narrow confines of water professionals that is significantly a need of the hour.

In contrast to the mainstream perspective that focuses on supply-side constraints and advocates regulating water consumption through market forces Iyer identifies

book review

Towards Water Wisdom: Limits, Justice, Harmony by Ramaswamy R Iyer; Sage Publications, New Delhi, India, 2007; pp 271, Rs 350.

water crises as one of “gross mismanagement and rapacity”. He argues strongly against reducing water as a life-sustaining element to a tradable commodity and thereby discounts strategies of privatisation and commercialisation for development and utilisation of water especially for domestic consumption. The encouragement given to water-intensive land use in agriculture and lifestyle in urban areas through policy environment that stimulates additional water demand needs to be reversed. Water consumption needs to be limited by available supply even if those limits change over time. This is in contrast to the prevalent practice whereby water supplies struggle to keep pace with an unbridled and unplanned increase in demand.

Distorted Policies and Decisions

Regulation of water use leads one to questions of water governance. Iyer argues that failure of governance in the water sector has inspired only piecemeal and random measures that are focused more on administration and management through various kinds of water sector reforms. These have been seriously inadequate to deal with “...pressures of the rich and the politically well-connected; powerlessness to deal effectively with those who violate the law or bend it or circumvent the procedure; improper directions from the political level; …pervasive presence of corruption….” Clearly, various reform measures fail to address these underlying perversions that defeat any attempt at “just and wise” water actions. Iyer is very upfront in pointing out prevalent “politicisation” of water issues that occurs “…when political calculations tend to influence and distort policies and decisions and render rationality difficult…”. Distinguishing between “need” and “demand” for water he emphasises inequity in distribution of water where basic livelihood

needs of the majority are not provided for in spite of availability of water to which they are denied access.

Scarcities experienced due to such distortions in the access to water are however voiced aloud to rationalise policies and actions for augmenting supplies – that are again subject to asymmetric appropriation. In addition he points to the human-induced factors that generate artificial scarcities through decisions and practices that lead to destruction of fresh water sources via pollution, etc, on the one hand and adoption of water-intensive lifestyles by the powerful on the other. The majority, in the mean time, are excluded from access to water based on unequal political empowerment. Water augmenting large water projects that are rationalised as a response to water crises such as the interlinking of rivers (ILR) not only fail to deal with the basic bottleneck but also end up aggravating water problems as illustrated by Iyer through a brief overview of the issues. Conflicts arise due to struggle over control of resources not warranted by low quantum but accentuated due to uncontrolled and unaccountable use of water. Iyer is at pains to emphasise that while this is presented as supplyside crises it is in fact a manifestation of resource mismanagement and rapacious demand by the powerful.

This is illustrated through extensive survey of water conflicts at a macro level between countries and between states in India. Iyer’s personal involvement in some of these conflict resolution attempts gives him the ideal vantage position to lay threadbare diagnoses of conflicts and processes of conflict resolution with varying degrees of success. He analyses international water sharing experiences ranging from the Indus treaty, Baghliar dam, treaties with Nepal and Bangladesh, to domestic interstate river water disputes between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over the Cauvery waters, to Punjab’s unilateral abrogation of water commitments to

february 16, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly



neighbouring states. This section forms a compact whole and provides an insight into the processes of conflict resolution by wading through technicalities that are conditioned by political constraints. Iyer opines that with better water and land management, the “need” for water may decline thereby reducing pressures that lead to conflicts. Strategies of integrated river basin management or river basin organisations (RBOs) as more effective means of resolving water use across sectors, areas and classes carry with them the dangers of centralised control and “gigantism” of technological structures that may disallow the emergence of a more rational bottom-up water planning based on prioritising concerns of equity and livelihood security for the majority in the basin.

Following from this he advocates the need to redefine “development” from the present understanding of production for unbridled consumption to one based on needs of sustainable reproduction that makes fewer demands on energy, material and water. The stand is not antidevelopment per se but only against what he calls “pathological” development that makes different constituencies pay the price for the benefit of a select few who control decisions and govern their execution.

Further, in this context Iyer discusses the role of markets and privatisation as a strategy of efficient management of water use in the same sector or across sectors. Three points are noted: one, while public sector water services are admittedly inefficient and often anti-poor, the alternative is not necessarily privatisation of service delivery; two, water rights is not the same as right to water that is interpreted as right to water use. While the latter is part of right to life and compels recognition, the former implies endowing property rights wherein water can be treated as tradable commodity with adverse implications of commercialising use of a life line water; three, water pricing as instrument of inducing efficient water use has limited viability since “pricing out of any group is not acceptable”.

Uniform Code on Water

It is not that Iyer says something that has not been said earlier. What is significant is that he lends the weight of his position to

Economic & Political Weekly

february 16, 2008

favour publicly accountable and socially responsible stands on controversial issues such as privatisation of water services. In a similar vein and drawing on his rich experience of formulating earlier drafts of the national water policy for India, he argues for the need for a national water law and national water policy – not with a view to promote centralisation – but to favour application of a uniform code on important issues such as legal status of public water, common property source such as groundwater, de-linking groundwater from ownership of land, etc. Multiplicity of policies and laws that often work at cross-purposes pre-empt any systematic planning and system of governance.

Mainstream Discourse

Reviewing some of the currently popular terminology used in mainstream water discourse critically, Iyer highlights some misgivings about their conceptual content. Treating water as an economic commodity creates opportunity for commercial considerations to prevail over water for livelihood; IWRM and integrated basin management carry within themselves “...seeds of gigantisms and centralisation and fail to incorporate adequately elements of decentralised, local, community led planning and management…”. Integration is seen as built up by “adding” new elements – it remains an eclectic multidisciplinary approach as opposed to a holistic one that starts with an interdisciplinary conceptualisation. He questions the usefulness of embedding the discourse in IWRM, suggesting that we ignore it and focus instead on “…exploring possibilities of making them (policies, laws, regulation, etc) work through better governance, education, innovative methods, and mobilisation of civil society...”

Capacity building for better water management, currently in vogue, focuses more on skill development and not on transforming our understating of water that is required and more challenging. Terms such as “water for nature”, “for environment”, “minimum flows”, Iyer argues, are based on a distorted starting point of understanding water. He points out that we take water from nature – we do not allocate water for different roles that it plays in nature. Water is highly integrated with nature a priori. We impinge on and disturb this integration and need to minimise it rather than perceive it as a disconnected pool from which we need to partition. Publicprivate partnership, which is currently promoted as a modus operandi for development of water services is yet another euphemism that diverts attention from the regulatory role of public sector necessitated by compulsions of profitability of private agencies with little evidence of partnering.

As the voice of sanity amidst madness, Iyer’s volume is a welcome and bold contribution that does not hesitate to take a principled stand on many controversial issues and water actors at the risk of unpopularity with the powers that be. Warning against the prevalent “sick” and “destructive” development trajectory driven by mindless technological change where demands have surged far beyond livelihood needs, he advocates the need for a mass campaign for shifting to wiser water practices with prominent involvement of civil society and laudably notes a record of positive experiences. While many of his observations have been made earlier his thrust on the role of social movements and “demand restraint” as distinct from the populist “demand management” that follows is well worth the reiteration. Deeply entrenched and unique ways of thinking on water need sustained barrage of counter views to encourage acceptance of critiques. Each paradigm carries with it its own set of political constituencies and vested interests. Iyer’s book is a contribution to the political challenge of not only the dominant water paradigm but also of the entire consensus on what constitutes development.

Political Nature of Water

The following issues however need to be re-examined – albeit from a critical perspective: Iyer’s critique of supply-side app roach while oft-repeated and wellplaced needs further development so as to avoid falling into the spurious dichotomy of “supply versus demand” discussion found in mainstream literature. The critique thus has to be linked to presentation of water scarcity in popular discourse


that rationalises augmentation of water supplies and diverts attention away from conditions of utilisation. Excessive utilisation by a few ensures its scarcity for the majority and that legitimises further augmentation. Supply-side biases and asymmetric demand in water sector are thus two sides of the same coin and not mutually exclusive.1

He advocates approaches of “decentralised”, “community led”, “local”, “small scale”, etc, as opposed to “large scale” “gigantic” “centralised”, etc, thereby confusing “small” with “decentralised” that is amenable to community control – and therefore something desirable. This is also a popular misconception that needs to be contested. To begin with, the degree of centralisation is not a matter of scale but of direction of control of decisions. Instances of small-scale irrigation schemes that function as elements of a top-down centralised structure can be cited such as deep bore wells, water users associations, etc. On the other hand it is perfectly possible to conceptualise a large number of independent atomic units that are networked to form a large-scale institutional structure with its systems of governance for macro level regulation while allowing local decisions in hands of local actors. In fact a large number of decentralised units, that are linked only vertically to a central command without horizontally networking, can reinforce centralisation of authority through constituting a one-way conduit for power flow from the top. The reverse is not tenable as an individual decentralised unit is powerdeficient compared to the centre. The existence of large number of small-scale units generates the illusion of political decentralisation while in fact legiti mising centralised control.

Secondly, while local specificities need to be incorporated in water plans, longterm planning can scarcely be confined to the local level. Given the basin level linkages of water it is necessary for “local” systems to integrate with social and technical parameters of the surrounding basin. Hydrological basin therefore does constitute a useful unit for water planning. Democratic processes of participatory planning can pre-empt dangers of centralised/top-down plans. Thirdly, identifying fundamental problem of water as one of “mismanagement” one falls into the trap of accepting managerial solutions for rectifying basic malaise underlying water problems in the region. This constitutes one of the basic weaknesses of the IWRM paradigm. Is it possible to overcome iniquitous access to water merely through proper management of canal water systems, watershed development, water supply to slums in cities? Clearly these are issues of political monopolisation of available water resources/services and exclusions of weaker communities from access – in spite of availability of water. These points are strongly highlighted in Iyer’s book where he categorically acknowledges the political nature of water conflicts and correctly emphasises the role of mass movements and campaigns for bringing about change that are clearly political actions.

Paradoxically, he slips back into proposing mismanagement as the fundamental obstacle. Again this is not to deny the pertinent relevance of managerial issues only to question their context in water discourse.

Fourthly, while emphasis on better governance in water sector is welcome it is instructive to note that governance structures (as the decision-making machinery) are not politically neutral. It is not a question of replacing bad policies or laws by good ones. Governance mechanisms represent the sectional interests of the influential constituency and legitimise hidden agendas that reflect their interest. Water approaches, plans, projects, technological choices, policies and laws reflect priorities and biases in favour of such exclusive power groups. This is not to argue that struggle for more responsible plans and policies should not be carried out but that it should be done with awareness that this entails a clash of objective interests and is not likely to be done through a mere appeal to reason and morality. Political pressure will need to be mobilised to deal strategically with such recognised clash of interest to redress imbalances in governance of water – lest we relapse into drawing up of wish-lists of what “should be” but does not happen due to “lack of political will” – the most vacuous escape route of unaccountable intellectualism.

Critiques of supply-side water perspective that argue instead for “demand management” interventions again misplace the basic malaise. The issue is not of controlling “water use”2 but of relocating it through addressing inequity in access to water as argued above. Merely appealing for demand restraint will be ineffective. Secondly, demand management as advocated in mainstream literature refers only to assessment of future demands based on extrapolations of current consumption patterns and possibility of controlling this through market mechanisms. It does not attempt change of water consumption across sectors that reflect livelihood needs of the majority.

Finally, excessive demand and consumption is a feature of the capitalist mode of production that is based on production for sake of production and not need satisfaction. Technological change is the mechanism of competitive capitalism for increasing production ad infinitum. These are essential features of capitalism. To single out consumption and technology as the bane of modern system a la’ Iyer is to accept capitalism and find faults with partial features. What is implied in Iyer’s critique is indeed a problem with the structure of capitalist mode of production without, however, stating it as such.

Iyer recognises that IWRM as an advance over the preceding approaches in water that focused more on engineering aspects and dealt with water in fragmented mode. However, his reluctance to accept the new framework for water analyses is based on his suspicion that the integration being proposed lends itself to gigantism and centralised structures – ignoring co-option of diversity of local water management practices. While such scepticism is wellfounded it needs further probing.

Being Wary of IWRM

First, in view of the aggressive marketing of IWRM perspective the world over by donors, governments, international financial institutions, water networks such as global water partnership (GWP), world water council (WWC), capacity-building for integrated water resource management (Capnet), etc, it is important to deliberate on possible motivations for the same. Why has the viewpoint gained such

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currency during the last decade even though ideas of integration were well known earlier as also noted by Iyer? What is the political agenda underlying this massive thrust to steer the global water discourse? [Jairath 2005]. Secondly, IWRM still focuses on management and not development of water resources. Perceptions and solutions proposed are managerial and ignore the political nature of water. Is it possible to ensure water security to the deprived merely through technical and managerial “integration” of additional factors than hitherto included in realm of water resource development? Only the naïve and deliberately innocent can affirm the same. Thirdly, lack of co ordination and inte gration in water sector did throw up highly segmented water resource plans, projects, institutions and uses that contributed to the present crises in water.

However, can the reverse be argued that a consideration of “more” parameters will resolve the crises? “Modelling exercises” for water planning would have ensured that long ago, had that been the case. Do all violations of iniquitous water access happen because the culprits are not enlightened about IWRM! Is the ILR, a flagship project of the country any reflection of integration with its focus exclusively on managing surface flows? Is IWRM a magic wand that no one really understands but believes that its touch will put a stop to all plunder and violation of water resources going on currently through an unsustainable water-intensive land use and lifestyle patterns? Why has the mainstream intelligentsia become such a slave to something they are utterly confused about? Fourthly, it may be noted that “integration” of any social unit – an organisation, a family, a corporate structure, a country, etc – is a politically neutral structure. It does however lend itself to centralised control as Iyer has correctly pointed out.

How does IWRM prevent such a situation? By keeping silent and allowing it? Or by facilitating further control over water resources by the established powers that be and not providing the panacea as is being popularly projected? It is in its role as an ideological strategy of control that we have to be most wary about it. Iyer’s scepticism in this context is a timely warning of the wise.



1 “…Generating an absolute sense of water scarcity becomes politically expedient as it legitimises the demand for augmentation of resources as opposed to reallocation of existing quantum. Advocacy of such concentration of supply-side interventions to the exclusion of considerations of access and control over water supply thus augmented is heigh tened – irrespective of past failures to alleviate water deprivation of precisely those whose needs have motivated many such interventions. Such efforts to enhance water supplies leaving intact the underlying power relations that enable discriminatory appropriation of water resources end up reinforcing existing inequities by generating scarcities for most through excessive use and control by few. Ironically therefore – arguments based on alleviation of water scarcity motivate actions that further consolidate generation of scarcities – case of the cause legitimising its own negation in practice…” [Jairath 2005].

2 “Demand” may be a misleading term – plunder may be more appropriate.


Jairath, J (2005): ‘Advocacy of Water Scarcity – Leakages in the Argument’, paper presented at workshop on Scarcity and the Politics of Allocation at Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK, June 6-7.

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