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A cultural political economy perspective on the Indian irrigation bureaucracy

September 3, 2012 - 15:15-17:00

Lecturer: Prof. Peter P. Mollinga (SOAS, University of London, UK)

Venue: Group room 7, Georg Sverdrup Library, University of Oslo

The period from the late 19th century to the present has witnessed
tremendous political upheaval , social change, and economic
transformation in the Indian sub-continent. Throughout this period, the
Indian irrigation/public works bureaucracy, established in the second
half of the 19th century, has shown remarkable consistency and stability
in its approach to ‘developing water resources’.  It has been
single-mindedly oriented on ‘harnessing’ water resources and ‘letting
not a drop of river water go waste to the sea’, in both the  colonial
and the independence era.  In the contemporary period of globally and
nationally advocated water sector reform, with pressure on water
bureaucracies to internalize ecological, distributive fairness, cost
recovery and participation/accountability concerns, irrigation
departments have been remarkably effective in resisting institutional
reform.  With over 90% of diverted freshwater used for agriculture and
the increasing importance of hydropower in India,  irrigation/water
bureaucracies are necessarily a central (f)actor in any effort at
resource re-allocation or redefining the purposes and priorities of
water resources usage.
This paper  explores how the ‘resilience’ of the Indian irrigation/water
bureaucracy in terms of effectively resisting efforts at  introducing
different forms of ‘reflexive modernization’ can be understood  using a
cultural political economy perspective (Jessop, Sayer).  Political
economy perspectives have emphasized ‘vested interests’ on the economic
side – famously in Robert Wade’s analysis of the system of political and
administrative corruption. Less consolidated are explanations in terms
of organizational path dependency – the hierarchical administrative
structure inherited from British colonialism and continued in planned
development post-independence. Kaviraj’s analysis of the Indian state
form with its state-village dichotomy probably provides the best guide
for analyzing the institutional and organizational ‘lock in’ of the
water bureaucracy. It is suggested that for explaining the specific
nature of water bureaucracy resistance to reform these two types of
explanations do not suffice. Other sectors with similar histories and
characteristics have exhibited greater responsiveness to reform pressure
– energy and forestry are examples. The irrigation/water resources
bureaucracy has been exceptionally resilient, in India as elsewhere – as
dramatically clear in the many fierce conflicts around dam building.
The paper argues that the ‘cultural’ dimension of the logic of
bureaucratic behaviour remains largely unexplored in existing approaches
of contemporary water sector reform dynamics (while it has been explored
for the colonial period), and that it is exactly the concepts of
modernization inherent to water resources engineering and hydrology
that lend force to the political and economic orientation (the
‘hydraulic mission’) of the irrigation/water bureaucracy. Using Archer’s
and Jessop’s work, an attempt is made to outline the contours of
cultural political economy perspective on Indian irrigation
bureaucracies, empirically based on the author’s experience in South India.
Peter P. Mollinga (email: [email protected]) was trained as an irrigation
engineer at Wageningen University, the Netherlands; his PhD is on the
political economy of irrigation water management in South India. He
worked as a Senior Researcher at ZEF from 2004-2010, where he did his
Habilitation in Development Sociology, and before that as an Associate
Professor at the Irrigation and Water Engineering group, Wageningen
University, the Netherlands. He is presently a Professor of Development
Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London,
UK. He is one of the three founding editors of Water Alternatives. An
interdisciplinary journal on water, politics and development. His
research fields are the politics of water (governance), the cultural
political economy of agriculture and environmental resources, and
boundary work in natural resources management. His geographical focus is
Asia, particularly South Asia and Central Asia.
This presentation is in the South Asia Morgenstierne series funded by IAKH and IKOS at the University of Oslo.

A cultural political economy perspective on the Indian irrigation bureaucracy


September 3, 2012