Water was once as precious as oil is today: Tirthankar Roy
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Economic historian Tirthankar Roy on how we overcame floods and droughts, and the price we paid for it

October 06, 2022 03:25 pm | Updated 08:30 pm IST

Women fetch potable water from a traditional rain water fed 'Kund' seen crossing a deserted highway on a hot afternoon at Bharunsar village.

Women fetch potable water from a traditional rain water fed 'Kund' seen crossing a deserted highway on a hot afternoon at Bharunsar village. | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

Water was once as precious as oil is today and it played a crucial role in the economic fate of the Indian subcontinent, argues Tirthankar Roy, an economic historian at the London School of Economics and the author of Monsoon Economies: India’s History in a Changing Climate.

In a chat with The Hindu, Mr. Roy explores the major geographic challenge that stalled India’s economic growth over many centuries, how it was finally overcome, and the price that is still being paid for government action that was aimed at solving the challenge.

Q / Can you elaborate on the major geographical challenge that you argue stunted India's growth historically?

A / Much of India falls in the tropical monsoon climatic zone. The tropical lands experience excessive heat that dries up much surface water for a long stretch of the year. Parts of the tropics also experience seasonal floods and rains, known in many places as the monsoon. In the past, the monsoon enabled agriculture in these arid areas. But because of the excessive dryness in the rest of the year, the cultivation season was short. The rural population faced a short busy season followed by a long period of unemployment. Also, variations in the volume and timing of rainfall, the only security against excessive heat, meant a high risk of floods and droughts. These conditions did not influence equally all parts of the large region, but they did much of it. In short, unemployment and a high risk of disasters were a permanent feature of the economic life in India in the past.

Q / How exactly did Indian governments in the 19th century try to overcome this geographical challenge?

A / From precisely a hundred years ago, the survival rate against severe droughts and floods started to rise steadily. Large canal projects appeared in Punjab in the colonial era, and the famine-policy focus shifted from food to water. But the great transformation did not owe just to a new engineering capability or state policy. Case laws, social protest movements striving for equality of access to water, and urban water systems enabled more equitable distribution of water. Independent India maintained that trajectory by extending the water infrastructure many times over. Over two thousand dams and reservoirs were built to contain floods and increase storage.

Q / What are the negative consequences that you argue came about as a result of government intervention? Are these not simply a manifestation of the phenomenon called 'tragedy of the commons' described by economists?

A / That achievement came with a price. Dams and reservoirs displaced people and altered geographies in strange and sinister ways. In the last thirty years, drilling took over as the dam drive flagged because of these costs. Late waves of the green revolution and the post-liberalization city growth stood upon groundwater extraction. It is now amply clear that the groundwater drive has made the exhaustion of a precious resource likely.

A / Tragedy of the commons is not quite the right term for these problems. The tragedy of the commons approach tells us that a resource that is open access will suffer overuse and depletion. This is what is happening with groundwater. But tragedy is not the right word for what is happening. Rather, this is the price you pay for dealing with a vulnerability that caused devastating tragedies like famines and droughts in the past. These disasters are now a distant memory, and yet the price paid for that achievement is huge.

Q / Can't better institutions (in the form of well-defined private property rights, for example) effectively overcome inherent geographical challenges to growth?

A / To some extent, yes. Economists will tell us that a properly designed property rights will take care of the problem of open access resources. The fact is, there are few large-scale examples of how this works, and how you get agreements between different types of users of the resource on a restriction of their rights. Cooperative solutions are known to work on a small scale, in a few places, and are vulnerable to ethnic and other forms of diversity among users.

A / Along with institutions, markets and science can suggest promising solutions too. Think of large-scale water trade, artificial aquifers recharge, and overground drips of course, though none is a magic bullet.

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