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Conservation and Society
An interdisciplinary journal exploring linkages between society, environment and development
Conservation and Society
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Year : 2003  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 165-167

Book review 1

The Department of History, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, United Kingdom

Correspondence Address:
David Hardiman
The Department of History, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL
United Kingdom
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Date of Web Publication20-Jul-2009

How to cite this article:
Hardiman D. Book review 1. Conservat Soc 2003;1:165-7

How to cite this URL:
Hardiman D. Book review 1. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2003 [cited 2020 Jul 3];1:165-7. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2003/1/1/165/55850

Navroz K. Dubash, Tubewell Capitalism: Groundwater Development and Agrarian Change in Gujarat. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002, 287 pp., Rs 595. ISBN: 0-195-657-47-0.

Navroz Dubash spent two years in the mid-1990s studying in great detail the way in which water was extracted and utilised in two villages of north Gujarat. This region is one of low annual rainfall, but until relatively recently it had ample supplies of groundwater from wells. New technology allowed this resource to be overexploited, leading to a rapid and escalating fall in the water table. Now, water can only be obtained in most instances through very deep tubewells worked by submersible electrically-powered pumps. Dubash sets out the history of this whole process, describing the ways in which water distribution and control has changed over time. He also challenges some existing models about water marketing in Gujarat and provides some recommendations of his own for the future.

One of the villages which he studied-Ratanpura in Mehsana District-had experienced a particularly rapid fall in its water table over the two previous decades. By the mid-1990s, the average tubewell depth was 600 feet. Members of the Patidar caste that dominated the village controlled the water. Only Patidars owned wells, and almost all of the non well-owning farmers had to purchase water from them for their agriculture. Because of the high cost of well-construction, leading Patidars had come together to finance such work. Caste, Dubash states, was 'the glue that bound the partners together. Lower castes, typically marginal farmers or landless, without the benefit of caste networks were shut out from well ownership entirely'. Some of the dalits of Ratanpura-owned land, but they never tried to exploit the subsoil water by investing in tubewells, as they knew that the Patidars would never buy water from them.

In the other village-Paldi in Banaskantha District-there was a much shorter history of intense water-extraction and 150 foot-deep wells were still productive. The village was dominated by two castes, Patidars and Rabaris, but while the Patidars owned almost two-thirds of the wells, the Rabaris only owned one-tenth. Until the 1950s, almost all agriculture depended on the monsoon rain alone and there was general poverty in the village. With the arrival of pumping technology, more land was brought under cultivation. At that time water was found at no great depth below the ground and it was possible for many landowning farmers to utilise this technology with relatively inexpensive wells and pumps on their own plots. As a result, a water market did not develop. Some dalit smallholders even managed to form a partnership to provide a well and pump for their own use. With the inevitable fall in the water table it became necessary by the 1990s to invest in tubewells with submersible pumps. There was no way in which the poorer peasants could afford this. Even the dalit partners had to relinquish part control over their well to a Patidar in order to keep it productive. Dubash comments: 'Falling water levels, then, ripple unevenly through the village, leaving the less advantaged saddled with heavier debt burdens and with less to show for it than the more privileged'. When in the future the water gives out, or, more likely, becomes too salty as a result of saline ingress from the Rann of Kutch to the west, the richer well-owners are likely to be able to move their wealth out of agriculture into other businesses, while the subordinate peasants will have to resort to monsoon agriculture, as in the past, or labour migration. Despite the differences between Ratanpura and Paldi, Dubash argues that in both cases there is 'a powerful nexus between caste, landownership, and well ownership'.

Dubash found that although there was a water market in both villages, the sale of water did not conform to models of 'economic rationality' in which buyers and sellers negotiate a price through a process of free bargaining. In this, he takes issue with the agrarian economist Tushaar Shah, who has argued that in Gujarat the price of water is subject to intense bargaining, and that well owners have failed to establish water cartels to jack up prices. Against this, Dubash found that in Ratanpura there was a uniform price that was determined collectively by the Patidars as a group. Although it changed gradually over time, its level was determined primarily by village custom, and it could only be tinkered with after the village elites had consulted amongst themselves in private and then had it sanctioned at the annual meetings of well-owning partnerships. It then held throughout the village for the next year. It was considered morally wrong to violate this agreement, and villagers would be careful not to do so in any obvious or provable way. For Dubash, Ratanpura provides an interesting example of the operation of a 'moral economy' as defined by E.P. Thompson. This entails the idea of a fixed 'moral price' that cannot be altered through unilateral action. Change comes about only gradually, through negotiation and consultation between the different parties. Violation of this mutually agreed price is a cause for social opprobrium.

In Paldi, on the other hand, there was no such 'moral economy of water use'. There was no uniform rate and payment was determined by the bargaining power of each party. As sharecropping was the norm in the village, payment was expressed in a share of the crop, and this differed from case-to-case. As a rule, high caste water-buyers paid a smaller share of their crop than those of low caste. As the 'price' of water rested on individual negotiation, it is possible to define it as being more 'rational' than the 'moral price' that prevailed in Ratanpura. This is despite the fact that the latter village was far more commercialised in its economy. In practice, the power of the Ratanpura Patidars-who owned all the tubewells-was such as to allow for the enforcement of a uniform price, whereas in Paldi-an economically 'backward' village with two dominant castes-well owners exercised their power over sharecroppers as individual landlords.

Dubash thus shows-contrary to the assertions of neoclassical economists-that that there is no necessary causal link between capitalist development and 'market rationality'. He resists, also, the countervailing Marxian argument that capitalism tends to move towards monopoly. He argues strongly and convincingly that it is wrong to try to construct universalistic theories of economic action on the basis of such evidence, as there are too many specific variables in every case. He, in fact, found that a wide variety of water management and marketing systems existed in surrounding villages, even though many elements, such as the groundwater ecology, caste structure and degree of commercialisation, were much the same. He concludes that there can be no 'uniform theory of how groundwater markets function'. Unfortunately, policy-makers often assume that there is a single desirable trajectory of development and try to implement sweeping and drastic measures from above in a way that ignores the local complexities, with often highly destructive consequences.

Dubash provides his own prescription, which is that government policy should try to go with the grain of local practice. This can be ensured through devolution of power to local communities, with each being responsible for implementing a policy on its own terms. For example, electricity could be rationed for a village as a whole, with the villagers deciding how to share the supply amongst each other. This would, he believes, force farmers to be thriftier in their use of electricity, which in turn would encourage a more sparing use of pumped water.

The main problem with such solutions is that although they may help to limit resource use overall-an outcome which in itself of great value-it does not address issues of equability. The dominant elites of a village will almost certainly be able to manipulate the system to ensure that they do not need to limit their own profligacy while shifting the burden of conservation onto subordinate groups. David Mosse-who has studied tank-based irrigation in South India-has argued for this reason that it is wrong to believe that existing 'village community' institutions will provide a dynamic base for the establishment of a more genuine democracy of resource use at the local level. In his words: '. . . successful cooperative institutions are not the expression of enduring institutions of village self-government but a sign of the replacement of indigenous authoritative control'. It is thus the decline and erosion of collectivities controlled by oligarchies that create the conditions for a more equitable use of natural resources at the local level.

Although there may be shortcomings to the author-s recommendations, this in no way detracts from the great value of this book as a detailed study of the way in which water is extracted, distributed and controlled in villages in Gujarat. Although Dubash is by training an agrarian economist, he has gone beyond a narrow economic analysis to embrace the life and history of these two villages in a holistic manner, in the process illuminating, most sensitively, an important area of contemporary life in rural Gujarat.


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