Over-disciplined: ‘Water, ecosystems and society’ by Jayanta Bandyopadhyay

Following in a long line of analysis, talk shows on television on several occasions over the past summer featured experts who made politically correct statements in favour of a series of upstream dams that would restrict the Yamuna River from any further flooding of New Delhi. As if on cue, over the same months residents of the capital city saw the Yamuna's waters swell to levels not seen in decades, sending people and the government back to 1978, when the river had inundated large parts of the metropolitan area. But while the floodwaters did eventually subside, as they did in 1978, like a bad dream the suggestion of the possibility of damming the Yamuna's flow continues to haunt engineers, planners and politicians. But such suggestions ride on constricted public memory, of a type that rarely recalls past misadventures. Nurtured by planning ideology that remains subservient to the political economy of development, engineers have made water management into an exclusive domain reserved solely for themselves. As a consequence, the governance of water systems has remained stagnant as a discipline.

Water, Ecosystems & Society argues that as long as water remains hostage to engineers' tenets, the prevailing scarcity scenario is likely to worsen further. Even while lamenting an absence of inter-disciplinary science and a lack of institutional innovation in the water sector, Jayanta Bandyopadhyay wonders whether India has run out of time in preparing for the middle of this century – the suggested point at which the country's total annual water demand will exceed availability. Curiously, however, finding a solution to the problems of growing water demand and scarcity inevitably entails redistributing established water rights, at the cost of location- and context-specific manifestations of the ramifications of the water crises.

Bandyopadhyay, a longtime scholar on the subject, diagnoses India's water sector with clinical precision. However, he stops short of presenting a credible prescription. Expectedly, a large part of his book is devoted to making a case for building interdisciplinary knowledge on water systems, in order to fill the existing policy vacuum. However, rising water conflicts (both intra-state and crossborder) and growing corruption in the water sector have been positioned as hurdles in the way of effective use of emerging interdisciplinary knowledge. Though it makes for grim reading in its own way, Water, Ecosystems and Society also remains trapped within the so-called quantity-delivery paradigm of meeting competing water demands. It uses the extremes of scarcity and surplus to propose a holistic understanding of the ecological processes behind these hydrological events.

Because this book is a collection of independent lectures and articles, it inevitably suffers for want of continuity and coherence. Though relevant, the work unfortunately looks at the why's and how's of seasonal deluge only from an academic standpoint. Bandyopadhyay advocates a multi-disciplinary assessment of floods, but offers a preachy prognosis that is unlikely to rattle the well-entrenched flood-control ideology of India. Though the author rightly contends that the floodplains of Bihar are home to abject poverty, he does not offer fresh insights on addressing the core issue of alleviating poverty from the well-endowed river basins. While the book does articulate the much-needed paradigm shift in terms of the knowledge base for water-systems management, it only brings in the discipline narrative on history, sociology, economics and political science in building a seemingly intangible perspective.

In fact, none of these disciplines works beyond market-dominated capitalism, though neither does the author claim to the contrary. What gets missed in such an approach is the fact that India's current growth-obsessed mindset only sees water as an essential economic input for realising targets. Bandyopadhyay's book looks at the market from a myopic perspective, offering economic and ecological valuation as minor tweaks to fix the problem of scarcity and growing conflicts around water-sharing and distribution. Furthermore, it does so at the cost of ignoring larger political realities, wherein planners and politicians remain paralysed by the immensity of changes required in the business-as-usual mode. The author erroneously believes that building an inter-disciplinary approach alone will suffice to turn the water system on its right course.

In reality, the inter-disciplinary approach warrants a shift from the business-as-usual mode, wherein water-management decisions are based largely on the engineering of impounding water for redirecting flows. Unless water management is brought under holistic 'water science', engineers will continue to view flowing water as worthy of little more than cement and steel being poured onto it. Rather, the core argument ought to be in favour of systemic change, of liberating the water sector from the confines of civil engineering. One would look for a process of change triggered by appropriate policy directions.

Finally, closing the book with a commentary on the much-hyped river-linking project only undermines the value of some of the arguments that were put forth in the preceding pages. The idea of river-linking is anything but inter-disciplinary, but its politically projected gains have been presented as multi-dimensional nonetheless. Despite a concerted campaign against this grossly misguided project on social, economic, ecological and geographical grounds, it has remained a politically motivated democratic solution of water access and availability across caste, class and region. The project has been contested on grounds that are largely multi-disciplinary – the very argument that Bandyopadhyay builds for a fresh perspective on water management. Clearly, Water, Ecosystems & Society could have served its purpose better without such an unwarranted discourse.

~ Sudhirendar Sharma is a development analyst and columnist based in New Delhi.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian