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Home > Business > Special

The technology-politics nexus in India

Sunita Narain | February 27, 2007

Call it is one of the unknown Indian ironies. Over many years, the Indian state has systematically taken over the management of surface water systems. It has taken over the job of building irrigation systems -- dams, reservoirs and canals -- then maintaining these and supplying water.

This has meant that over the years it has taken over water resources from the hands of village communities. The irony is that even as the state has vested this power in itself, people have taken water under their control.

Groundwater -- a resource under the land of individuals and under their control -- irrigates the bulk of the land in the country. State control is a delusion. The groundwater irrigation infrastructure has been created by individual farmers -- both rich and poor -- using funds available from moneylenders or the meagre institutional finance provided by state credit agencies. It can be argued this lack of institutional support for infrastructure is one key cause of farmer indebtedness and poverty in large parts of the country.

But to understand the governance of water we must understand why the economics of water is about the limitations of current irrigation technology built on large structures and large distribution systems. As the cost of infrastructure has increased, it has not been possible to recover the cost of capital investment and operation and maintenance of the system from individual farmers. In addition, large surface irrigation systems have substantial losses and inefficiencies.

This is where groundwater kicks in. It works because it is in the hands of people who can use it when they need to irrigate. If there is no electricity to run their tubewell, they can buy diesel or rent a generator set to pump water. In many ways, groundwater provides the most distributed and decentralised option for development. But only if managed wisely.

The intense use of this resource has meant that groundwater levels across the country are falling sharply. Technology is allowing for deeper and deeper penetration and extraction. The electricity subsidy -- providing cheap energy for pumping -- worsens the situation, with estimations that farmers end up using almost double the water for each unit of crop when they have access to cheap or free power as compared to pump-sets using paid diesel.

We can try and regulate this use with legislation. But clearly regulating the use of 19 million users will be impossible. What we have to recognise is that groundwater is a replenishable asset and what is needed is to recharge wells, so that annual extraction is limited to what is sustainable. In other words, we work groundwater like a bank. Live off the interest -- what is recharged -- and not the capital.

This is where the irony doubles. Even as groundwater has overtaken surface water systems, other irrigation systems -- tanks, ponds and all other community-based and decentralised water harvesting systems -- have simultaneously declined. But the fact is that these systems played a critical role in the recharge of groundwater as they stored rainwater, which then recharged underground aquifers. These were the 'distributed' sponges without which 'distributed' water management would not be possible.

Therefore, we are extracting more and more, recharging less and less. The tragedy is that when we lost respect for traditional systems which were designed to ensure that rainwater was stored in millions of disaggregated, diverse structures, we lost our water future. Clearly, we must understand the politics of technology to understand the economics that will matter.

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