From Jal Shakti to Jal Prabandhan

Changing the narrative of India’s water crisis

Vishal Narain and Sameer Shah | November 12, 2019


#Jal Shakti Abhiyan   #technology   #gender   #environment   #Water  
Women collecting water in a Bundelkhand village (Photo: Governance Now)
Women collecting water in a Bundelkhand village (Photo: Governance Now)

This piece is based on a previous article by the authors published in Geoforum [Elsevier] in May 2019: available online: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/ S0016718519300764?via%3Dihub [Article DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/ j.geoforum.2019.02.030].

 

A challenge to our elected officials: Visit one village and discuss the seasonal and everyday challenges of accessing water with different residents. Ask yourself: Do some residents remain water insecure and others not, and if so, why might this be the case? What will likely become clear is that water flows where social, economic and political power are, leaving some water secure and others without safe and sufficient access for their daily activities.

The clearest examples of this occur where water sources may be physically available, but certain social groups may be denied access to them. Such patterns endure in rural and urban areas both during peak times of water scarcity (e.g., a prolonged drought) and even under “normal” conditions. For instance, water is always available in a five-star hotel, on a flight, or in a railway station but the same cannot be guaranteed for the homes, pipes, and lands of marginalized people, who face social and economic challenges and trade-offs even in meeting their basic water needs.

This is India’s water crisis: An ever-present phenomenon experienced unevenly within regions, communities, and neighbourhoods. It is not suddenly now occurring and homogenously experienced by everyone. Recognising the social and institutional causes will help channelize efforts at reducing the unequal and uneven access to water – a cornerstone of the water crisis.

It is important to understand here the concept of narrative, a story with a moral or a lesson that frames the set of policy responses for a given problem. Narratives shape our way of framing problems and the corresponding solutions that are needed. For instance, in the absence of institutions to regulate resource use, ecologist Garrett Hardin predicted that resources would suffer overexploitation and become depleted in due course in what he called the “Tragedy of the Commons”. This culminated in prescriptions to nationalise natural resources or establish private property regimes. But in the years to follow, political scientist Elinor Ostrom established the potential of communities to govern natural resources sustainably on the basis of rules in use devised for this purpose. The ability of communities to manage natural resources sustainably became the dominant narrative of the 1980s and 1990s and led to many efforts to establish community-based natural resource management institutions.

Too often, narratives of India’s water crisis suggest it to revolve completely around the physical unavailability of water. Efforts therefore tend to be technocratic, located in supply augmentation and water conservation. This has, in fact, been the dominant approach of India's water provisioning departments, and continues to underlie recent initiatives like the Jal Shakti mission.

One reason that these efforts are limited in their impact is the mandate and professional composition of water supplying agencies like the Public Health and Engineering Department (PHED), which supplies drinking water to most of our rural areas. The same could be said about organizations like the state level Irrigation Departments or Ground Water Boards. The engineering orientation of these organizations has led them to be staffed predominantly by engineers. Since engineering has been a professional choice mainly of men, this translates into a gender imbalance in the water sector as well. A patriarchal context of water provisioning means that women or even other social groups that are marginalised find little space to influence processes of water provisioning.

Redefining the water crisis as a socio-institutional one might entail, as a first-step, changing the composition and staffing of utilities engaged in provisioning water to better include the representation of the interests of women and other social groups, and professionals with non-engineering skill sets (e.g., in social sciences) as a starting point through which different viewpoints and solutions could be expressed.

Many of our cities have grown by engulfing the water bodies around their periphery. These include major cities like Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and Gurugram. These water bodies are constantly encroached upon, or acquired by the state and real-estate entities. On the one hand, this has been associated with incidences of urban flooding. On the other hand, it has dispossessed many communities that depended on these water sources for livelihood purposes. It is paradoxical that on the one hand we commit to recharging and conserving water, and on the other hand, in the garb of urbanization, we continue to deny communities access to ponds, lakes and wetlands, that have performed multiple functions for them. This must change, if our water crisis is to be redressed in ways that are both sustainable and equitable.

A scare is often painted on the prospect of so-called “water wars” emerging from situations of water scarcity. Quite the contrary is also true: communities cooperate in shaping collective responses to water scarcity. They mobilise their networks and social relationships. These efforts need to be better understood, documented and supported. State agencies should work closely with NGOs in facilitating this process of community organization and mobilisation, building on local social capital.

We need renewed attention in formal policy approaches to the social and institutional causes that shape water access. State agencies should focus their attention on correcting the regional and temporal imbalances in water access, on their own, or in partnership with academics, NGOs, and civil society organizations. For a new and more sustained approach to tackling the water crisis, the way we see the water crisis has to change.

Vishal Narain is professor, Management Development Institute, Gurgaon. Sameer Shah is a PhD candidate with University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.
 

Comments

 

Other News

Covid-19 antibodies found in 86.64% Mumbai citizens

As many as 86.64% citizens of the city of Greater Mumbai have antibodies, according to the fifth sero-prevalence survey. Among the people who are fully or partially vaccinated, the antibodies were found in 90.26%, while among the unvaccinated citizens, 79.86% had antibodies. The Municipal C

`Bad Bank`: All you wanted to know about NARCL

The cabinet has cleared the formation of ‘National Asset Reconstruction Company Limited’ (NARCL) which will acquire “stressed assets” of about Rs. 2 Lakh crore in phases within RBI regulations in order to address the problem of humongous amounts of bad loans in public sector banks.

Citizens Charter: How this less-known law empowers us

When consumer rights and RTI activist Mohammad Afzal was shifting to a new residence in a different area, he required changes in various documents. He decided to take the help of the Citizens Charter along with other friends who also required similar work with authorities. The Citizens Chart

Minister for Ports, Shipping & Waterways emphasises on setting up of National Transport Facilitation Committees

Union Minister for Ports, Shipping & Waterways and AYUSH, Sarbananda Sonowal has underlined the importance of cross-border connectivity among India and developing nations of South-East Asia. Addressing the ASEAN summit on Future of India-ASEAN Connectivity Partnerships virt

Ministry of Finance organises advance training programme in PPP for states

The Department of Economic Affairs (DEA), Ministry of Finance and the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore has organised a virtual advance level training programme on Public-Private Partnership. Additional Secretary DEA, K Rajaraman, Joint Secretary, DEA, Baldeo Purushartha

Ministry of Agriculture signs MoUs for Digital Agriculture

Modernisation of the Agriculture sector will continue by infusing new technologies so that farmers can increase their income, states Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar. The Ministry of Agriculture and farmer welfare has signed MOUs for pilot projects with Cisco, Ninjacar

Visionary Talk: GVL Narasimha Rao, Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha on Upcoming UP Elections


Archives

Current Issue

Opinion

Facebook    Twitter    Google Plus    Linkedin    Subscribe Newsletter

Twitter