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Mild towards Government, Harsh towards NGOs

Harsh towards NGOs Springs of Life: India

Mild towards Government, Harsh towards NGOs

Springs of Life: India’s Water Resources

by Ganesh Pangare, Vasudha Pangare and Binayak Das; Academic Foundation in association with the World Water Institute and Bharati Integrated Rural Development Society, New Delhi, 2006; pp 392, Rs 695.


his is a bulky, beautifully produced glossy book about water, with colourful illustrations practically on every page and with a number of tables and charts. An ‘Overview’ is followed by chapters on water resources, water supply and sanitation, water for agriculture, water pollution, water markets and privatisation, water conflicts, “water actions” (accounts of a number of local initiatives), and “water voices” (brief remarks by some eminent persons and experts).

This is a useful and informative book, and much work and travel have gone into it. Slightly toning down the claims made by the publishers in the blurb, and by the authors themselves in the ‘Overview’ (“a rare combination of an academic book with a coffee table presentation”), one could say that it is indeed a good coffee-table book, which provides more information and illustrative material than such books generally do. Basic data and information regarding the chosen topics are given, and there is a great deal of rich local detail drawn from the authors’ extensive travel. That is a very valuable contribution, and the authors deserve the readers’ gratitude for it. However, a few reservations seem necessary. The high usefulness of the book is somewhat diminished by a lack of rigour, an asymmetry in the attitudes towards governmental and NGO programmes, and an inadequacy (or even absence) of discussion of issues.

Rigour cannot of course be expected in a popular book. The claim is that it is also an academic book. If so, one is entitled to ask for rigour, and to express disappointment if it is absent. The lack of it manifests itself in two ways: errors of fact and analysis, and the failure to separate facts and opinions. For instance, the accounts of interstate disputes (Cauvery, Ravi-Beas) and inter-country disputes (India-Bangladesh, India-Pakistan, India-Nepal) contain several loose statements and some errors. These cannot be enumerated here for want of space, but the reviewer speaks with some knowledge of these matters; and he is not wholly comfortable with that chapter as a broad introduction to the subject for the general reader. It is true that one cannot expect all the details and nuances in a brief summary account, but one does expect a degree of precision.

Another instance of imprecision is the repetition in two places (pp 18 and 81) of the statement that the Constitution of India maintains that access to adequate amounts of clean water is not only a need but a fundamental right. Where does the Constitution say this? The reading of the right to safe drinking water into the right to life was an act of judicial interpretation. What the Supreme Court says doubtless becomes the law of the land, but that does not entitle us to say that the Constitution maintains that proposition.

Again, it has been stated that “the state owns the water” (p 29). That is a highly debatable statement on a complex issue.

As for the failure to separate facts and opinions, it is pervasive. From the beginning to the end, the authors’ opinions are freely scattered throughout the text. One wishes that there had been separate sections covering (a) basic facts, (b) narrations of cases, (c) statements and analyses of problems, (d) discussions of major issues, taking note of divergent perceptions and recommendations, and (e) the authors’ own overall conclusions; but that is not the way the book has been organised.

Asymmetry of Attitudes

Turning to the asymmetry of attitudes mentioned above, what one has in mind is the following: on the one hand, governmental programmes and projects are blandly referred to without any indication of where the authors stand in relation to them (perhaps this means implicit approval); and on the other, references to certain local, community-led or NGO-guided activities seem to carry undertones of scepticism or irony. For instance, the Sardar Sarovar project (SSP) and the inter-linking of rivers (ILR) project are referred to in terms that seem to accept all the claims made on behalf of those projects, but the critics are referred to in somewhat inaccurate and derisive terms. Narmada Bachao Andolan is said to have been “formed with the sole purpose of opposing the dam project” (p 307), which is historically inaccurate; and critics of the ILR project have been described as “anti-river-linking lobbies” (p 73). The bland references to the SSP and ILR projects stand out in sharp contrast to the cold water that is liberally thrown on claims made on behalf of NGOs. On pp 34-35, there are references to “false claims”, NGOs’ “tendency to exaggerate success and glorify small-scale results”, “unvalidated experiences”, and so on. One is not questioning the legitimacy of such criticisms; they need to be made where they are warranted; but one is puzzled at the absence of a similar critical attitude towards large government projects, and the readiness to repeat official claims and justifications as if they had been “validated”. (Incidentally, on p 33 it is stated that “reforms are under way in all aspects of water management to facilitate

Economic and Political Weekly February 25, 2006 the participation of civil society in decision-making”, and on p 81 there is a statement that “recent reforms in the sector aim at a holistic approach to the management of water, sanitation and hygiene and to the conservation of water resources”. One wishes that the basis for these statements had been indicated: what reforms are referred to here?)

This relative softness towards the government and harshness towards NGOs seems a bit difficult to reconcile with what one knows of the authors (or two of them). Let there be no misunderstanding. One is not questioning the authors’ right to hold certain views or express them. They are welcome to discount the popular acclaim of the work of Rajendra Singh and Tarun Bharat Sangh and cast doubts on their achievements. They are free to be mildly ironic about some of the statements made by Anupam Mishra (p 90). They are entitled to imply that the positions taken by some critics and campaigners on the issue of privatisation are doctrinaire and unsound (see the reference to “the rhetoric of privatisation” on p 28). However, they must first take full note of the positions that they are criticising and then formulate their criticisms with care. Opinions are not criticisms.

That brings us to the question of discussion of issues. Various issues are referred to, but there is very little real discussion of any of them. For instance, there are references to the big-dam controversy, the issue of privatisation, water markets, and so on, but none of them is properly discussed in the book. Taking privatisation, for instance, many questions arise: the general advocacy of privatisation as part of the prevailing economic philosophy; the extension of that approach from industrial and consumer goods to water; the underlying treatment of water as a commodity like any other commodity and the questioning of that approach by some critics; the doubts about the extension of the profit motive to a life-support substance; the compatibility of the “market” and “commodity” approach with the “human right” and “common pool resource” approach; the question whether the privatisation of water services can be combined with ensuring affordable availability to the poor; and so on. One looks in vain for a discussion of these issues in the book.

Incidentally, the box on p 28 under the title ‘Privatisation: Whose Point of View?’ brings Lava ka Bas (built under the aegis of Tarun Bharat Sangh in Rajasthan) under the rubric of “privatisation” and uses the case to cast doubts on anti-privatisation movements. Advocates of privatisation often try to soften the opposition by muddling categories and classifying civil society initiatives as “private sector” activity. It is a pity that the authors of this book have fallen into that trap. Community action can certainly give rise to many issues that need to be squarely faced, but it is not “privatisation” in the same sense as the entrustment of a natural resource to a private corporate sector enterprise looking for profit.

In conclusion, the reviewer’s overall assessment is that the book is a welcome addition to the water literature; that it deserves wide circulation; but that readers must be careful to separate facts from opinions (as, in ancient tradition, the swan was supposed to separate milk from water), and keep in mind the possibility that there might be other opinions on the points involved.



Economic and Political Weekly February 25, 2006

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