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Conservation and Society
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Conservation and Society
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Year : 2007  |  Volume : 5  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 139-143

The Politics and Poetics of Water: Naturalising Scarcity in Western India

325 E Brahmaputra Hostel, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi 110067, India

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Ritupan Goswami
325 E Brahmaputra Hostel, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi 110067
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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009

How to cite this article:
Goswami R. The Politics and Poetics of Water: Naturalising Scarcity in Western India. Conservat Soc 2007;5:139-43

How to cite this URL:
Goswami R. The Politics and Poetics of Water: Naturalising Scarcity in Western India. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2007 [cited 2020 Apr 2];5:139-43. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2007/5/1/139/55818

Lyla Mehta. The Politics and Poetics of Water: Naturalising Scarcity in Western India. Orient Longman, 2005, 400pp, Rs. 695, ISBN: 978-81-250-2869-7.

The thirst for water is eternal, and so has been the ways and means to procure it; to make it available for human use. As such, it may seem that the ways in which societies have provided for water for their sustenance and survival escapes history, escapes a social analysis. But a close reading of the hydraulic structures and the discourses on water makes apparent the structures of a society in any given time or space. Or at least this is what has been demonstrated by the scholarship on water, of which there are a good many instances. The studies that have water as their central theme have invariably dealt with the kinds of uses a particular society puts its water to, the demand that it generates, the means it adopts and applies to meet this demand, the kinds of resources and technologies that are mobilised, and the social classes that own or control those resources, as well as those who oversee the distribution of the generated water in the society. Hence a story about water does not necessarily remain confined to its watery margins, but more often transcends them to starkly reveal the larger social reality within which the demand for and supply of water is located.

Once we proceed from the assumption that any narrative about water cannot be restricted to the simplified equation of demand and supply, it is only logical to expect that this equation will be further problematised in a nuanced study of the subject. This is where the book under review sets itself apart, i.e. probing, questioning and 'disaggregating' the supposedly self-explanatory categories and concepts brought in circulation and 'naturalised' within the dominant discourse. Lyla Mehta examines the idea of scarcity, refuses to take it for granted, and thereby proceeds to unravel what she aptly calls 'the politics and poetics of water'. Mehta argues that all discourses-and we may safely add, practices-of water are informed by socio-political, economic and institutional circumstances. In her own words, '[B]y taking the case of scarcity in western India, this book exposes the underlying social and power relations that underlie water 'crises' '. Scarcity is not 'natural' and ahistorical, nor is it permanent and universal. Rather, the creation of scarcity has to be understood in the context of unequal access to and control over a finite resource in a class-divided society at a specific temporal juncture. The question as to why water becomes scarce and therefore a 'problem' under a particular social condition, and what becomes the dominant mode of 'solution' from a set of probable choices to resolve it, leads one to examine the prevailing societal relations. The author demonstrates that the naturalisation of scarcity, i.e. the social acceptance of scarcity as being determined by Nature and hence its establishment as a commonsensical truth, by far benefits the powerful. The scarcity of water is created by the social practices of the powerful, and the solutions adopted to mitigate this perceived or real scarcity further reproduce and strengthen the existing relations of domination and subjugation, be it between classes, genders or castes.

Moreover, as the author argues, this cannot be seen in isolation or divorced from the larger process of commodification of water and the growing imperative to portray it in the 'crisis narratives' as an economic good that needs to be managed judiciously in order to avoid global conflict or food insecurity. The global and the local here often overlap, contend and manifest in conflicting perceptions and practices relating to water. It is in this context that we are urged in the book to go beyond the blanket notions of scarcity, and appreciate the difference between 'lived/experienced' and 'manufactured' scarcity. The imprints of this analysis, which not only takes into account social conformity but also conflict, is made apparent in the evolution of the Kutch society in the drylands of south Gujarat, which is the focus of Mehta's present study.

The author schematises her study in accordance with these stated concerns and the nine chapters that follow logically fall in place according to these priorities. As strange as it might appear today, the limited availability of water in the arid landscape of Kutch has not been its permanent problem. Till 1819, parts of Kutch received perennial water from the Indus and crops were raised with irrigated water. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the rulers and the ruled equally focused more on micro-hydel measures such as small dams, tanks, bunds and reservoirs to conserve the available water, even though the methods of water management were mostly ad hoc and seasonal. After the 1930s these became more systematised, and efforts were initiated to bring in externally supplied water to Kutch to increase its irrigation potential. The population patterns of the region continued to show fluctuations till the end of the first-half of the twentieth century. But the population dynamics changed dramatically after the integration of Kutch to the Indian Union. From then on the population has shown an increasing trend even though the rate remained substantially lower than that of the all-India level. Yet the dominant discourse persisted with images of depopulated villages and deserted pastures, connecting it to misery, scarcity and drought. This is a powerful image rendered to characterise and stereotype the region, which has been universalised and repeatedly used as a convenient and quite convincing tool to advocate for more externally procured water.

After 1950, the architects of modern Kutch promoted extensively irrigated agriculture at the expense of an agro-pastoral-based economy. From this point on, scarcity became the raison d'etre of numerous governmental departments, commissions and regional as well as national level interventions. Staterecognised 'scarcity years' became more frequent, and flawed state-sponsored programmes of dryland irrigation, rural water supply schemes, watershed development, drought relief schemes, etc. followed. However, as Mehta shows, state-directed top-down interventions in water management had serious problems, and rather than 'solving' the water question in Kutch, they often exacerbated it. Thus, most of these schemes did not produce the promised results, and ended up as failures. As the author points out, much of the responsibility for these failures has to be borne by the 'dryland blindness' of the state's policy makers, who have miserably failed to understand the specificities of Kutchi society, its needs and its long-practiced survival strategies to cope with the contingency of uncertain, limited and seasonal availability of water. Thus, reversing the pre-1947 practice of promoting small-scale, local knowledgebased 'solutions' to scarcity, the myopic planners continuously pushed for alien, technology-driven solutions, which predictably ended up as monumental failures resulting from centralised state interventions.

But this has not stopped the propagation and execution of similar kinds of solutions. The trend continued to the days of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) in the early 1990s, and even beyond. The lopsided myth of extensive outmigration due to scarcity of water was circulated to whip up notions that only large quantities of externally supplied water-such as from the Narmada-can save Kutch from scarcity, help populate its villages, make it a viable place for the people and their livestock to survive and prosper. As noted by the author, multipurpose dams like the SSP have been legitimised by such constructed scenarios of depopulation, perennial drought and underdevelopment. Such interventions are made out by the state machinery to be the panacea for 'waterhungry' Kutch or for Gujarat. In the discourse of state-corporate-NGO-driven water management, There Is No Alternative (TINA) to the SSP and its likes. Ironically though, even as the image of scarcity-hit Kutch has been used to make the SSP acceptable, and the people of Kutch have legitimately claimed a larger share of its waters than the rich farmers and industrialists of south and central Gujarat, Kutch ends up losing out to the latter. Instead of the originally promised three canals irrigating most of interior Kutch, the plan is for only one canal along the coast, which covers a mere 1.6 per cent of the total landmass of Kutch. Yet, the author points out, even here there is by now a hegemonic cultural consensus about the existence of water scarcity, the notion of inescapable TINA, and the desirability of SSP; so much so that it is a taboo here to criticise the project or to even suggest that the SSP is after all not the panacea it is so carefully made out to be by the Goebbelsian propaganda machinery of the powerful.

More significantly, however, what really lost out in this process is the perspective from below, i.e. the locally developed and time-tested practices of water management in Kutch. This was submerged by propaganda in favour of the 'obscure water wonders', the more recent of them being the SSP. Mehta, in her prolonged and painstaking ethnographic reading of the village community of Merka in Kutch, demonstrates that historically water scarcity was not seen as a pressing problem. Water conservation measures-made necessary by the uncertainty and unreliability of natural water sources-included microlevel, locally developed techniques such as tanks, wells and small dams. The local productive processes were flexibly adjusted to the specific ecological and social contingencies, whereby pastoralism complemented a limited agriculture, with cash-crop production and industrialisation remaining near absent. In times of extreme water scarcity, Kutchis resorted to seasonal outmigration as a survival strategy.

Curiously, Merka was one among hundreds of Kutchi villages dismissed by governmental logic as having 'no source'. As this study clearly shows, Merka and other such villages not only had several water sources, but also preferred all of the 'traditional' local knowledge-based methods over state-advocated sources. However, most of these strategies and practices are being forced to change under pressure from wider socio-economic, institutional and ecological interventions. Dryland cultivators and pastoralists are slowly made to adapt to irrigated agriculture and commercial crops, which may not turn out to be a viable option in Kutch's natural and social environment. Conversely, its people are made dependant on state-sponsored relief programmes to mitigate drought-induced hardship, rather than being encouraged to explore or fall back on locally developed innovations, techniques and strategies. Water scarcity, which has been an intrinsic part of life in the drylands of Kutch, is now commonly accepted to be a perennial curse, a liability to be overcome only through the interventions of the powers-that-be.

The author is however careful in cautioning us against the binary opposition of 'big' vs 'small' interventions in water management. Rather, she urges us to look beyond technocentric and andocentric solutions, which benefit and are governed by the needs of the powerful rural or urban ruling elites. As she rightly argues, the need is to reject water management projects-big or small-that reproduce the existing social relations of power, originating either from the state or corporates. She emphasises the need to understand the dangers of privatisation and 'capitalisation' of water, the machinations of the 'scarcity industry'-a highly lucrative enterprise for those who profit from areas such as Kutch being in a permanent state of 'scarcity'-and scarcity that results more from the spiraling water needs of rich farmers and industrialists than from poor Kutchi pastoralists. It is clearly an unequal contest, underwritten by power and politics.

Mehta argues persuasively that writing about water in India, as anywhere else, is a political act. It therefore must not merely remain a discursive exercise, but each such act should challenge the dominant discourse and question the structural forms of inequality. Her work concerning water and water scarcity does this to an extent, but her 'conflict resolution' approach to achieving equitable and just 'management' of water leaves us with a few questions. Can there be a permanent negotiation between the oppressor and the oppressed social classes? Will it be wrong to argue that as long as the unequal social and political structure under which water as a resource is accessed and utilised remains intact, there will be no justice? Nevertheless, one cannot but agree with Mehta when she says that academic analyses, however potent, are not enough to change the acute water shortage felt by disempowered members of a society. Rigorous academic research must be complemented by a battle to roll back century- long processes of unequal access to and control over natural resources.


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