Water in India and the “Curse of Democracy”: a Conversation with Asit Biswas

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I was lucky enough to sit down over lunch with renowned environmental scientist, professor and political commentator, Asit Biswas. We discussed the state of water management in India, his home country. India is facing a huge water and sanitation shortfall, which will become more severe in the near future as pressures from population growth and climate change surmount.  The federal system is beset by inter-state conflicts over trans-boundary river waters.  Farmers engage in unsustainable mining of groundwater even as aquifers in the western part of the country begin to dry up.  In areas that do experience heavy rainfall, floods cause widespread destruction. Biswas said that India’s democracy, which he argued is the developing world’s most robust despite its tumultuous character, makes managing water nearly impossible.  He proposed a plan to overcome this obstacle.

The current state of Indian politics is lamentable, says Biswas, because increasingly fragile multiparty coalitions govern not just the central government, but also many of the states.  Water management entails the coordination of multiple stakeholders.  This is difficult in the Indian political system, which has often been characterized as decidedly adversarial. Under these conditions, it is nearly impossible to address water quality and coverage.  Multiparty coalitions are often an assemblage of a diverse set of stakeholder groups;  they are often barely large enough to maintain parliamentary power.  When issues arise that require the delineation of winners and losers, any coalition group that would lose out on the deal will play spoiler and threaten to bring down government unless the terms are changed.  Thus, water issues, which often require some stakeholders to sacrifice, are rarely resolved.

There are some highlights of strong governance within India, however. Biswas heralds India’s strong and stridently activist Supreme Court as the glue that holds the water sector together. It capably grapples with perplexing water dilemmas and a sluggish political elite.  He contends that what India needs are strong leaders to explain the challenges of water management, winning buy-in from all sectors of civil society regardless of cultural, political or federal-administrative divisions.

Another highlight is India’s free press, easily the most boisterous and outspoken in Asia, can play the role of water sector savior.  Professor Biswas reveals his recent plot to transform the media into just this sort of savior with the aid of some of India’s biggest media outlets.  His goal is to sensationalize the water issue by using blunt, non-technical language and calling out politicians for feckless cowardice to address the problem.

Regarding the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), Biswas said that someone in the water industry needs to stand up and say,  “Hey, you’re declaring victory, but the emperor has no clothes.”  It’s not enough to change the definition and declare a MDG victory. While there is expanded piped water access in India, simply obtaining piped water or even 24/7 access to water does not ensure the quality of that water.  For this reason, Biswas challenges UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s assertion that only 800 million people are living without access to adequate water. “The next time he goes to India” challenges Biswas, “I want him to drink the water straight from the tap and see how long he lasts!”

Biswas contends that a stubborn cycle exists in India: residents do not pay for lousy service and refuse to pay more because the service is so lousy.  Biswas envisions that what is needed is a strong mayor convincing residents to pay reasonable prices for good water service with tremendous overall cost savings to the residents.

Indeed, transforming India’s water sector will not be easy.  But it can be done, and Biswas intends to show how.

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