August 03, 2005

Politics in That Water

It is a distinct privilege to be part of Nirantar, especially as Debashish Chakrabarty's Hindi translation of my article reads better than the original! Thank you.

For those who'd like to read the original, here it is.


This article has its origins during a weekend spent in a village called Thakursahi, on the shores of the lake that balloons behind the Pawana dam near Kamshet and off the Bombay-Pune highway. Raju, a young Thakursahi man, told me that his family had been displaced by the dam. Their fertile farmland now lay at the bottom of the lake. Just like that.

In India, this is no unfamiliar tale. But Raju also told the other familiar, and sorry, tale: the utter absence of adequate compensation or rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R).

These are tales I have now heard so often that they are routine, and that routine quality is itself a commentary on the way India has approached the building of its dams.

But then Raju said something more. Apparently the Sahara conglomerate, which is building opulent townships ("Amby Valley") in the hills on the other side of the Pawana lake, have proposed raising the height of the Pawana dam. This, because they need large supplies of water for their townships.

And if they raise the height of the dam, Raju and his village buddies will be displaced once more.

Why is it, I thought as we talked, that this sort of story has become so routine? That we think it's OK for some people to have their lives turned inside out, sometimes twice or thrice over, so that some other and always much fancier people can live well? What is it about water, specifically -- after all, dams are essentially a way to use water -- that leads to these situations?

And when thinking about water like that, the thing to remember is this: it is a political tool, simple. End of story.

What does this mean? That actually addressing the thirst of people, or the needs of the displaced, is a low priority for those who deal with water. Am I alleging that they are callous, heartless beasts? No, what I'm saying is that they understand the political power in water today, and they don't shrink from using it. (And in fact, by itself there's nothing wrong there: politics is fundamental to the way we deal with each other).

This is why, for example, the Narmada dams have become such an article of faith in Gujarat, the one issue on which every party agrees. Criticising the dams in Gujarat is rather like talking of Kashmir seceding from India: not something to do lightly, not something that will be taken kindly. Every political leader has understood well the benefit of conflating Narmada with Gujarat's sense of itself -- a sort of Gujarati patriotism, if you will.

Yet such conflation only drowns out -- excuse the watery pun -- any debate. Which, of course, it is intended to do. But is such drowning acceptable?

This is not a tirade against Gujarat. Really. The view of water as political football is widespread, and in other countries too. (Read Marc Reisner's excellent "Cadillac Desert" to get a sense of water policy and politics in the USA). But it is telling, nevertheless, and it forces us to face a simple truth: water issues, water policy, have always been and will always be addressed through politics.

The challenge, then, is to use politics for the good of all: Sahara's clients, but Raju as well. This is not such an fanciful idea, once you give it some thought. Keeping it in mind, let me suggest here three directions along which the use of water must be decided.

First, a balloon to be pricked. That's the one that says, some people must sacrifice so that some others can benefit. For too long, this homily has been proffered as a justification for the shabby treatment of people displaced by dams, among others. It has an uncanny ability to shut off questions -- perhaps because it just sounds so reasonable, so logical. No gain without pain, everything has a price, the benefits outweigh the costs -- familiar mantras like those reinforce the seeming sense in this call for "some people" to sacrifice.

Yet after so many years, I wonder: who are these "some people"? Why are they always off in some forgotten spot? Why are they invariably weak, politically? Why do some, like Raju, sacrifice not once, but twice or more? Why does it never happen that people in cities, so often the beneficiaries of water projects, are asked to sacrifice?

What if we altered that homily to say this: you want benefits, you've got to sacrifice. Or, if you're being asked to sacrifice, you will be the first to get benefits. Suppose Sahara's clients were told: you will get water, sure, but first give up your home to someone losing his, like Raju. Or what if someone being uprooted is told: sacrifice your home for this dam, and you will be resettled right away in its command area. You will benefit from the water from the dam before anyone else does.

Why is water distribution never considered this way? Yet, as water gets scarcer and its use more negotiated, it seems to me it will have to be considered like this. The politics of water will have to start from this point: Those who use, pay. Those who pay, use. (And by "pay" I mean every sense of the word: sacrifices made by displaced people as well as a fair price charged to farmers).

Second, which may be related, water is a resource that belongs to all. Again for too long, it has been supplied freely to two groups of people in particular: the urban upper- and middle-classes, who can pay for it; and farmers who need irrigation, who -- we are told -- are too poor to pay for it. This has led to perversities that are visible all over this country. Slum families must queue up for water, often at a single tap. In villages, families throng at the lone hand pump for the stuff: this is a sight that is so invariant in India that you might be forgiven for thinking hand pumps go back to Vedic times. Yet high-rise buildings always have water, flowing out of multiple taps in each flat. So, I have no doubt, will the gorgeous homes in Sahara's Amby Valley.

I'd like to suggest this: that water must be considered to be like air. Common to all. Certainly it exists in less abundance than air does, which means its use must be negotiated and regulated. But with that constraint, everyone on this planet must have equal access to it. This is not an easy concept to get widely accepted, but that's what skilled politicians exist for. Unequal access to water will lead us to disputes and war, and heading off that spectre is also what skilled politicians exist for.

Which brings me to ...

Third, politics and politicians. Much as we have learned to be distrustful of our politicians, there's really no need to shy away from politics. There are indeed skilful, sincere politicians too, and they have been known to negotiate hard for things they believe in.

In fact, to me this much is clear: the only way people like Raju will ever be treated fairly is if their rights are negotiated for politically, though always sincerely.

And that's why it is important: those who want water use to be fairer than it is must take, with enthusiasm and adrenalin, to politics. No need at all to shy away.


Michael Higgins said...

Hi Dilip
You said that Raju of Thakursahi village and the other farmers were not adequately compensated for the loss of their farms. How is the compensation determined? Isn't there something equivalent to "fair market value" in India? It is never nice to be displace but it would be tragic if one were to lose their life's investment as well.

I agree that politics is always a major player in determining where water goes. You seem to be saying that this is more or less an inevitablity and therefore people should become more politically active and fight for their share of water. Being politically active is good, but there is a better way to make sure everyone gets water.

The major problem with water is that it is a precious commodity that is not bought and sold in the marketplace. If people pay for water, then water will go the people who really need it. And it would be affordable to all because water is actually plentiful and doesn't need to be grown like food.

Obviously, politics enters into the decision to build a dam and the decision to put a pipe from point A to point B. But the politicians machinations will be less relevant for the average person as long as the people who lose land get fair market compensation and the people who receive water pay for it.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written..

I agree completely about the need to engage in politics, I think particularly in India, that politics has become a dirty word. It's looked upon traditinally, as not something that bright decent hard-working kids should aspire to.

It's also especially unfortunate, I think that India grows so much rice, a very water intensive crop. Maybe we should grow less rice, even import a little (of the expensive variety) if need be, and instead grow less water-intensive crops.

Also wonder, will water be the oil of this brave new century?

Sujatha Bagal said...


You might be interested in this report about a recent expansion of the takings law in the US. The US Supreme Court recently allowed local governments to take a person's property, not for building schools or bridges or roads (in other words, for public use), but for enabling private development so local government can make more money via higher tax revenues.

The slippery slope just got more slippery and a lot more slopier (?). The property will certainly go to the entity that can pay the most money for it, but not necessarily to someone who values it the most. This is where public policy needed to step in, but unfortunately, it sided with the moneybags.


Sunil said...

It reads remarkably well in translation, and "Pani me dhuli raajneeti" sounds fantastic!

A well written piece, bringing out very important issues.

Amit said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Amit said...

Dilip - The politics of water and also using water as a pawn in the political chess is rampant now.

Even the international politics is not devoid of that and if I remember correctly there is some friction between India and Pak in that regards as well. Same case between India and Bangladesh as well as China.

I have seen so much polarised views on the Dam issues (especially on the Narmada project). Medha Patkar and Baba Amte on one side and others who support the dam on the basis of modernisation on other side. I personally think that both the sides have some valid arguments. The Dams are an essential part of water conservation and distribution systems, but proper displacement of people and their rehabilitation is equally essential.

Have you ever interacted with those in support of or against the Nramada Project? do they realise that the other side has a valid argument as well?

Anshul said...

We all have seen, experienced and relished the infamous political trauma and mishaps from our childhood.

What has changed in these years is the definition of 'Corruption'. If an individual gets the work done while taking the benefit in kind/cash...he is the most honest person. Well, corruption occurs when he takes the benefit and does not perform the job which he is supposed to.