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Debating delivery

How effective have been the interventions by government and donor agencies in water management?

By Shefali Kukreti
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

NEOLIBERALISM AND WATER Priya Sangameswaran Orient BlackswanEffective and efficient water management as the key to human survival and development is an urgent global concern. Increasing pressure on water resources has led to interventions by government and international donor agencies in water management. How novel are these interventions? What are the constraints? Are these inbuilt in their operations or are there extraneous factors too? There is now a growing body of work that seeks to answer such questions.

Priya Sangameswaran’s Neoliberalism and Water is a welcome addition to this literature. She begins by quoting geographer Eric Swyngedow. Investigation of the circulation of water as a physical and social process brings to light social, political and economical processes in much the same way as studying circulation of money and capital illustrates the functioning of the capitalist system, the geographer writes. Sangameswaran’s work is an apt illustration of the ways in which the two worlds—­water and the economy—interact.

Neoliberalism and Water tells the story of water sector reforms in Maharashtra in the past 10 years. Such reforms in the country have typically included elements such as participatory irrigation management, devolution of powers to water user groups and greater power to local bodies. But such attempts have been muddied by neo-liberal economic policies that emphasise beneficiaries pay the cost of using water. The policies have also stressed on greater role for the private sector. At the outset, Sangameswaran cautions against a neat fit between the water sector reforms and the neo-liberal economic policies. She instead paints a somewhat messy picture where the reforms co-exist, and often conflict, with the economic policies. Also, significantly, Sangameswaran problematises notions such as community.

THE SOCIO-CULTURAL CONTEXT OF WATER, STUDY OF A GUJARAT VILLAGE Farhat Naz Orient BlackswanThe most important part of the reforms, according to Sangameswaran, is that they are demand-driven. In other words, initiatives for schemes must come from potential beneficiaries—gram panchayats and urban local bodies, for example. She shows how Maharashtra made the village the focus of Jalswaraj schemes. But this was problematic, she argues. For one, the village was never a cohesive unit as held by the officials. And then, the scheme, with its emphasis on supply of piped water as well as payments for it at the individual level, militated against the notion of a community. In an interesting case study from a village in Thane district, Sangameswaran shows that the capacity building aspect of the Jalswaraj scheme here involved what were ostensibly communal lunches. But the people were charged for it. They responded by attending the capacity building programmes, but bringing food from home. The money they saved went in paying the monetary contributions the scheme expected from them.

Sangameswaran is, however, not going into binaries of community and individual. In fact, she shows that in the interplay between the individual and the community, the region often gets sidelined. The move away from the regional rural schemes of the 1990s to the village level means that sources outside the village are ideally not meant to be tapped. This implies that the target village is technologically and economically self-sufficient. The only exception is where villages have a water quality problem and water is brought from long distances. But costs in such cases are high, and given the recent focus on the village as a consumer, there is no provision for cross subsidisation. The author, however, does not completely dismiss the Jalswaraj scheme. She believes village residents have a great room for negotiation with units administering the scheme than with the traditional zilla parishad or panchayat samiti authorities. The community is also the centre of analysis in Farhat Naz’s The Socio-Cultural Context of Water, Study of a Gujarat Village. Using case study of Mathnaa (pseudonym of a village she does not want to name) watershed development project in Gujarat’s Sabarkantha district, Naz tries to understand how socio-cultural factors influence participatory institutions created through community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) projects in rural communities.

Most beneficiaries of village-level initiatives are the historically advantaged groupsCBNRM, in various forms, has a simple and attractive proposition—that communities, defined by their tight spatial boundaries of jurisdiction and responsibilities, and by their distinct and integrated social structure and common interests, can manage natural resources in an efficient, equitable, and sustainable way. The natural resources in question are usually, though not exclusively, through common pool resources.

Naz takes on this proposition. Like Sangameswaran, she criticises the notion of considering community as one composite and homogeneous entity. Diverse groups make a community, participating in various capacities to achieve their respective goals. Recognising communities as hubs of multiple interests and capacities leads to newer insights, which have implications for intervention processes aimed at their development.

Naz shows that in Mathnaa there are clear-cut rules dictating water use. The higher caste—Jadeja and Thakore—do not drink Harijan and Adivasi water. And an Adivasi, who is marginalised in the village, does not drink water from Harijan wells even though the higher castes consider Adivasis and Harijans at the same level of impurity.

In 2005, handpumps, pumps and piped water were to be provided in scheduled caste localities in Mathnaa. For this purpose, a huge concrete water structure was constructed in the area of the village where the Harijans live. This sparked dissent as the numerically dominant Thakores felt that the structure should have been built in their part. An electric pumping motor installed in the structure was stolen after a few days. The cast feud has meant that the structure has no water supply.

When the watershed development project tried to improve groundwater levels by constructing check dams, the upper castes hijacked the management. They dominated every aspect of the project: from selection of watershed committee members to formation of water user groups. Often development agencies overlook the fact that most beneficiaries of small interventions at the village level are the landed and the historically advanta-ged groups. The Mathnaa case study illustrates this. A formal watershed committee ended up being another means for co-opting already existing social inequalities.

In different ways, Neoliberalism and Water and The Socio-Cultural Context of Water address a crucial aspect of efficient delivery of water: justice. That is not purely an academic issue. With water resources becoming scarce, power relations, both traditional and modern, will work to exclude the already displaced. And more significantly, as these two books show, the two forms of power relations today are not mutually exclusive. Policymakers and ngos would do well to read the arguments of Sangameswaran and Naz.

Shefali Kukreti is in the Indian Administrative Service. The views expressed in this piece are her’s and not that of her employer

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