Water wise

Print edition : August 29, 2008
A timely and must-read volume presenting an overall scenario on water and conflicts over water.

Water as an issue has evoked rather extreme positions in contemporary development discourse. There is now the sufficiently debunked “prediction” of the next World War being over water, the techno-centric babble of river waters “wasting” into the sea and the need to “control” it, and talk of alternatives and rights of access over this natural resource. In this context comes a balanced and engaging perspective from Ramaswamy Iyer in Towards Water Wisdom: Limits, Justice, Harmony. His world of experience with the subject as a bureaucrat, an indefatigable columnist and a member of several committees and commissions gets reflected in the book. Many of the things he says may not come as new to those who have read him in the media or listened to him at seminars. This is a timely and must-read volume presenting an overall scenario on water and conflicts over water.

The book is written in a style so typical of Ramaswamy Iyer – lucid and devoid of jargon – laying out his personal opinion on a few water conflicts, as also giving an objective account of a few others. Right at the outset he makes a point that the current water “crisis” is not so much about the “availability” of water as it is about mismanagement. In the Indian context, at least, he looks at it as “a crisis of gross mismanagement, and globally, as a crisis of rapacity” (page 20).

He trashes cliched thinking and fashionable jargon around water, including some of the policies that govern water in India. Each section in the book – there are six – is deeply engaging. “Understanding Water”, “Understanding Conflicts (River Water Disputes)”, “Making Sense of Laws and Policies” and “Conflicts of Other Kinds” are the most important ones. There is also a useful appendix of references to Ramaswamy Iyer’s other writings that he has obviously drawn upon.

The second half of the book is where Ramaswamy Iyer becomes deeply involved, very self-engaging as well, starting with the Narmada issue, issue of water privatisation and market-dominated thinking on water. More importantly, where he critiques (sometimes wry humour marking his critique) water policies in terms of “making sense” of the “muddle” of government policies and intent, his experience as a bureaucrat having dealt with these issues comes to the fore.

Discussing three water-related policies – the National Water Policy 2002, the National Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy 2003 and the National Environment Policy 2004 – he takes a critical stand on what constitutes “development”. In the context of the National R&R Policy, for instance, he writes, “The theory that ‘development’ entails ‘costs’ and that this is a ‘sacrifice’ that some must accept in order that others might benefit must be recognised to be disingenuous and sanctimonious; it must be firmly abandoned. Pain and hardship imposed by some on others cannot be described as a sacrifice by the latter. Acceptance of hardship must be voluntary, and must confer an entitlement to benefits…. ‘Stakeholder consultation’ is another misleading and sanctimonious formulation. Both the beneficiaries of big projects (farmers receiving irrigation in the command area, industries and cities getting electricity, etc.) and those whose lands, livelihoods, and centuries-old access to the natural resource base are being taken away are lumped together as ‘stakeholders’ who must be consulted. In truth, the beneficiaries are stake-gainers whereas the project-affected groups are stake-losers and the primacy of the latter over the former needs to be recognised….” (pages 163-164).

On the face of it, Towards Water Wisdom is like a reader for those seeking a comprehensive account of the water scenario, especially, conflicts over water in the country. But as one digs deeper it seems as good as a policy document on some very important water debates of contemporary times, including perspectives on water privatisation, rehabilitation and environmental considerations that are corollaries to the water issue.

Ramaswamy Iyer gives a fairly comprehensive account of water conflicts within India and between India and neighbouring nations – Pakistan (Indus Water Treaty and Baglihar issue), Nepal (Kali river issue), Bangladesh and Bhutan. Of these, the Indus Treaty gets most space. He believes that the treaty, in the absence of corrective measures on both sides over water-logging, salinity and inability to resolve intra-regional crises and conflicts over access to the river waters, was like “surgery on the river system, dividing it into two segments, one for Pakistan, one for India. The surgery on the river systems (Indus on the west, Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna on the east) was of course a part of the surgery of the subcontinent” (page 67).

While being significantly cited as a treaty that survived three wars between the two countries and as a successful example of conflict resolution, the Indus Waters Treaty (1960) was nevertheless, according to Ramaswamy Iyer, reduced to simply a division of waters with no continuous sharing of (benefits of) the same. Giving away three of the western rivers to Pakistan and eastern rivers to India meant neglecting the demands of the people over waters of the rivers on either side. The treaty allocated the Jhelum, the Chenab and the Indus to Pakistan and the Ravi, the Beas and the Sutlej to India.

Jammu and Kashmir felt the treaty left it at a disadvantage since it could not use the waters of the western rivers flowing through the State. India was allowed to construct “run of the river” hydroelectric projects over the rivers handed over to Pakistan. But problems arose over the Baglihar dam over the Chenab. Says Ramaswamy Iyer: “As early as in 1953, many years before the Treaty, thinking had begun on transfer of waters from the eastern rivers to Rajasthan through a canal. In the 1950s again, Bhakra Nangal was already under construction. If the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej had not been allocated to India, Pakistan would have had the usual lower riparian rights over these rivers, and would have had to be consulted about these projects, and would surely have raised objections.… In a sense, one might say that the allocation of eastern rivers to India under the Indus Treaty removed Pakistan from the picture in relation to these rivers, and retrospectively legitimised the Bhakra Nangal and Rajasthan Canal Projects. The price paid was the sacrifice of rights over the western rivers” (page 74).

Shifting cattle out of flooded waters of the Narmada at Bhadal. A file picture. “Both the beneficiaries of big projects and those whose lands, livelihoods, and centuries-old access to the natural resource base are being taken away are lumped together as ‘stakeholders’ who must be consulted. - VIVEK BENDRE

Ramaswamy Iyer points out that most mainstream (past and current) thinking on water “crisis” has been irrigation-dominated and engineering-centric – supply-based thinking/approach to make more water available for use, and fixing problems through engineering. Perceiving water as a “commodity” informed such thinking.

He writes: “The engineering-dominated supply-side approach meant that attention was focussed on what is referred to as water resource development; the manner in which water was used or managed received little attention…. That view continues to hold sway in the Indian Water Establishment. They see the problem in terms of (a) spatial variations in the availability of water, and (b) a crisis looming on the horizon. …Their answer, once again, is more supply-side engineering” (pages 34-35).

Similarly, most mainstream (flawed) thinking centred around “flood control” rather than better management of areas lying in the flood zones and disaster preparedness. He says a crisis of availability of water theory leads to questions of managing the “demand” for water and consequently works into supply-side thinking. The terminology of demand and supply has roots in the understanding of water as a commodity, and projecting future demand to work out models for meeting those demands, making more water available for irrigation (“largest” and “most inefficient user” of water, at 80 per cent) and industry, and not at ways of moderation in using this finite natural resource (pages 38-40).

A noteworthy argument he makes in his critique of “water wars” is that water cannot be treated as a commodity to be traded with, unlike oil, and that even if it were it would make for a fairly volatile trading commodity. There may not be enough water even if at some point in future countries were to look at trading as an option.

Having been associated with dialogues and debates on the Interlinking of Rivers project during National Democratic Alliance rule, Ramaswamy Iyer gives an informed critique of it. According to him, “rivers are not human artifacts; they are natural phenomena, integral components of ecological systems, and inextricable parts of the cultural, social, economic and spiritual lives of the communities concerned. They are not pipelines to be cut, turned around, welded and rejoined” (page 48). He says the project will have serious consequences besides that of submergence, displacement, ecological impacts and so on. In a context where intra-basin sharing of river waters has caused such intense conflicts, “such an effort may initiate new conflicts between basins” (page 54).

In the present state of water crises, Ramaswamy Iyer recommends support for local and community-led practices, with large projects being only the last option in the absence of alternatives. He also moots the idea of public trusteeship as against total state control. This would mean reviewing the colonial concept of “eminent domain” (page 155), implying total control over rivers and water (in the context of irrigation), which dominates official thinking.

In matters of water conflicts, efforts of civil society groups and non-governmental institutions, such as that of Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), in bringing together ‘stakeholders’ (farmers) on both ends of the Cauvery water dispute have been commended. But where he mentions the same effort on the issue of the Palar river and the MIDS-initiated Multi Stakeholder Dialogue (MSD), he points out, “It seems to have achieved a degree of cusses in promoting better mutual understanding and a reduction of hostility. However, it does so at a price: a life-destroying activity gets partly legitimised. Perhaps that is realism. In any case, the MSD has not gone beyond a point. This again is an unfinished story” (page 139).

Speaking of the National Water Policy 2002, the critique is that “ecology” comes “fourth in the list of priorities in water allocation. This is to turn things upside down. We receive water from nature as a bounty; we cannot presume to allocate water to nature…. Water itself is a part of nature, and sound ecological balance will determine the continued availability of water. Ecology then is prior to all water-uses, and it is absurd to make an allocation of water for ecology…” (page 206). There is a reminder here for all those who think of dams as the means of allocation of waters to different user groups, preventing rivers from “wasting into the sea”, for instance. Further, there is much more to rivers than “minimum flows” which accepts for itself a belief that so long as there is adequate water in the rivers the rest can be diverted, whereas “rivers must flow…What we need is not minimum flows but minimum interference with natural flows…” (page 207).

In the face of many complex realities concerning water, and hopeless policies governing thinking on water-related issues, Ramaswamy Iyer spends some time also reflecting on a few hopeful situations where debates, activism and local initiatives have made a difference. Finally, the author’s “wisdom” on water suggests a need for learning the world “afresh” and the necessity for consensus on a constitutional declaration on water and a National Water Law (pages 224-30). This is an immensely useful addition to literature on water issues, if the subjects touched upon here are any indication.

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