Water issues: Take account of socio-cultural question

Prof. Frederic Landy, director, French Institute of Pondicherry speaks to India Water Portal on water and socio-environmental challenges.
A small canal in Chanaute, Birendranagar, Nepal. (Photo: Janak Poudel (CC BY 4.0 SA)
A small canal in Chanaute, Birendranagar, Nepal. (Photo: Janak Poudel (CC BY 4.0 SA)

As part of Bonjour India 2017-2018, the four-months-long, ongoing Indo-French journey celebrating the Indo-French partnership, water-related issues are being highlighted through research, art and debates in cities like Jaipur, Bengaluru, New Delhi, Pondicherry and Kolkata.

Encompassing a global issue, the programme Water! commemorates 50 years of Indo-French collaboration between enterprises, universities and private sectors. Aiming to increase awareness while developing urban and rural solutions for water-related issues, Bonjour India is forging creative roadmaps through educational initiatives, seminars, professional meetings and artistic expressions.

India Water Portal spoke to scientist-researcher, Prof. Frederic Landy, director, French Institute of Pondicherry. Prof. Landy taught social geography at the University of Paris Ouest-Nanterre, France, since 1992. He is a fellow of the UMR LAVUE laboratory, and an associate fellow of the Centre for South Asian Studies (CEIAS), Paris. Prof. Landy has authored several books and articles on Indian agriculture, rural issues and slum policies. He was the coordinator of a French National Agency for Research (ANR)-supported project titled 'Urban National Parks in Emerging Countries' (UNPEC, 2012-16) that compared the national parks in Mumbai, Nairobi, Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro. He is now coordinating the Indian case study (in Uttarakhand) of another ANR project titled ‘Whose landscape in Asia?’ focused on the relationships between minorities, landscape, agriculture and tourism in rural highlands of India, Nepal, China, Laos and Vietnam.

Prof. Frederic Landy, Director, French Institute of Pondicherry

How does Bonjour India plan to increase awareness while developing urban and rural solutions for water-related issues in India?

Bonjour India is a platform that has organised many events in India via the French Institute of Pondicherry. A winter school in social sciences was held to better inform PhD students on issues of water and natural resource management. A conference on water availability brought together experts and NGOs in Bangalore to discuss both surface water and groundwater and their relationship. Finally, an international conference on mangroves was held in Calcutta, bringing together researchers and associations from several countries, which highlighted the interactions between nature (forest) and society (mangrove users). In general, a key result of these events is that water issues were addressed in the most comprehensive and integrated way possible. Water flows from top to bottom or from upstream to downstream, which leads to a phenomenon of dependence on, sometimes, very distant spaces (recharge of aquifers, horizontal run-offs, etc). Water has a value given by people independent of markets, which can be very high (temple water) or very low; groundwater is rarely considered as a common good, which is why many people waste it. Water is a social, political, cultural problem, as much as, and perhaps more than, a technological or biophysical problem.

You have also done work on relationships between society and irrigation and how it is determined by a system of values and relationships. You mention that at times, social structures largely explain the functioning of peasant irrigation systems, while in others, natural triggers dominate. Please tell us more about why it is important to move away from a purely agro-technical idea of water?

It has been shown that in Sahara, some plots at the very end of oases happen to be supplied by a long channel, which creates a lot of evaporation losses, just because these parcels belong to local notables. Similarly, O. Aubriot (2004) analysed a Nepali village where the canal irrigation system is largely designed by the family trees of the village clans. In these cases, there seems to be a social determinism. The opposite does exist, described for example by R. Wade (1994) in Andhra Pradesh, where collective action systems are imposed by natural determinism: tail-end villages need more internal solidarity given their fragile supply in the water. More or less favourable soil types are another factor. Therefore, there is a great diversity of cases in the world, and it is difficult to generalise and model all these situations. What is certain, however, is that it makes it necessary to take into account the socio-cultural question when water issues are addressed.

In one of your works, you have talked about “eco-ethnic identity” and how in the case of Mumbai national park, the protection policies and their implementation depended among other things on local peoples activities and social identity. Please tell us more about how conservation policies are more liberal and socially inclusive for some groups and not others.

What I call “eco-ethnicity” is the double visibility of ethnic and environmental identity of a group. If a group is considered having high environmental values (e.g. the Maasai), it can benefit from an important soft power that could bring benefits in terms of favourable policies, international fundings, political support, etc. On the contrary, the Adivasis in India have a low international visibility and often a poor environmental image in the general public. Therefore, their low eco-ethnicity cannot be used for attracting benefits. In the case of the Mumbai national park, for long, they were refused basic rights because of this poor image. In other cases, such as the Karens in Thailand, the groups are learning how to showcase their good practices and their ethnic identity, often with the help of NGOs. Eventually, they can get involved in conservation policies and in the management of national parks because they are considered as allies, not enemies, of protected areas.

Obviously, more cynically, some conservation policies are more liberal for some groups and not others because of basic relations of power. Many protected areas are eaten by real estate sharks, industrialists or powerful politicians totally deprived of eco-ethnicity!

Do a developing country like India and a developed country like France share the same responsibility in climate change mitigation? Also, please tell us more about the unresolved problems with the Paris agreement.

France certainly has more responsibility in the global climate change than India for historical reasons. Europe's economic development took place more than two centuries earlier than that of India and thus, contributed more to the production of greenhouse gases than India. Even today, per capita carbon production in India is five times less than that of China, 12 times less than the United States. A major share of the mitigation burden must be taken by the Western countries. This being said, the fact remains that global changes ignore borders and their own responsibilities--all countries are affected. Hence, it is important for India to follow another development path than the Western countries. It remains a country still very rural, with very vegetarian practices; the ideal situation would be that these traits would partly survive. India’s economic growth must continue, but with more jobs at the end and a relative stabilisation of greenhouse gas emissions. 

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