You are on page 1of 11

Water, culture in North-Western India: a literature review

Michael Chew (

Photographs: Tubewells in India

Background I have had a long-standing interest in India, perhaps kindled by my mothers transformational trip there when she was 22, which exposed her to human suffering and the vast plurality of human experience. My own trip there was some 40 years later in 2004 where I worked with two NGOs in Kolkata on child rights and womens empowerment. On my return I co-founded a small NGO in Melbourne to support these organisations, and returned again two years later to lead a new volunteer group and see more of the vast country. The lands of the North-west captivated me, perhaps from their resemblance to the parched interior of my own country. The arid conditions and unpredictable rains mean that groundwater is particularly precious. The expansion of affordable small-scale pumping technology such as tubewells, alongside rural electrification, has given villagers the ability to access groundwater in exponentially increasing rates since the 1960s (Shah, 2008). This has decreased poverty and food insecurity, but at the cost of depleting the precious groundwater reserves, as water has become increasingly difficult to extract as the water table decreases faster than the natural rate of recharge. In response, the Indian government is rolling out a large-scale program to recharge the groundwater using a range of local practices as part of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). An Australian

Research Council funded project, Managed Aquifer Recharge through Village-level Intervention (MARVI) is contributing to the monitoring and evaluation of this program, through examining the effectiveness of current rainwater harvesting practices, groundwater recharge structures and demand management strategies at village scale. While water issues and their remedies are frequently seen as a purely technical issue, water is bound intrinsically with culture and meaning (Tvedt & Oestigaard, 2010), and it is hence crucial to understand this dimension in the planning and implementation of the project. This paper presents a review of pertinent literature that serves to map out a small part of the landscape of water-cultures which intersect with the MARVI project. Literature Review Through mapping out this terrain, three distinct yet inter-related strands have emerged water-knowledge, social capital / ethics, and subjectivity / technonatures. These are explored below.

Water-knowledge The debate about water-knowledge is well established and forms a subset of the wider debate around environmental and water justice. This in turn tends to polarise around issues of privatisation and access, with NGOs and social movement groups vocal about resisting privatisation (Friends of the Earth International, 2003; Roy,1999; Shiva, 2002), and international finance institutions and multinational corporations advocating for privatisation (World Bank, 2005; Haarmeyer & Mody,1997). While acknowledging the power inequalities in the debate, McLean (2007) suggests that both positions tend to oversimplify the discussion and that a better way forward is to acknowledge complex political ecologies of water at the local level, which are often combinations of private and public supply. Taking this political ecology view, and moving explicitly to the issue of water-knowledge, Krishnan (2010) explores multiple local water knowledges in a case study of a village in Saurashtra, Gujarat writing that the latter are refreshed continually by interfaces with science (p. 391). The paper 2

documents local hydrology knowledge through interviews with various stakeholders in tubewell drilling, and analyses how these differing knowledges affect individual farmers decision-making during the tubewell drilling process. Large-scale programs that rely on expensive observation wells should integrate this localised scientific knowledge in their planning. Details of how this could happen are left out of the scope of the article however, and it does not offer commentary on the implications of this knowledge to question the basis of such government programs. Puri (2007) specifically examines this integration in a case study on the inclusion of local knowledge into scientific land use planning in the droughtprone district of Anantapur, in Andhra Pradesh, using an information theory standpoint. The study examined perspectives of various actors in a national Government geographic information system (GIS) mapping program active in the area whose aim was to build a comprehensive land and water GIS with appropriate action plans to improve local resource usage. The findings showed a combination of both structural and behavioural participation (as defined by Bass & Shackleton,1979) were crucial to the successful integration. Puri attributed success to the project through it including various participatory techniques (for example community mapping), as well as structural conditions, such as a clear mandate in the program for scientists to undertake these techniques and collaborate outside of their institutional areas. The study demonstrates the process of running the above practices as generating boundary objects, such as community maps, which intersect communities of practice and facilitate dialog between the latters specific knowledge systems (Bowker & Star,1999). Singh (2011) confirms this importance through examining the images from participatory photography as constituting boundary objects in a participatory appraisal project in Bangalore urban slums, noting additionally their importance in reducing power gaps between beneficiaries and project workers. While Krishnan emphases a lateral diversity of localised water knowledge, with Puri and Singh writing on the successful intersection of local knowledge with external planning processes, Birkenholtzs (2008) paper in contrast takes a more critical view. It focuses on the tensions between state representatives (engineers) and local farmer knowledge in Rajasthan, taking 3

into account the historical trajectory that has led to the current mutually antagonistic arrangement between them. Based on 150 interviews with farmers and their groundwater knowledge sources, such as - Sunghas (waterdiviners), tubewell drilling companies, and government technocrats - the study found that farmers trusted local knowledge (direct experience and visibility) over engineers (expense, unreliability). Birkenholtz viewed this mutual antagonism as complex beyond the modernist uniform state conjecture (Scott 1998), while simultaneously politicising a postmodern development state view (Li 2005). The findings imply that purely knowledge-based perspectives such as Puri (2007) can neglect the historical legacy of stakeholder relationships that can problematize effective integration. However by having a specific focus the article necessarily neglects the diversity of stakeholders and knowledge relationships that feature in Krishnan (2010).

Social capital and ethics Local management and knowledge of water has always existed and is propagated through specific social contexts (Chadwick et al. 1998). For example, before the Indian Governments water recharge programs, groundwater recharge had been taken up by peoples movements, as chronicled by Shah (2000). With limited government and NGO responses to chronic drought in Gujarat over 1985-7, a populist response driven primarily by ethical imperatives formed. Two Hindu sects, the Swadhyciya Pariwcir and the Swami Narayatz Satnpradiryci, helped catalyse a growing social movement through appeals to an ethic of treating water - If you quench Mother Earths thirst, she will quench yours (p.202) recharging wells were an act of devotion. Shah suggests that it is critical to maintain this ethical foundation in any future expansion of the recharge movement. While describing the close community bonds that were essential to the movement propagation, the paper is purely descriptive and does not offer any empirical basis to looking at these community structures systematically. De Groot (2006) offers such an analysis through exploring how social capital correlates with success of a local NGO in mobilising villagers to restore irrigation tanks in Krishna district, Andra Pradesh. The findings 4

showed a high correlation between success and the villages existing social capital, with an unexpected negative correlation between the NGOs efforts and success. The latter implied efforts were wasted on areas without the social capital to sustain such interventions. The strengths of the social capital approach lie in the promise of anticipating the relative success of interventions based on predefined measures of community interconnectedness, rather than attitudes, which has been shown to be complex and problematic (Kollmuss & Agyeman 2002). There has been concern that the social capital approach may be invoked by conservative agendas to reduce funding for social programs (Whittaker & Banwell, 2002). Diwakara (2005) presents another angle on the potentially amorphous category of social capital, focusing on the actual attitudes of farmers to collective water management. The paper examines how demographic and socio-economic differences influence trust in communities using groundwater for irrigation in Mehsana, Gujarat, using an Ordered-Probit statistical analysis. The findings show that wealth and social standing influence the perceived trust with younger farmers and smaller landholders tended to be less optimistic about collective management than their more powerful neighbours. The paper argues for the importance of a policy response to address this imbalance. However it also has a number key limitations, discussed by Mitchell et al. (2011), including a lack of discussion regarding generalizability of the findings, and what implications they actually have for collective groundwater management. While Diwakara and De Groot focus on social capital in water management, this water-human relationship can be examined in reverse as the presence of collectively managed water systems serves to affect social connectedness. Van Steenbergen (2006) examines this with respect to the specific phenomena of collective water usage rules. The study confirms the conclusions of Shah (2000) regarding the importance of ethical foundations and affordable technology, in addition finding the importance of communities self-imposed limits on the over-exploitation of the ground water, Following the investment in recharge structures basic ground rules on how to use groundwater developed (van Steenbergen, 2006, p. 384). He demonstrates that these informal norms appear in a variety of studies of local groundwater 5

management in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The implication is that with the presence of these norms and other enabling factors (accessibility, low-cost), local groundwater management can be feasible and upscale easily. However this approach neglects considering how the actual subjectivities of the stakeholders are influenced by such projects, which is considered in the final strand below. Subjectivity and techno-natures There is a richly developed body of literature that is still rapidly emerging in this area - which spans gender-subjectivities, space, critical geography and techno-natures this is worthy of a literature review of its own, but will be sketched concisely here due to space limitations. Tvedt & Oestigaard (2010) present a succinct summary of these areas through consideration of the broad question of how to approach a history of the ideas of water. They argue that it is essential to deconstruct the dominant approach of considering nature to be a singular whole, instead contending that the character of water itself is both culture and nature. Thus it invites a nuanced approach that serves to both challenge and provide new insights in the various theories such as post-modernism, uncertainties of water, risk societies, development-led approaches and the concept of sustainable development. The broad overview is effective at sketching out some of theoretical challenges, which can then be examined in details by other papers. One such paper is OReilly (2006), exploring the shifting identities of women and water as constituted in a large scale Indo-German watersanitation project in Rajasthan, which provides filtered water on a user-pays basis to villagers. OReilly argues that projects assumptions of cost equating to value leads to its activities pushing for a shift of value between free government-supplied water (presented as unhygienic and unreliable) and paid for project supplied water (presented as modern, safe). This shift is supported in parallel by the projects discursive practices that frame participating women as modern with the accompanying technological and social benefits that this gives to their families. She argues that the projects participation pathway which calls for women to volunteer and actively maintain pump systems 6

presents a tension between addressing their traditional role as family waterbearers and the modern notion of community involvement. She writes [the project] called for village women as objects but they also needed village women to act as subjects (p. 963), as well as being potentially exploiting their labour. However the article seems to be at tension with itself in this aspect, describing the nature of the participation as exploitative while also seeing it as adding value to natural resources and being liberating. Sultana (2012) continues this exploration of water technologies power to reframe gender relations and the value of water itself, with her paper shifting the lens towards practices of mal-development. She considers the changing role of the tubewell in the context of groundwater arsenic contamination in Bangladesh. The presence of this toxicity and the subsequent classification of tubewells as good or bad marks them as either a continuation of the technological success narrative, or as mal-development which troubles the former and instead becomes a source of shame for users. Like the tubewells themselves, the water emerging from them can be considered an assemblage that may be further purified, preserving the narrative of technological redemption. Both Sultana (2012) and OReilly (2006) reflect critically on contestations within the micro-space of development, from different locations OReilly focuses on participating women, who can either accept or resist the projects practical and discursive processes, while Sultana centres her analysis on the tubewell itself, which can similarly function as accepting (green) or resisting (red) the technological development narrative. Birkenholtz (2009) continues this focus on the technological assemblage itself, by using an actor network analysis of the emergent socioecological relationships that form with the expansion of the tubewell in Rajasthan. The study found that: 1) the new social institutions of tubewell partnerships enable collaborative rather than competitive relationships, 2) while tubewells increased irrigation and production, this altered soil chemistry and the ability to provide high yielding varieties, increasing social inequalities, 3) the tubewell has particular demands which impose specific practices on villages (for instance waiting during the night for electricity), but in addition also initiates a recursive process of agricultural technological adaptation, 7

social formation, and ecological change (p. 119), which is in fact relatively durable and may also have the flexibility to allow for more equitable outcomes. Concluding Remarks The three strands discussed above represent only a small part of the vast landscape of water-cultures. The first strand of water-knowledge helps us consider the multifaceted ways that MARVI and other similar projects intersects with traditional and modern ways of knowing water, and how these multiple knowledges can frame and be framed by project interventions. In addition it raises the potential for translation processes across knowledge systems. The second strand shows the importance of the often invisible/neglected processes for articulating and managing shared responsibility for local water management. These processes are often present in parallel with the drive for individual self-benefit, and that it is the interplay between the two, which can ensure the success or failure of local approaches. The final strand reminds us of the discursive power of the technologyled development and how this can both act to shift participant subjectivities, and be foiled by the latters resistances. By examining the relationships between various actors human and non-human we can see how these can be co-constituted through project interventions and in turn shape these interventions themselves. Taken together, these strands remind us of the complexities in engaging with water which need to be taken into account when attempting interventions and they can also force us to reconsider the basis of change in the first place.
2498 words

Bass, B. M., & Shackleton, V. J. (1979). Industrial Democracy and Participative Management: A Case for Synthesis. The Academy of Management Review 4(3), 393-404. Birkenholtz, T. (2008). Contesting expertise: The politics of environmental knowledge in northern Indian groundwater practices. Geoforum, 39(1), 466482. Birkenholtz, T. (2009). Irrigated Landscapes, Produced Scarcity, and Adaptive Social Institutions in Rajasthan, India. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 99(1), 118-137. Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences. Cambridge: MIT Press. Chadwick, M., Soussan, J., Mallick, D., & Alam, S. (1998). Understanding indigenous knowledge: its role and potential in water resource management in Bangladesh. Leeds: University of Leeds Press. De Groot, W. T., & Tadepally, H. (2008). Community action for environmental restoration: a case study on collective social capital in India. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 10(4), 519-536. Diwakara, H. (2006). Determinants of Trust and Cooperation Case Study of Self-Managed Tubewell Organizations in North Gujarat, India. International Journal of Rural Management, 2(2), 163-189. Jones, S. (2011). Participation as citizenship or payment? A case study of rural drinking water governance in Mali. Water Alternatives 4(1), 54-71. Friends of the Earth International. (2003). Water Justice for All: Global and Local Resistance to the Control and Commodification of Water, 102. Friends of the Earth International, Amsterdam. Haarmeyer, D., & Mody, A. (1997). Private capital in water and sanitation. Finance and Development-English Edition, 34(1), 34-37. Kollmuss, A. & Agyeman, J. (2002). Mind the gap: Why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behavior? Environmental Education Research, 8(3), 239-260. Krishnan, S. (2008). Duel among Dual? Popular Science of Basaltic Hydrogeology in a Village of Saurashtra. proceedings of the 7th Annual Meet of IWMI-Tata Water Policy Program, 1, 391-411.

Li, T.M. (2005). Beyond the State and Failed Schemes. American Anthropologist, 107(3), 383394. McLean, J. (2007). Water injustices and potential remedies in indigenous rural contexts: A water justice analysis. The Environmentalist, 27(1), 25-38. Mitchell, M., Curtis, A., Sharp, E., & Mendham, E. (2011). Social research to improve groundwater governance: a literature review. Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, Albury. OReilly, K. (2006). Traditional women,modern water: Linking gender and commodification in Rajasthan, India. Geoforum, 37(6), 958-972. Puri, S. K. (2007). Integrating scientific with indigenous knowledge: Constructing knowledge alliances for land management in India. Management Information Systems Quarterly, 31(2), 355. Roy, A. (1999). The Cost of Living: The Greater Common Good and the End of Imagination. London: Flamingo. Scott, J.C. (1998). Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press. Shah, T. (2000). Mobilising Social Energy Against Environmental Challenge: Understanding Groundwater Recharge Movement in Western India. Natural Resource Forum, 24(3), 197-209. Shah, T. (2008). Indias Ground Water Irrigation Economy: The Challenge of Balancing Livelihoods and Environment. In Chopra, K., & Dayal V., (Eds)., Handbook on environmental economics in India (pp. 2-22). New Delhi : Oxford University Press. Shiva, V. (2002). Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution and Profit. Cambridge: South End Press. Singh, A. (2011). Visual artefacts as boundary objects in participatory research paradigm. Journal of Visual Art Practice, 10(1), 35-50. Sultana, F. (2012). Water, technology, and development: transformations of development technonatures in changing waterscapes. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 30, 2-16. Tvedt, T., & Oestigaard, T. (2010). A history of the ideas of water: Deconstructing nature and constructing society. In Tvedt, T. & Oestigaard, T.(eds.). A History of Water: The Ideas of Water from Antiquity to Modern Times (pp 1-36). Cambridge: IB Tauris. van Steenbergen, F. (2006). Promoting local management in groundwater. Hydrogeology Journal, 14(3), 380-391.


Whittaker, A., & Banwell, C. (2002). Positioning policy: The epistemology of social capital and its application in applied rural research in Australia. Human Organization, 61(3), 252261. World Bank. (2005). Privatizing Water and Sanitation Services, The World Bank Group. Retrieved 10th Feburary, 2013, from