Can quick-fix solutions address India’s growing water woes?

By K J JoyonAug. 12, 2023in Environment and Ecology

Non-profits and civil society organisations are increasingly opting for quick-fix solutions to all issues, a tendency that needs to be moderated 

Representative photo: iStock.

There is a mindset change in our approaches, evident in the past two decades. Compared to the 1980s and 1990s, many of us are now after quick-fix solutions.

Initiatives like Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan, a Maharashtra government initiative of 2014 that targeted river widening, deepening and straightening to make the state drought-free by 2019; Water Cups, a competition initiated by non-profits in 2016 to incentivise Maharashtra villages to harvest water for drought-proofing the state; and planting trees along the banks to rejuvenate rivers are all examples of such quick-fix solutions.

Watershed-based development, which involves management of land and vegetation to conserve the quality and supply of water, is no more fashionable because it takes seven-eight years to complete, stabilise and show results.

Non-profits known for their good watershed development projects, which would earlier have argued for longer watershed projects, are now queuing up for quick-fix solutions like the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan. This is also aided by access to quick and easy money through the corporate social responsibility (CSR) route for such works.

Critical engagement

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a culture among most non-profits and civil society organisations to engage in more of “critical engagement” or make sense of the various interventions and projects from a political economy perspective (how political forces affect the economy and vice versa).

This is slowly getting eroded. We are more into “thinking like the state” or “thinking like the corporates”, especially with substantial money into the sector coming from the corporates under CSR.

The “critical engagement” approach is being replaced by a “techno-managerial approach” that focuses on technical knowledge, people management and problem-solving. This is not to argue against the need for techno-managerial skills in the sector.

We need both approaches. So, as part of the capacity-building programmes in the sector, the focus cannot be only on certain techniques, skills or managerial aspects.

Along with these, we also need to have modules on developing critical thinking, which means seeing or locating various interventions — policies, programmes, projects—in the larger context of political economy and ecology. This will help us to decide what works where, what does not work, and the implications.

Related to this is the context in which the work is being done. For example, the state might come up with projects/programmes in the urban context that may not be in the interest of both the people (especially the local people) and the rest of nature.

A few examples of such programmes are the type of riverfront development (RFD) being promoted in the country (a recent case is happening in Pune); centralised sewage treatment plants being claimed to be the only solution; and massive, centralised water grids, like Mission Bhagiratha in Telangana, to meet local rural domestic water needs.

They are quite opposite to the concepts of blue and green infrastructure, decentralised wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse, groundwater recharge and watershed-based development.

Resistance to such destructive projects by helping the communities and their organisations fight them and developing alternatives through research and capacity building should be seen as part of our interventions or engagement in the urban space.

This will also help us move away from the techno-managerial approach, get more into critical engagement, and engage with issues of conflicts and contestation.

This change in mindset is also seen in the virtual absence of any discussion around larger concepts or the political economy/ecology issues around urban water and sanitation.

In fact, such discussions and interventions are often scoffed at or seen as useless. The emphasis is on “here and now” and on coming up with tools, tool kits, techniques and applications. Again, this is not to say these are not important. But the issue is how to embed them in the type of transformative changes that we want.

Wide social base

The social base of organisations, which means the people who constitute the organisations — be it non-profits, civil society or academic institutions—to some degree decides our concerns, the questions we ask, how we frame issues, our comfort zones, social sections we work with, so on and so forth.

We need to have social diversity in our organisations in terms of class, caste, gender, ethnicity and different types of minorities (based on religion, sexual orientation, and the differently abled). This is not easy, but we need to make efforts towards it.

I call this a part of the “democratisation” process. Maybe due to the increasing concern about gender over the last couple of decades, we see that gender is taken relatively seriously (very often gender getting equated with increased presence of women in organisations, including in leadership positions).

However, the same cannot be said when it comes to other bases of exploitation, oppression and discrimination. Caste is a glaring example since we do not find many Dalits or Bahujans in most organisations. It will be very revealing if we take up a caste-disaggregated study of these institutions to understand the presence of Dalits and Bahujans, especially in leadership positions.

Structural causes

We are aware that most of the issues we confront today in the urban space (or society at large) are embedded in the developmental pathway that has been chosen, the political economy and various historical, social injustices — broadly called structural causes.

We just cannot keep these out of our frame while working on specific issues or sectors, like urban water, sanitation and waste management. While working on these, we need to link up with those social sections that are bearing the brunt of these issues.

We also need to take into account the various social movements that are active, for example, of pavement dwellers, slum dwellers, the homeless, the urban working class, especially the sanitation workers and informal sector workers (most of these groups are Dalits and Bahujans), movements that fight against water diversions and also movements working for radical transformations.

This does not mean that all of us need to become activists; but we can work with them; we can co-produce knowledge as well as options and alternatives. This will be a mutually enriching, transformative experience.

Published by Down To Earth on 20 July 2023

Story Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply