Experience makes one wise, and it is wisdom, in the Tennysonnian sense, that lingers. After his long innings in government service, the second book written by the former Secretary for the Ministry of Water Resources, Ramaswamy R Iyer, certainly does not fail to create a lingering concern in its readers. In Towards Water Wisdom, Iyer calls broadly for “reasonableness in the use of water, and responsibility towards future generations”, which he says should come close on the “concept of dharma”.
Lest it be prematurely assumed that this work is merely another of those tedious expositions of the distilled astuteness of a retired civil servant, it is important to note from the start that Iyer offers no quick-fix solutions to Southasia’s longstanding water problems. Neither does he present brusque opinions on the state of the bureaucracy, nor lob blame at any single party. Rather, this work seeks to deconstruct the deeply dispiriting idea of the Subcontinent’s ‘water crises’. In so doing, Iyer undertakes to rethink many of the water-related core issues that are currently taken as settled. “The world has changed,” he writes, “let our thinking change.”
Whereas the 2006 Human Development Report pinned the blame for global water scarcity on disproportionate distribution of power and inequality, Iyer goes significantly further, to hint at the inherently flawed understanding of ‘development’. This pregnant term, he notes, has been a cause for misinterpretation of what truly constitutes ‘progress’, and why it should take any particular trajectory. Water scarcity and the development paradigm are, after all, causally related. If the term development has been used to hoodwink the global states – with conglomerates such as ‘South Asia’ and ‘Latin America’ being considered as single units when promoting international policies – at another level the World Bank (and its likeminded institutions) has time and again employed expressions such as demand and supply with regards to water, with a view to redefining the language of understanding and negotiating natural resources.
In so doing, such groups bestow a thoroughly economic character to what is indisputably a natural resource. These types of distortions of language have also found refuge in international and national policy promulgations, in which it would not be considered overly audacious to use expressions such as ‘environmental flows’, ‘ecological flows’ and ‘water for nature’. This, Iyer warns, is an extremely incorrect way of thinking about water. “We receive water from nature as bounty,” he writes. “We cannot presume to allocate water to nature.”
Southasian leaders have yet to take due cognisance of the Aral Sea’s near-death experience, brought about by the former Soviet Union’s scheme to divert river water from its watershed. If the Aral lesson had been learned, would India have embarked on the illogically designed and ill-prepared project to interlink its rivers? While the political justifications for this plan rest on the admittedly high ideals of transferring supposedly ‘surplus’ water to drought-prone areas, the crucial component of ecological balance has been relegated to the sidelines. The interlinking plan, Iyer argues, has lacked clarity from the very beginning.
In the case of inter-country water disputes, especially with regards to the Indus Water Treaty and the Baglihar dam, highly techno-centric considerations have downplayed the importance of the social and pragmatic needs of stakeholders. Throughout, these have essentially been issues of mismanagement (for instance, the water-logging problem and salinity on both sides) on the one hand, and of utter non-recognition of the local communities on the other, as revealed by Jammu & Kashmir’s recurring displeasure over the Indus Treaty. It is the author’s expertise and experience on inter-country water issues that intends to do away with presupposed notions: “The high praise of the Indus Treaty as a successful instance of conflict-resolution seems somewhat exaggerated.”
Intra-country, the Kaveri dispute in India between the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka brings to the fore one more dimension of this particular quandary: political expediency. Political opportunism – on one level kickbacks, as well as a chance to portray the party or government as pro-development through, for instance, urban improvement schemes, including with regards to water – has dramatically elevated its presence in water-related disputes. This is a particularly widespread problems in cases such that of the Narmada Valley, where the concern should have been on ensuring justice to displaced communities, along with providing water for basic and commercial needs.
Rising intervention – an opportunity afforded by ‘neo-liberal market fundamentalism’ that aims to rope in development institutions and financing partners such as the World Bank in decision-making, implementation and monitoring – in river-related disputes has thrown open the issues of profits and pricing through the privatisation of water resources. The moot question now is not just one of privatisation and subsequent pricing debates, but of whether the people will truly benefit from privatising water-provision services vis-à-vis the privatisation of the resource itself. While the act of private entities supplying water to urban centres through water tankers is a welcome effort, can, for instance, Chhattisgarh’s leasing of a stretch of the Sheonath River to a corporate body be anything less than a claim to ‘owning’ a resource? This is an issue that requires one to look beyond the market and the state, Iyer urges, and to bring within one’s ken the value of the role of communities dependent on water.
Although the section in Towards Water Wisdom on Laws and Policies focuses exclusively on the Indian body politic, it has relevance to other countries as well, albeit in a narrow, relative sense. Iyer’s starting point is the inadequacy of the Indian Constitution to explicitly recognise the importance of water as a life-support element. This has paved the way for many a judicial interpretation on the value of water to life, as well as the value of water as a proprietary resource – for instance in the case of Coca-Cola in Plachimada in Kerala, where some local residents opposed the granting of a license to the beverage maker to extract groundwater at nominal rates.
A constitutional declaration on water, the author suggests, could remove the extant anomalies in the rights regime, and, importantly, delineate the roles of the state, market and civil society. This is certainly a significant lacuna, which has allowed free reign to the promulgators of such policy documents as the National Water Policy of 2002, which donned a pro-privatisation garb regarding water-related projects. Likewise, neither the National Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy of 2003, nor the National Environmental Policies of 2004 and 2006, have been supportive of water as a fundamental right. Compare this to what the government of Bhutan has stated in its national water policy: “Water shall be a common good” and “The State shall act as the trustee of water resources.” More to the point, Iyer demands a space in these policies for independent evaluation of water and river projects, in order to avoid anti-people decisions. It should be noted that this is a politically feasible intention, not just an exercise at the legal echelon.
In sharing these thought-provoking ideas, Iyer has reinforced the US poet Oliver Wendell Holmes’s affirmation that “it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.” And it is precisely for this reason that we find a separate section in Towards Water Wisdom that attempts to look at water-sharing issues from the perspectives of India’s neighbours. These are, of course, not critiques of those neighbours’ policies, but rather accounts of their hurdles and aspirations. Here is where intermeshing national water policies can be seen as particularly important. In the case of Pakistan, for instance, India’s involvement becomes all the more crucial due to the sharing of waters in the Indus Basin, where persistent water-logging has made the land uncultivable in Pakistan. While this led to selective prosperity, India has looked at the whole issue as a case of unqualified failure of the state to remove manmade impediments in the irrigation system. Meanwhile, analogous to India’s Narmada Valley project, the Kalabagh project in Pakistan is reeling under dramatic problems of environmental and human negligence.
Downstream from India on the Ganga, Bangladesh has also been designing its policies in such a way as to counter floods, and at the same time develop friendly relations with India in order to ease seasonal water scarcity. Upstream, Nepal’s concern has primarily been to leverage its water resources by attempting to build hydroelectric projects. Revenue from selling electricity to India is a lucrative proposition for Nepal, only to be marred by the two countries’ multiple mutual misgivings on the issue. Bhutan, on the other hand, is on the edge of a precipice – either to fall face-down into the so-called mainstream development agenda, or to revisit its traditional environment-centric growth ethic. Reconciling both perspectives will be Bhutan’s real test.
Overall, of course, the Himalaya have been the grounds for water-related friendship and dispute, with the problems of pollution, groundwater depletion and inter-state water conflicts not native to any one country. Rather, Iyer declares, these have become derivative issues, to be surpassed by concerns about dams and the associated threat of reservoir-induced seismicity and environmental apprehensions. By locating this section within the ambit of ‘water wisdom’, the author has endeavoured to build a case for regional cooperation between and among the riparian states – though such aspirations will inevitably prove difficult due to an unequal negotiating table.
The strength of this book is the author’s willingness to acknowledge and appreciate the thinking and actions of others. This has made the discourse on water-related issues more meaningful and of greater consequence. Within this broadened scope, Towards Water Wisdom is able to serve as both a primer and a serious read. Given the huge global output of books on water in recent years, Iyer’s new work has strong competition, but it has also created a definite niche for itself. Be it water, the state’s attitude or the people’s mindset, Iyer advocates change, reflecting Heraclites’s age-old assertion: “Everything flows and nothing stops.”
— G Narasimha Raghavan is a doctoral scholar in Economics at the PSG College of Arts abd Science, Coimbotare.