BookView | Amita Baviskar- Waterscapes: The Cultural Politics of a Natural Resource

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BookView is a monthly column that brings together a variety of interesting and intense reviews on books ranging from fiction to poetry to non-fiction.

Amita Baviskar in her book Waterscapes begins with a powerful line, “Struggles over water are simultaneously struggles for power over symbolic representations and material resources.” This statement has been omnipresent throughout the book, and it bears immense significance to understand the realities of water in a political and socio-cultural context. The book has a rich collection of essays, which contribute historically with data and examples to prove the recurrent issue of water across India, Australia and North America. These essays include conceptual frameworks of political ecology, highlighting major issues around water management and control. The aspects covered in the first half of the book are constructed scarcities through states and market interventions. It then moves on to community engagement, policy initiatives, gender, caste and class relations along with systematic exclusions in a cultural context. This book also makes groundwater fairly visible and integrates the exploration of its meanings as well as its uses into a gendered and historical analysis of contemporary water conflicts and myths. Each of the chapters in this book demonstrate the importance of historical research, analysis and correlations in understanding the very contemporary politics during current times as well. In each case, the analyses they develop are of direct relevance to environmental historians in both developed and developing countries.

Donald Atwood’s ‘Small is Deadly, Big is Wasteful: The Impact of Large-scale Industrial Systems in Western India’ begins the book with a strong historical relevance and how water availability and accessibility relates to the food crisis and population through a historical perspective (1860s onwards). He claims that industrial technology, markets and administrative systems have improved food security. The concepts of large scale systems, overshooting and efficiency are also elaborately explained. Atwood systematically puts down events in a historical fashion, starting with the crop failure and famines, moving on to the block system, canal irrigation and how large scale systems actually impacted the ecological system in a disastrous manner. He moves on to dams to explain the wasteful nature of these constructions and how the fiscal irresponsibility of those included in such projects actually lead to a major deterioration of the environment. Proper economic efficiency, environmental sustainability and social equity must be the three pillars of development projects. He ends his essay with the importance of including participatory management into systems for better accessibility and equitable distribution of natural resources. The politics of water can thus be claimed to be a part of a historical trajectory in India, even before independence. The major dams discussed by Atwood and their impact, raise questions around the use of the dam water not only for medium scale agriculture but for highly capitalized concerns. 

David Hardiman’s ‘The Politics of Water Scarcity in Gujarat’ speaks about agricultural intensification increasing the strain on water to a massive extent in the state of Gujarat. The problems of groundwater extraction and depletion are also highlighted in this essay. In the light of the issue of water in Gujarat, this essay helped construct perspectives through property, economic and ecological relations along with their socio-cultural relevance. He also talks about successful water management through self-help groups, with proper resource management and a well-developed plan for checking, maintenance and funding. David Hardiman develops his sustained historical analysis of colonial policy and experience by extending it directly, and just as carefully, into the contemporary setting in a closely argued discussion of the current politics of groundwater, privatization and power in Gujarat. Similarly the construction of polarized cultures of rurality and urbanity, and the broader questions of the impact of the footprint of cities far beyond their physical boundaries, is suggested in Hardiman’s chapter here and relates as much to myths of water scarcity as of its use. These myths are being mobilized aggressively in debates around the drought and competing water uses in city and rural areas. Hardiman also discusses various technological interventions which have influenced conditions for water control and distribution. The decline and erosion of collectivities controlled by oligarchies creates conditions for democratic associations. 

Deborah Sick in ‘Yours, Mine, and Ours’ discusses the extractive technologies for groundwater resources in arid regions. She explains water management in social, political, economic and cultural contexts along with explaining power imbalances in accessibility. She gives a development oriented perspective on water management and how effective management is extremely important to understand through social context, mechanisms, taking local factors into consideration, institutional resilience and understanding power relations existing within the community. She also throws some light on law, land ownerships, rights, common pool resources and capital intensive production. What is extremely interesting about her essay is how she combines the requirement of participatory management in policy implementation and how it is important to carry out effective conservation around thinking, facilitation, distribution and full cost for usage of projects. She engages in the culture and politics of water in South and Central America, which enriches the themes of the book and gives a better outlook towards water management and agrarian policy and development. 

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‘The Local Politics of Ground Water in North Gujarat’ by Navroz K. Dubash discusses the lack of details on groundwater and insufficient data available to understand the realities of water scarcity. He highlights the development of groundwater markets, agrarian increment, social relations, productivity enhancement application, access to credit and physical characteristics of the ideas on scarcity. The patterns of accessing social mobility are related to social organization, the socio-economic conditions in agrarian societies and the nature of class, social and cultural relationships of the community. Dubash draws connections in local histories of groundwater development and the current scenario. He also speaks about dominant communities driving the nature of cultivation, credit and accessibility to natural resources. The essay is a crisp yet elaborate understanding of socio-cultural relationships to natural resource management. His examples highlight class and caste based understanding, kinship, bargaining, hydrological and sociological risks of these systems which ultimately lead to stabilized systems of exchange and participation. The idea of deepened commodification through mechanization implies the excessive stress of groundwater required as well. Dubash also highlights the idea of local politics, which is important to integrate and how a history of exclusion in the community has denied basic access to marginalized groups of one of the most important resources on planet- water.

Rita Brara’s ‘The Public Sphere and Water Provisioning: Discontinuities in the Present’ is a good start to the next part of the book, the idea of community involvement and engagement in natural resource management. She conceptualizes the existence and working of public sphere in the cultural milieu and era. Her core argument is that it is possible to trace the evolution of a public realm in relation to contemporary practices of parliamentary democracy and govern-mentality. She brings in philosophers such as Foucault, Habermas, Marx and Fraser to draw from their theories, substantiating her own claims. ‘Discourses are limited practical domains with their own boundaries, rules of formation and conditions of existence.’ The concept of political and democratic representation is henceforth the main highlight of this essay, which she beautifully lays down in an intricate manner. This essay seems of particular importance because is draws connections between social and environmental systems, where ideas such as decentralization, eco-knowlegde, enviro-discpline, environmentality, exploitation, outsourcing and their relations to public and private sphere help us identify historical patterns of cultural set-ups for natural resource management. She also speaks about the problem of water and the source of this resource. The gap is of effective communication and redressal between scientific-technical exercises of the state and representative institutions of residents of the area. If these issues were to be solved with immediate effect in the social sphere, it would automatically enhance and improve the environmental sphere. 

Arun De Souza in his essay ‘Our Villages Puts Aside Politics for Development: Fluid Communities and Stable Claims’ elaborates upon the notion of development, the Gandhian and Nehruvian trajectories along with the concept of disenchantment of the state and communities. The definition is more or less manipulated by local politics and governance at the village and local levels. Smaller narratives of agitation against such political agendas are neglected and the focus is brought upon only by development. Like Hardiman, his focus on dams and its catastrophic impacts are highlighted throughout the essay. He pays special attention to socio-ecological system relations, and how it is important to look at local units for better sustained environments. Discourses are primarily concerned past social groups, which is an aspect of politics, involving competition, opposition and debate. The development discourse seems to be an integral policy debate which is ultimately a language of legitimacy for the state, neglecting community opinion and henceforth leading to lack of cooperation amongst them, causing friction and agitation. De Souza’s essay was an interesting read as it involved present political scenarios through historical relevance. It laid down public agitation and state mechanisms, and the disconnect between the two. 

Judith Carney’s ‘Asleep Then but Awake Now’ is a detailed study of the shifts in development of the Gambia river floodplain from low intensity women’s rice farming to high intensity irrigated farming, which raises not only the changes in the gendered implications of development from colonial to contemporary periods but also interrogates the use of the concepts of ‘tradition’ and ‘custom’ in such processes. It explores the political, social and environmental consequences of large-scale dams and irrigation projects throughout the subcontinent. Her focus on land and labor rights, the right to independent production, gender-based resource struggle and historical patterns of land use and subsequent exploitation outline the various gender, political and cultural relations to ecological systems. The essay is written in explicitly wonderful language, she covers everything from local struggles to policy shifts and gaps, drawing strong patterns of historical socio-cultural patterns in the development trajectory. Carney’s piece is an important gendered analysis which recognizes the crucial role of the cultures of water as well as the impacts of water scarcity on the livelihoods of those involved. She ends it by pointing out the cultural and symbolic processes of gendered conflicts, social structures glaring within a local system of communities and how this in turn projects a larger picture of water politics and existing conflicts. 

Lyla Mehta and Anand Punja’s dynamic essay ‘Water Well-being: Explaining the Gap in Understandings of Water’ is by far the best essay in the book on a personal note. It explores multifaceted aspects of water politics in Gujarat. Be it displacement, gender,  accessibility, power relations, different aspects and definitions of water well-being and social as well as personal contexts, the essay covers it all. The topics range from various social, economic, cultural, political and environmental spheres, and are interconnected extremely well to help understand the multi-dimensional aspects of water and well-being. The authors include Amartya Sen and Foucault to draw connections and explain theories which translate to control, accessibility, bio-power and social factors influencing water management and availability. The piece begins with displacement of people in the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project, then moves on to the gaps in perceptions of development, the relationships between infrastructure projects and discourses of development. It stresses on the attachment reduced through generations through state involvement and changes for the requirement of resources. The importance of territorially based identity and social narratives to highlight the cultural decline in perceptions of local natural resources. The essay ends with the need for collective representations to be understood in the context of symbolic and material interests. 

Each essay is extremely relevant and of integral importance as it offers nuanced and focused studies of shifting local cultural and political relationships without losing sight of the broader questions of relations with the state and market along with a globalizing economy in interaction with a rapidly changing, evolving and also deteriorating environment. The case studies and examples elaborated upon are of relevant significance in both Indian and international contexts. With thorough overall analyses in different realms of socio-ecological contexts, it is also an important resource for understanding the relationships and factors contributing to the realm of water and natural resource management in general. Most of the authors in the book engage both critically and constructively with the debates around the emerging concept of political ecology, allowing trans-disciplinary discussions to emerge and also a shift in thinking about immersing environmental systems in social spaces. It also opens up a space for discussing further the future of economic growth and ecological sustainability, in both local and global contexts. The best part about this book is the question is raises for us to ponder upon, where cultural politics, social relations, power struggles and natural resource management are at the core of discussions, playing a vital role in imagining how the claim to these resources is actually held in the hands of people. It involves a major contribution in the fields of anthropology, history, sociology and even ecology, giving us an inclusive perspective on cultural, political, social and environmental issues. This book has been an enriching read for me personally, it has also piqued my interest further to understand the politics of water and resource management. Amita Baviskar has done a terrific job in compiling these essays involving so many multifaceted aspects of water, to create a book of sheer brilliance. 

Featured image source: Youtube

Ayesha Mehrotra is the Sustainability and Outreach Officer at One Future Collective