Book review: Water: Perspectives, Issues, Concerns

This is a work of encyclopaedic scope. The subjects it deals with range from an in-depth study of the treatment of water in the Indian Constitution to an examination of the degree of success of different treaties on the sharing of waters between countries in South Asia. It devotes considerable space to the large dams controversy and the changing international perspective on the issue as well as the interplay of interest groups in India and the resultant hardening of attitudes. Additionally, the book reviews recent examinations of the likely future nature of the water problem in India and comments on the inter-linking of rivers issue. This vast canvas is the consequence of a sustained and painstaking study spread over years...

 
By Kanchan Chopra
Published: Thursday 31 July 2003

-- Water: Perspectives, Issues, Concerns Ramaswamy R Iyer Sage Publications 2003

This is a work of encyclopaedic scope. The subjects it deals with range from an in-depth study of the treatment of water in the Indian Constitution to an examination of the degree of success of different treaties on the sharing of waters between countries in South Asia. It devotes considerable space to the large dams controversy and the changing international perspective on the issue as well as the interplay of interest groups in India and the resultant hardening of attitudes. Additionally, the book reviews recent examinations of the likely future nature of the water problem in India and comments on the inter-linking of rivers issue. This vast canvas is the consequence of a sustained and painstaking study spread over years. Readers will recognize that parts of the volume place into overall perspective the author's contributions of over a decade.

The present reviewer found the section on riparian treaties most informative. It is argued that the relative success of the Indus water treaty, despite the otherwise confrontationist relations between India and Pakistan, illustrates that co-operation on water is possible, even between not-so friendly countries. Recent improvements in the same context in relation to Nepal and Bangladesh are also described in depth. On the issue of inter-state disputes, in particular over the Cauvery river, the picture is not as optimistic. As a well-documented history of these disputes, the account cannot be faulted. Further, the author holds the view that present constitutional arrangements with respect to water provide ample scope for the state to initiate action and spell policies, both at the central and state levels as deemed necessary.

However, the National Water Policy 2002 comes in for a good dose of criticism, and rightly so. The policy does not recognize the changes in approach to natural resource management that are now a part of enlightened policy the world over: it does not even take note of the constitutional changes in India after the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution and their implications for water management. It refuses to take cognizance of the changed approach to watershed management brought about by the 1994 guidelines.

The study provides adequate documentation. One would have liked it to go further and comment on the nature of the Indian polity in the light of these forward and back movements with respect to land and water policy. Are we witness to a genetically programmed constraint to growth in a large, democratic country? Or is this a constraint that reflects the collective will to accept slow rates of change in the interest of the articulate political classes? Other expressions of this are in the lack of will to reduce fertilizer or power subsidies to farmers, the continuing profligacy in unproductive public expenditure and the fascination with mega projects that seems to pervade governmental thinking, in particular as elections approach. Furthermore, there is scope here for political analysts to study the evolution of the state as an asocial institution and the reasons why certain ministries dealing with engineering projects seem to be slowest to accept change.

Towards the end, the author also looks into the future scenario with respect to water requirements and supplies by comparing three studies which have produced differing results. He concludes the studies arrive at similar positions of "a cautious but not alarmist view of the future". This is not entirely correct; the studies are conducted for different time periods and say different things. To say that there is no cause for alarm upto 2020 if certain kinds of interventions are undertaken is not the same as to make the same statement for the period upto 2050. Also, the corrective investments are identified in one case and their cost in terms of investments required outlined. It amounts to only 1.1 per cent of India's gdp at 1997-98 prices, provided of course, the appropriate institutional changes are brought into effect. A comparison with the massive investments now contemplated in inter-linking rivers would have been educative.

The style of the book sometimes becomes dilatory and repetitive. A rearrangement of the matter in sections dealing with similar themes would have done away with the need for much cross-referencing. Having said that, it remains uncontested that the volume is a veritable storehouse of knowledge for scholars interested in the political economy of water resource management in South Asia.

Kanchan Chopra is professor, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi

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