The politics of water


By Pranab Mukhopadhyaya
Published: Wednesday 15 June 1994

SPANNING 9 chapters, Tushaar Shah's book focuses on a very specific but vital component of India's agricultural development -- groundwater markets (GWMs) and its effect on the economy, society and environment. The book brings together the author's research on GWMs since 1983 -- based mainly in Gujarat -- though a conscious effort has been to bring in a national perspective through secondary sources.

The growth of GWMs has been linked to the spread of the "Green Revolution", the high-yielding seed technology since the '60s. A notable feature has been the expansion of private water extraction mechanisms (WEMs) and, over the years, a complete overshadowing of State Tubewells (STWs). Government apathy Working on the assumption that the government neither has the will nor the resources to intervene in the GWMs by direct investment, the study concentrates on the intricacies of the private water market. The main underlying theme of the book is: does a more competitve water market ensure an equitable distribution of the additional surplus generated? And the answer Tushaar Shah suggests is 'Yes', as any standard textbook analysis of markets would agree.

The gamut of public policy parameters, like power pricing, the licensing policy of tubewells, etc, are examined in the context of whether they make GWMs more competitive (and hence equitable). For example, the effect of the shift from pro-rata electricity pricing to a flat rate in June 1987 in Gujarat was found to have led to an increase in WEMs, increasing number of watersellers and the downward revision of water rates.

Tushaar Shah suggests that power-pricing is the most crucial determinant influencing the competitiveness of GWMs, over and above agricultural credit.

Chapter 7 examines 2 villages in coastal Saurashtra which are facing different stages of salinity ingress due to unrestricted and sometimes wasteful extraction of fresh water from wells. In chapter 8, a canal irrigated zone of the Mahi-Kadana Right Bank Canal is explored for sustainable conjunctive surface and groundwater irrigation possibilities. The head reach areas of canals often suffer from waterlogging.

The author suggests that the promotion of an active policy of investment WEMs in head reach areas for the purpose of drainage and maintenance of an ecological balance. In the tail-end zone where canal water is not so reliably available, licensing norms should be eased to allow for a more active GWM.

While the author discusses at length how active markets change the distribution of surplus, there is relatively little discussion about the distribution of the entire produce -- specifically, returns to labour. In passing, the author claims that labour, too, gains from the growth of water markets. No substantive evidence in this regard is available.

Second, the book rightly draws a link between the high-yielding variety (HYV) technology and the increase in WEMs. It would have been of interest to find out which is primary, the adoption of HYV, and the use of modern WEMs. Or are the processes simultaneous? The role of rural credit has been grossly underplayed. For the resource poor to install modern WEMs and challenge the monopoly of the rich waterlords and the availability of cheap rural credit is of prime importance. On the question of sustainablity of groundwater resources and the regulation of water markets, a more effective method would probably be to check cropping paterns in favour of less water intensive crops in water-scarce areas.

Prior to developing groundwater potential in any area, as a policy measure, there should be extensive acquifer surveys vis-a-vis rates and sources of recharge on the basis of which permissible crops are allowed for sustainable irrigation.

Pranab Mukhopadhaya is a research fellow at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehtru University, New Delhi

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