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Concern for the deprived dries up

Thursday 21 April 2005

Farmers in Maharashtra with more than two children will be charged one and a half times more for irrigation water. The Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Bill containing this and other appalling provisions has been rushed through the State Assembly. On surface, the idea is to punish those farmers who have a third child after the Bill becomes law. In short, it seeks to make water a tool of a punitive and authoritarian population policy. This is in an industrialised and developed State where a small proportion of the rural gentry already controls most of the available water, and where there has been a shocking number of farmer suicides in the past few years. The profoundly anti-democratic legislation comes in a series of wrongful State actions, including the brutal demolition of tens of thousands of hutments, with scant regard for the welfare of the deprived.

Whatever the objects and intention claimed, the new legislation, which confers near-absolute powers on the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority, targets the rural poor. Low income households tend to have more children and the move will have the effect of punishing people - and small children - for the offence of being poor. However, this Bill seems driven by motives that go beyond population control. For a start, it allows the Government to spend less on irrigation and represents a clear push towards commercialisation of water and its eventual privatisation. In the new legislation, even the term `entitlement’ does not refer to the inherent rights of farmers. It means "any authorisation by any River Basin Agency to use the water for purposes of this Act." As it is, the steady growth of inequities in the distribution and use of water has had a deadly effect on the lives of the poor. The Maharashtra legislation is guaranteed to make a grim situation worse.

It is paradoxical that this move comes at a time when there is a worldwide backlash against such measures. The protests against water-as-commerce being witnessed across Latin America have a lesson for India. There too, most of the water agreements followed the same philosophy: "Water charges shall reflect the full recovery of the cost of the irrigation management, administration, operation, and maintenance." More and more, water is becoming a commercial good access to which is based on wealth, not need. Moves reducing poor farmers’ access to water were one significant reason for people to turn against the Chandrababu Naidu Government in Andhra Pradesh in 2004. This kind of centralisation of control tends to bring in private control of a public resource through the back door. Once the Bill becomes law, Maharashtra’s rural gentry is likely to increase its clout over how water is to be used through the instrumentality of "water users’ associations" and the like. The Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Bill is socio-politically and morally awful. It must be withdrawn immediately, before it becomes a hot potato.

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