Notions of water scarcity

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Case study exposing the social and power relations which usually underlie water crises

THE POLITICS AND POETICS OF WATER - Naturalising Scarcity in Western India: Lyla Mehta; Orient Longman, 3-6-752, Himayatnagar, Hyderabad-500029. Rs. 695.This book grew out of a doctoral thesis, but one quickly forgets that origin and loses oneself in the experience of immersion in a fascinating book. The book has several strands: the history of Kutch as a unique area with special ecological characteristics, and also as exemplifying the category of dry lands; the wound inflicted on it at the time of the Partition by the severance of its vital riparian links to the Indus Basin (which were ignored in the Indus Treaty negotiations); the changes in the attitudes to water management that came about with the transition from its erstwhile status as a small princely state to its merger with the Indian Union; caste, socio-economic power and ritual relations in Kutch; divergent perceptions of and responses to water 'scarcity' at different levels and among different groups (within Kutch, at the popular level in the State as a whole, and at the State Government level); the relationship between Kutch and the Sardar Sarovar Project; and the kind of thinking that underlies water policy and planning in general. A brief review cannot do justice to the richness and complexity of the book.

Scarcity 'naturalised'

The historical account, scholarly citations, extracts from old documents as also from the author's fieldwork journals, illustrative cases, occasional autobiographical details, and indications of the depth of feeling that the author has for the area, together build up a compelling and unforgettable picture. Kutch comes vividly alive in these pages. An important point that the book seeks to make is that water scarcity is generally 'naturalised', i.e. regarded as a natural phenomenon and a basic characteristic of the area in question, ignoring such water endowment as may exist and the seasonality of the scarcity; and that the answer to the generalised or 'essentialised' scarcity is presumed to lie in 'relief' works and in bringing in water from outside. The author points out that water scarcity often arises from (or is aggravated by) the wrong use of water encouraged by wrong governmental policies and programmes, which unthinkingly favour irrigated agriculture over pastoralism, though the latter may be the more appropriate activity for the area in question.

Coping strategies

Planners also fail to take note of the actual nature of the 'scarcity' in a given area and the coping strategies that the local people have evolved over the years; some of these, such as 'transhumance' (the temporary herding of livestock to other grazing areas) or seasonal migration, are misunderstood. It is the argument of the book that instead of recognising and strengthening long-established coping strategies, governmental relief programmes and promises of water from distant sources undermine the self-reliance and resilience of the people and promote an attitude of dependency. They also lead to the gradual loss of old knowledge and techniques. Besides, drought-relief programmes tend to be inequitable in operation, confer benefits not on those who need them but on certain privileged and powerful groups, create vested interests, and promote corruption. That is a very compressed and sketchy (but not, one hopes, seriously inaccurate) summary of a long and close argument spread over several sections of the book.

Gujarat's lifeline

Turning to the Sardar Sarovar project (SSP), the author shows how a statewide consensus on the SSP as 'the lifeline of Gujarat' has been assiduously manufactured. Even the Kutchis, particularly those who are outside Kutch or abroad, have adopted the theory that 'there is no alternative' (TINA) to SSP, though the relevant facts and practices, and the history of life in the area show that there are indeed alternatives and that external water may not really be needed. Besides, the dominance of the SSP and the compulsion to provide funds for it tend to pre-empt all resources and energies leading to the neglect of the other activities and programmes that are urgently needed.


Putting aside his general agreement with much of what the author says, this reviewer has tried to ask himself what criticisms, if any, can be made of the book. Three points come to mind. First, the English, generally correct, occasionally falters; this very minor flaw could have been taken care of by better copy-editing. Incidentally, the word 'poetics' in the title of the book is evidently a reference to the multi-dimensionality of water, transcending the engineering, economic and political perspectives. The usage is questionable, but the more important point is that so far as this reviewer could tell, it is nowhere explained. Secondly, the two central theses, namely, that a wrong conceptualisation of 'scarcity' leads to blindness to the realities of the situation and to wrong prescriptions, and that there has been a deliberate manufacture of a consensus in favour of the SSP, are argued repetitively in several chapters. Undoubtedly, the point gains strength through reiteration, but the book could perhaps have been made a bit slimmer and tighter through the elimination of some of the repetition. Thirdly, the larger themes discussed in the last chapter are important, but they seem to go somewhat beyond the findings emerging from the specific Kutch-related research and fieldwork; and the issues cannot and do not receive the kind of elaboration that they require. However, these observations do not detract from the reviewer's overall assessment of the book as an important and valuable contribution both as an area study and as an analysis of water policy and planning in this country.



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