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The politicisation of water

By Ramaswamy R Iyer

It is greed that lies at the heart of water conflicts. Agreements, accords and treaties may temporarily bring peace, but the conflict will erupt again unless we re-define 'development' and learn to view water as a scarce and precious resource to be conserved, protected and used with extreme economy

We often talk about the ‘politicisation’ of water issues, but it must be recognised that water, as a basic life-support substance and as an important factor in livelihoods, is bound to figure in politics. The absence or shortage or poor quality of water in an area is a legitimate political issue. However, water or any other matter can be said to become ‘politicised’ in a negative sense when political calculations (unconnected with the issue in question) tend to influence and distort policies and decisions and render rationality difficult. Water seems more liable to politicisation in this sense than most other matters.

Consider urban and rural water supply. Planners tend to project future water requirements on the basis of certain norms (litres per capita per day, or lpcd); they want to raise the norms from present levels, and if necessary, bring the ‘needed’ water from distant areas. In fact, the actual supply (say, in Delhi) is very skewed, with some sections and areas getting barely 30 or 40 lpcd and others getting more than 400 lpcd. Without raising the norms (perhaps even with some reductions in the norms) it should be possible to improve supplies to the ill-served areas and groups and bring down the consumption of affluent areas and groups. It should also be possible to make the affluent pay the full economic price for supplies (and perhaps a penal price for use over a certain limit), charge the poor at lower rates and supply a certain quantity of water free to the very poor. Political calculations render -- or are believed to render -- such changes difficult. They also seem to impede the proper billing and collection of charges for supplies, leading to the phenomenon of  ‘unaccounted’ water (as in the case of electricity), which is a euphemism for unauthorised connections or theft.

In Delhi, and perhaps elsewhere, there is also a widespread practice of installing booster pumps on the main line, reducing water supply to others down the line and forcing them, in turn, to install pumps on the line; it appears that ‘politics’ or corruption or both make the control of this practice difficult.

Turning to ‘major/medium’ irrigation or multi-purpose projects, promises to undertake such projects play an important role in electoral politics, and their locations and important features are often influenced by political considerations. (The alleged politician-bureaucrat-technocrat-consultant-contractor nexus is a different matter, one of corruption rather than politics.) The differential incidence of the social costs and benefits of such projects on different groups, and the generally inequitable distribution of their benefits among the beneficiary groups, are part of the ‘political economy’ of the projects. A special case, namely the head-reach/tail-end conflict in an irrigation command, tends to become political as the two groups organise themselves and exert pressure on the irrigation department: one of the two groups (generally the head-reach group) might become politically more powerful and influential with the department.

Again, the idea (often advocated) of resettling and rehabilitating project-affected persons in the command area of the project and giving them a share in the benefits of the project, and the Acts that have been passed in this regard in some states, run into difficulties in actual practice because of the resistance of those who are already in the command area: this is a political difficulty.

It is also politics that is responsible for the reluctance of most state governments to raise (canal) irrigation water charges appropriately (as recommended by many committees and commissions), creating the vicious circle of low revenues, meagre resources, inadequate provisions for operation and maintenance, poor service, and resistance to tariff increases; and their readiness to give electricity to farmers at very low rates or free, leading to the reckless mining of groundwater.

Issues of equity, power and caste relations, ‘gender’, and so on, arise in the context of the establishment of water users’ associations under the scheme of participatory irrigation management, watershed committees for managing water-harvesting or watershed development initiatives, and tank farmers’ associations (in the southern states). These involve both social and political questions.

Further, rural/urban or agriculture/industry water conflicts tend to get politicised. For instance, the conflict between the polluting industries and the farmers and other rural inhabitants in the Palar basin in Tamil Nadu has political dimensions. We are often told that in Maharashtra, sugarcane plantations get assured water throughout the year but there are acute drinking water problems in the adjoining villages: this too is a political fact, as it attests to the greater power and influence of the sugarcane lobby.

A new anxiety that has emerged in recent years relates to groundwater. The draft on groundwater has now reached alarming proportions. In many parts of the country aquifers are getting depleted and/or contaminated. There is general agreement that the use of groundwater must be regulated, but with 21 million tubewells, largely privately owned and operated for ‘self-supply’ (outside the purview of supply systems, public or private), regulation is very difficult. Both law and politics are to blame here: the existing legal position makes regulation difficult, and this is compounded by political factors. Despite the existence of the Central Groundwater Authority for seven years, and some attempts at legislation at the state level, there is no real regulation of groundwater use. Some writers argue that with the numbers involved regulation is in fact impossible, but that is a counsel of despair that we cannot afford to accept. Ways and means of making regulation possible and effective must be explored. Will our politics allow that to happen?

Returning to rivers, there is general agreement that a river basin or sub-basin, as a hydrological unity, is the proper unit for planning. There is a risk of excessive centralisation here, but subject to that caution, some degree of integration or at least coordination at a basin or sub-basin level seems desirable to obviate or resolve conflicts, and this calls for an institutional arrangement or an organisation (river basin organisations or RBOs). Such organisations exist elsewhere in the world, for instance in the case of the Nile, the Niger, the Danube, the Rhine, the Mekong, and so on. Even on this subcontinent, we have the (India-Pakistan) Indus Commission and the India-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission. However, no such arrangements exist within India. There is strong resistance to the idea of river basin organisations on the part of the state governments. That resistance -- which is a political factor -- has rendered the River Boards Act 1956 (RBA) a dead letter. The RBA, enacted under Entry 56 of the Union List, provided for the establishment of river boards with a wide range of functions. No such board has been established, largely because no state government was in favour of such a course. In the Krishna Tribunal’s Award, ‘Scheme B’ that envisaged a Krishna River Authority was not made mandatory and never came into operation. In the Cauvery case, attempts to establish a standing, professional-cum-bureaucratic Cauvery River Authority had to be abandoned and a political authority set up essentially as a mediating body, without any planning or managerial functions; and it has failed to perform even that limited function effectively.

Inter-state river-water disputes are in fact the most visible manifestation of water politics. In recent times we have seen the enormous importance that the dispute over the sharing of Cauvery waters has in the politics of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Not only has this made the dispute virtually intractable, but it has also seriously impaired the working of the constitutional conflict-resolution mechanism, and even led temporarily to a defiance of the Supreme Court. Similarly, the dispute over Ravi-Beas waters between Punjab and Haryana (with Rajasthan as an additional party) is essentially a political one. The politics of the issue became very evident with the passing of an Act by the Punjab legislature terminating past water agreements. Considerations of party politics made it difficult for the central government to take a clear stand on this matter, and it preferred to make a Presidential reference on it to the Supreme Court. Other instances include the Alamatti dispute between Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, and the grievances that Kerala has over the old agreements with Tamil Nadu on the Mullapperiyar and Parambikulam Aliyar projects.

In the international arena, water relations are important components in (and determinants of) India’s political relations with Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. There is a complex interaction between water issues and political relations between countries. It is not always a case of conflicts over water resources leading to a worsening of political relations, though that does happen on occasion; it is more often a case of a difficult political relationship rendering the water issue more intractable. This is particularly so when other issues become prominent from time to time. Water issues in turn can become the most dominant factor at certain times, and can have a decisive impact on the general political relationship.

The Ganga waters issue became heavily politicised in the wrong sense (more in Bangladesh than in India). Politicisation also plays a part in the intractability of the differences that emerge under the seemingly successful operation of the Indus treaty between India and Pakistan. Again, if the Mahakali treaty between India and Nepal has become virtually inoperative, the cause lies less in water-related issues than in the complexities of the political relations between the two countries. In particular, the ‘big-country/small country’ aspects in India-Bangladesh and India-Nepal relations tend to cloud the water issue.

A comment often made in this context is that it has been easier for India to resolve issues and enter into treaties with Bangladesh and Pakistan despite uneasy political relationships, than to resolve inter-state river-water disputes within the country. This apparent paradox is easily explained. The Indus treaty was signed at a fairly early stage in the history of India-Pakistan relations; it might have been much more difficult to enter into such a treaty after the 1971 war in the east or the worsening of the Kashmir issue and the escalation of violence in the late-1980s. Besides, mediation by the World Bank also played a role. In the Ganga waters case, there were new governments both in Delhi and Dhaka in 1995, and they were determined to improve political relations between the two countries. The perceived importance of better India-Bangladesh relations tended to over-ride the seemingly intractable differences over water-sharing, and led to the Ganges Treaty of 1996. No such positive extraneous (ie non-water) factors operate in the domestic context to mitigate the acuteness of the water conflict; on the other hand, negative forces (namely those of party and electoral politics) do operate and make the water conflict more difficult to resolve.

There is one positive factor that must be mentioned here, namely the constructive role played by non-official or ‘Track II’ initiatives in the processes that led to the Ganges Treaty of 1996 between India and Bangladesh. A similar non-official initiative has been undertaken by the Madras Institute of Development Studies to bring the farmers of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu together to promote understanding and find a way out of the impasse on the Cauvery dispute. It has generated much goodwill and helped to remove or moderate misperceptions and misunderstandings on either side, though no specific water-sharing proposition or formula for difficult years has emerged from this process as yet. Such initiatives help to counter the harmful effects of politicisation to some extent.

However, the intractability of such water-related conflicts cannot be attributed entirely to ‘politics’. Political calculations doubtless vitiate the issues, but their political importance in turn often arises from deeper factors. Conflicts over water arise because of claims and counter-claims. In the Indus waters case, each side (India, Pakistan) wants more water than the Indus treaty gives it. In the Ganga case, before the Ganges Treaty was signed, each side (India, Bangladesh) used to lay claim to the totality of flow in the river in the crucial period (the leanest part of the lean season). In the Ravi-Beas case, Punjab feels that its water is being taken away by others, whereas Haryana and Rajasthan feel that their allocations are under threat. In the Cauvery case, both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu want a larger share of the waters. In the attempts at conflict-resolution, the stated claims are taken and some kind of a compromise is worked out. But how much water do the parties in question really need?

That is not an easy question to answer, but it can be said without fear of contradiction that there is substantial mismanagement of water by all parties in all these cases. With better water management it seems probable that each of the contending parties can make do with much less water than it thinks it needs. Another point is that supply creates demand and necessitates more supply. The availability of irrigation water leads to the adoption of water-intensive cropping patterns (for example, paddy in Punjab where it was unknown earlier, multiple crops of paddy in the Tanjavur delta in Tamil Nadu, sugarcane in Mandya in Karnataka). More water is needed to continue with this kind of agriculture. And of course, things cannot stand still: there is a desire to expand that agriculture, creating a demand for still more water, until the demand becomes unsustainable. There is always a demand for more water and still more water. So Karnataka and Tamil Nadu fight over the Cauvery, and Punjab terminates all water accords.

But where will this ‘more water’ come from? It has to be brought from somewhere. So, big dams, canals and long-distance water transfers are planned. These will in turn generate new conflicts. It is clear, then, that what lies at the heart of water conflicts is ‘greed’ (to borrow a word from Mahatma Gandhi). Agreements, accords and treaties may temporarily bring peace, but the conflict will erupt again unless we learn to re-define ‘development’. That is a much larger theme and cannot be gone into here, but a point of some relevance to the present article is the following.

Many of the problems mentioned above can be mitigated to some extent through legal or institutional change. Without trying to tackle politics head-on, laws, institutions and procedures can be introduced, that cumulatively and over a period of time will have the effect -- to some extent -- of insulating policies and decisions from improper or undesirable political influence. However, that is not enough. Over and above such ‘governance’ changes, a major transformation of our thinking about water is needed. Indeed, it is doubtful whether the legal, institutional and procedural changes will work beyond a point without such a transformation.

That transformation would include an awareness and understanding of water as a scarce and precious resource to be conserved, protected and used with extreme economy; an integral part of nature; a sacred resource; a common pool resource to be managed by the community or held as a public trust by the state; primarily a life-support substance and only secondarily anything else (economic good, social good, etc); a fundamental human and animal right; and a bounty of nature to be gratefully and reverentially received and shared with fellow humans (within the state or province or country, or beyond the borders of the country), future generations of humans, and other forms of life. It is of course much easier to build a dam or drill deep for water than to undertake the kind of education and social mobilisation that the transformation outlined above calls for. However, such a transformation seems inescapable. If that kind of thinking could be brought about, it would change the nature of water politics, eliminate water-related conflicts (between uses, between areas, between countries) or make their resolution easier, make water governance more enlightened, and transform the relationship between the state and civil society.

(Ramaswamy R Iyer is former Secretary, Water Resources, Government of India, now Honorary Research Professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2005