16 APRIL 2016
The power of symbolism
Citing an acute water crisis in parts of Maharashtra, the Bombay High Court has evicted the Indian Premier League from the State’s cricket stadiums. All matches scheduled for May this season will be relocated, giving the local cricket associations two weeks to make alternative arrangements. There is no doubt that this unusual decision of the court is another instance of arbitrary judicial intervention in the governance space. Also, this ruling will do nothing to solve Maharashtra’s water problems, as the two-member Bench itself admitted; the amount of water used to maintain cricket grounds after all is an insignificant fraction of the State’s water consumption. But if we are prepared to ignore the overreach and the lack of any tangible impact, the Mumbai High Court’s order has succeeded in drawing attention to the seriousness of the drought situation and the gross inequities that prevail in the way people access water. The power and significance of symbolic action should never be underestimated. As for the IPL, the tournament has become so synonymous with excess and exceptionalism that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is hardly in a position to counsel a sense of proportion. Indeed, it is for this very reason that the IPL provides the perfect target to draw attention to excess and highlight the spreading water scarcity.
In Latur, where the traditional sources of water have run dry, Section 144 has had to be imposed to prevent into a water riot. Trains carrying water are now being despatched to Latur. In other parts of India too, there is acute shortage, notably in the Bundelkhand region. The mechanics and the motivation for declaring districts drought-affected remain somewhat arbitrary, but a composite picture of the country with about half the districts classified as such is reason for a paradigm shift in examining how India conserves and uses water. Sure, we are coming off two years of deficient rainfall, but our water-splurging agri-economy needs urgent policy intervention. Live data from the Central Water Commission show that water levels in 91 major reservoirs is alarmingly low, with no water currently in three reservoirs in Maharashtra. The country’s groundwater is over-exploited, especially in the Green Revolution zones. Increase in irrigated acreage is also taking place through use of groundwater. Recalibration of the price support regime and rationalisation of electricity subsidies are required to nudge the farmer towards less water-hungry crops. As Deepak Pental, former vice chancellor of Delhi University and genetics professor, has pointed out, when India exports 1 kg of basmati rice, in effect it exports 5,000 kg of water. India lives by its farm economy — while its share in total GDP may be dropping, the percentage of Indians who depend on it remains extremely high. The country will only begin to make the livelihood of farmers sustainable when it addresses the water crisis and pursues solutions that keep the terms of trade in their favour.
For a region that has been historically seafaring, India in the modern era has been bafflingly inward-looking. It is therefore welcome to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi say, as he did at the Maritime India Summit in Mumbai on Thursday, that “the maritime agenda will complement the ambitious infrastructure plan for the hinterland which is going on in parallel”. India has for long been slow, and ad hoc, in developing infrastructure to reap the economic opportunity its seaboards naturally provide. And having been Chief Minister of Gujarat, a State that stands out in port development, Mr. Modi has a keener sense of this untapped potential. As he said in Mumbai, apart from the length of the coastline, 7,500 km, “India’s maritime potential also lies in its strategic location on all major shipping highways.” There has been an increasing emphasis on maritime infrastructure, and his government has added weight to it. The ambitious Sagarmala programme intends to promote port-led development, improve the coastal economy, modernise ports and integrate them with special economic zones, and create port-based smart cities, industrial parks, warehouses, logistics parks and transport corridors. India has also begun to collaborate with neighbouring Bangladesh and Myanmar in building waterways and port infrastructure. This is essential as ultimately it’s economics that provides the necessary push to take forward strategic overtures.
On the strategic side too, India needs to firm up its maritime strategy. Speaking at the International Fleet Review in Visakhapatnam in February, Mr. Modi had observed that the ability to reap economic benefits from the oceans rests on the country’s capacity to respond to the challenges in the maritime domain. Last year before embarking on a tour of Indian Ocean littorals he(Mr.Modi) remarked that the visit to the three Indian Ocean island countries reflected “our foreign policy priorities in India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood”. In fact, the Indian Navy played a pivotal role in containing piracy on the high seas and is positioning itself as the “net security provider” in the broader Indian Ocean region with capacity building, joint exercises and increased multilateral exchanges. Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief are the new area for building bridges, and the Indian Navy’s quick response to the 2004 tsunami reflected an enhanced preparedness. The new emphasis is two-sided — securing energy and trade routes to sustain economic growth and keeping a check on increasing forays by other countries into India’s backyard. Indian strategic interests in the larger Indian Ocean are converging with the U.S., reflected in the joint statement at the end of American Defence Secretary Ashton Carter’s visit. It reaffirmed the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, “including in the South China Sea”. It is also indicative of a change in India’s posturing which has traditionally been defensive. But it must also invite the caution that it is not in India’s interest to pick fights that do not draw from its own national interest.