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Groundwater, Gurus, and Governmentality

Seva in the Neo-liberal Development Regime in India

Srirupa Bhattacharya ( teaches sociology at Miranda House, University of Delhi, New Delhi.


Temples and religious organisations undertaking community projects and welfare work have been a part of the history of South Asia. However, in the neo-liberal era, international governmental platforms, international funding agencies, multinational corporations, central and state government bodies, and international Hindu religious organisations are coming together to effect large-scale developmental efforts. The nuances of this shift are traced by comparing the groundwater management and conservation projects undertaken by the Swadhyay Parivar in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat in the early 1990s, and Art of Living across the country in the last decade. While many would argue that non-governmental organisations and faith-based organisations have occupied the void created by a neo-liberal state disappearing from the public sector, this paper shows that the state–international bodies–MNC–religion complex has regimented a large population in an all-pervasive governmentality.

Among the controversies about spiritual gurus that have come into the public view, two revolved around rivers and riverbanks. The first was that the Art of Living (AOL), founded by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, was fined by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) for destroying the Yamuna floodplain—through heavy construction activities and dumping of solid waste—while organising the World Cultural Festival in April 2016. Ravi Shankar publicly retorted that it was the NGT and the environment ministry who had given permission to use the venue. He recounted the cleaning campaigns he had undertaken in the parts of Yamuna river that flow through Delhi and other river rejuvenation projects he had organised across the country, while his lawyers tried to bring down the amount of the fine, claiming that the Yamuna riverbank had not been notified as wetland in any hitherto government report or recommendation (Sri Sri Ravi Shankar 2016).

The second controversy was regarding Jaggi Vasudev’s (also known as Sadhguru) bonhomie with Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, in September 2017 when the former was announcing the Rally for Rivers campaign and the latter was finalising the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project. In his speeches during rallies across the country, Sadhguru waxed eloquent about the benefits of creating a 1 kilometre (km) forest cover along all riverbanks. However, the formal 760-page report released by his organisation, the Isha Foundation (2017: 96–103), had a section dedicated to discussing the importance of the government’s ongoing efforts to interlink rivers. Several Indian water management experts have voiced serious reservations about such large-scale projects since they submerge huge tracts of cultivable and forest land, destroy livelihoods of people, and multiply migration to cities. Besides aggravating water conflicts between states, changing the course of rivers also invites floods, droughts, and uncertainty for upstream farmers.

The active and positive involvement of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in small-scale water development projects since the 1980s, particularly in the drought-prone western regions of the country, is not new or insubstantial.1 But, the 1990s also saw religious organisations like the Swadhyay Parivar and the Swaminarayanan sect build popular movements towards water conservation and use in Gujarat. Notwithstanding the fact that these organisations were successful in making the groundwater situation better for farmers and fisherfolks, they also strengthened their existing religious sect-like communities in the region.

Bhakti or devotion and seva or spiritual service towards community development has been a common practice in Indian religious organisations for a hundred years, particularly in the arena of education and disaster relief. But, leadership in the water management sector was the need of the late 1980s, at a time of drought with water distribution disputes within and between states, and increased water pollution. No other religious organisation known to the author was as successful in the water-management project as Swadhyay Parivar in the 1990s, but it too lost its momentum after its leader Pandurang Athavale died in 2003.

Since 2010–11, various gurus have resurfaced with campaigns for rivers and riverbanks, water conservation, and pollution, albeit different from previous forms of seva. Earlier, organisations aiming to invest in welfare works would operate at the local level, mobilise the community, proselytise, slowly build a religious base, and be a pyramid of governance parallel to the state, neither confronting it, nor merging with it. There have been cases of the state lauding the efforts of gurus in mobilising the public, and of trying—successfully or unsuccessfully—to replicate such local-level efforts on a wider scale. In such projects by religious organisations, people’s participation was crucial in planning, offering physical labour and monetary support, and in expanding the reach of the project. Needless to say, traditional hierarchies and privileges played a part in the division of labour and fruits.

However, new religious organisations born and bred within the neo-liberal context undertake welfare work very differently. Many of the projects are planned together by government bodies, religious organisations, and international funding agencies and, only after this, appeals are made to people to join. Sometimes, multinational corporations (MNCs) commission religious organisations to undertake welfare work as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts, which are mandated by law.

While urban middle-class disciples of the gurus are motivated to join the cause in the name of seva, rural communities and people from lower classes are systematically disciplined to accept this intervention from above, even if they do not participate in the process. While subject experts do the planning, light and heavy machinery aid the implementation, thus rendering the need for a close-knit sect or community irrelevant. Religious organisations today contribute to the creation of a society of self-disciplined, self-governing, obedient individuals, and work to obfuscate the power of the state. Where the welfare state appeared apathetic, unapproachable, or corrupt, governmentality in the neo-liberal era is all pervasive, yet diffused, and is distributed in several non-governmental modes, similar to what Foucault (1994: 326–48) described as the 20th century redistribution of pastoral power in Europe. The genealogy of governmentality of the state–religion–market complex in this subcontinent is what this paper tries to trace.

The paper is divided into three sections. The first section traces the genealogy of the idea of seva in Hindu organisations—from the 20th century to today—to show how its modus operandi has changed after liberalisation. The second section contains a more focused comparison between a water conservation project led by a pre-liberalisation religious organisation, the Swadhyay Parivar, and a river-cleaning project by a relatively new religious organisation, the AOL. This section offers an understanding about the broad relationship between water management projects, state and non-state actors, international funding organisations, and MNCs that have emerged in the context of liberalisation. The third section is a case study based on the author’s ethnographic study of a river rejuvenation project undertaken by AOL in a village in Karnataka. This section elucidates the relationship between larger structures and the people touted as the beneficiaries of such projects.

The Genealogy of Seva

The idea of seva as we understand it today was formulated as an indispensible part of organised religious activism by Swami Vivekananda in his theory of practical Vedanta. In this novel interpretation of the Upanishads, voluntary social service was to be undertaken as a spiritual praxis; serving god through serving the divine in each human being. The Ramakrishna Mission’s efforts in famine relief, educational initiatives, and nursing began in the 1890s and have continued to this day (Beckerlegge 2000: 80–100). Relief work after disasters, setting up hospitals, schools, and colleges, organising medical camps, blood and organ donation drives represent efforts by guru-led sects to refashion, modernise, and partake in “secular” activities along with proselytising. In contrast, Copeman and Ikegame observe the pre-eminent status of bhakti given directly to god or to a guru in precolonial religious reform movements in the subcontinent (devotion to god and guru was supposed to reflect in one’s conduct, one’s expressions of love, and one’s attempts to critique and transgress hierarchies of traditional communities like caste, and build new sampradayas (traditions) and systems of spiritual knowledge (Copeman and Ikegame 2012: 25–35). Even today, guru-bhakti is the root for offering “manav seva in organisations like Radha Soami Satsang Beas or Mata Amritanandamayi Mission. This is not to say that religious traditions of community service did not exist in the subcontinent before colonialism. Examples can be found in Sikh traditions in the northern part of the subcontinent from the 15th century onwards; the practices of the Lingayats in the South in the 12th century point towards notions similar to seva.

In the case of modern, organised Hinduism, the influences of Christian missionary work in the Third World colonies and the discourse of human rights in the West is notable. Hindu reform movements like the Swaminarayanan movement and the Brahmo Samaj in the 1830s further bolstered the case for seva as an important spiritual and political mission. Beckerlegge (2003) argues that Swami Vivekananda’s strategy was to modernise Hinduism while traditionalising it. While his traditionalism was reflected in his patriarchal notions of femininity and motherhood and his anxiety to maintain caste hierarchy (Vivekananda 1989), his modernism was reflected in his anti-ritualistic stance, emphasis on voluntary action for the daridranarayana, which worked to endear him to his Western disciples and Indian elite patrons of the Ramakrishna Mission (Beckerlegge 2000: 52–60; 100–03).

The idea of seva found more of a revivalist force from the 1890s onwards when it was combined with the idea of shuddhi (reconversion) by Arya Samaj. While Vivekananda restricted himself to critiquing Hindu ritualism and practices of untouchability, Arya Samaj took the step of popularising a ritual of shuddhi or reconversion to Hinduism for those who had accepted Christianity or Islam. In numerous instances shuddhi campaigns fostered suspicion and hatred and culminated in coercion or open violence (Fishcer-Tine 2003; Jones 1968; Gupta 1998). Other trajectories of the ideology of seva can be traced to show how it was later interpreted and extended by gurus and organisations. One such trajectory can be traced from Vivekananda’s and Swami Akhandananda’s notion of seva and nationalism to M S Golwalkar, K B Hedgewar, and the ideology of the RSS in the 1940s (Beckerlegge 2003). The entry of the monks of the Yogi Gorakhnath order into right-wing politics a few decades after that with war-cries for gau-raksha and ghar-wapsi may be another.

Apart from the dangers of right-wing interpretations, seva also fortifies traditional paternalistic attitudes and power relations between benefactor and beneficiaries. It binds the latter in an unsaid oath of receiving what is given. For example, even while the Swadhyay Parivar’s welfare work in rural Gujarat and Maharashtra is laudable, the organisation endorsed the idea of gratitude and harmony between the rich and poor, and ensured Brahminical roles and rituals on an everyday basis in the villages where it worked in the 1950s (Sheth 2000). “Mainstreaming” of tribals and Dalits was undertaken with the justification that they are bhavalakshi or storehouses of emotions (Giri 2008: 23, 50, 114–120) and by implication non-rational.

In the new millennium, social scientists have used the concept of faith-based organisations (FBOs) to explore the development efforts of such organisations and study the politics of new religious organisations in the Third World; how they are heavily guided by their donors and receive funding from the First World. Clarke (2006) elucidates the trajectory of FBOs, which began in the 1980s in the United States (US) under Ronald Reagan when the support of the Christian right and Christian religious organisations was sought in policy matters. According to Clarke, as the US and European countries pushed liberalisation policies worldwide, especially in the developing countries, government spending on welfare started to fall, which necessitated FBOs. This alliance between foreign donors and FBOs in developing countries was made keeping in mind the fact that spiritual actors occupy positions of respect and trust in their communities, as compared to political leaders or state actors. One set of FBOs in India overtly rely on networks
established on the foundation of Hindutva, or Hindu cultural nationalism, among the Indian diaspora in the West. They acquire funds and support from the Vishva Hindu Parishad, Self-Employed Women’s Association international and other organisations like the US-based India Development and Relief Fund (see, for example, Basu 2015: 164–70). Another set that has proliferated since the 1990s are Hindu organisations that do not have a direct link or apparent ideological similarities with the Hindu right; rather they took up quasi-governmental roles in local communities with funding from the United Nations (UN) or the United States Agency for International Development. The “war on terror” discourse after 9/11 has caused several Muslim organisations to be blacklisted by intergovernmental organisations and international NGOs worldwide (see, for example, Balchin 2007).

Christian missionary institutions and Islamic organisations in India lack political clout and state support. Based on their study in Maharashtra, Jodhka and Bora (2009: 22) note that Hindu FBOs were the “most globally active” and most likely to have several branches across the country. Among the 133 organisations studied, the three wealthiest and largest were Hindu organisations. It is important to note that while Muslim and Christian organisations in India have mainly worked in the field of providing education and health services in the field of seva, Hindu organisations have diversified into making self-help groups, agricultural cooperatives, partnering with corporate companies, forest and water conservation.

A Shift of Course: Two Movements around Water

To explain the differences in seva efforts led by older and newer organisations, that is, those that came up before liberalisation and those that came after, let us take an example each from water-related projects done by FBOs in these two periods. Sheth (2000) studied the contributions of the Swadhyay Parivar as a religious reform movement. According to him the Swadhyay Parivar leaders appealed to people with the idiom of bhakti encased in kruti (action) and shram (labour), and emphasised that people should work for the community and human fraternity at large, rather than their own selves, their immediate families, or even their caste and kin groups. Athavale, who founded the Swadhyay Parivar in the 1950s, initially tried to orient the imagination of his urban followers towards the suffering of rural India. On his famous bhaktipheris (devotional trips), urban followers would spend a couple of days in villages, observe Ekadashi fasts, sing devotional songs and recite Sanskrit verses, thanking god at the beginning and end of the day and at mealtimes. Once the community started taking interest, formal centres were opened, which trained people in the Swadhyay Parivar beliefs and norms, its rituals, and the world view of seva.

According to Sheth, in the 1970s, Athavale started paying attention to the farming communities in the drought-prone Saurashtra region of Gujarat. He began by convincing people to contribute voluntary labour to the lord’s farm (an earmarked plot of land) in the village, and the vriksha mandir (tree-temple) just outside the village. Slowly, he would involve the labour of as many as 20 villages to maintain one large plot and a temple where man-and-wife couples of any caste could officiate. In 1989, he began to focus on recharging wells in the Junagadh area. He made sure that his followers were trained in simple and cost-effective methods and that they offered their own shram (labour) in digging and clearing soil with bhakti and not in lieu of material gains. Sheth notes that by 1994, 23,000 wells had been recharged in Junagadh alone and this was done in cooperation with the owners of private wells. In the same year, with the help of Swadhyay Parivar’s followers, villagers also built a simple check dam to impound the water flowing in a small rivulet. Another study records one lakh recharged wells in the state by 1998, which brought to farmers other benefits such as an increase in income after a nominal investment in water conservation, and gaining the confidence to raise long-duration rabi and kharif crops. Farmers also developed methods to construct soak pits so that water used in bathing, washing, as well as irrigation was not wasted but percolated down to raise the water table (Shah 2000).

Both Sheth (2000) and Shah (2000) emphasise that such a large-scale and motivated movement could not have been built by just any NGO. The Swadhyay Parivar’s tight-knit structure enabled volunteers who were convinced of its vision to take the message of success by devotion from one village to another and build communities of religious followers who would take up and supervise water conservation in the entire region based on moral and unselfish conduct. Both authors are also of the view that at least till the mid-1990s, the movement was self-sustaining and did not require the help of government agencies.

Shah (2000) is of the opinion that the government’s lackadaisical attitude in the beginning, followed by the declaration of subsidies to private well owners for recharging their own wells, caused a contradiction between the principles of community development and the idea of furthering private gain. Shah feels that this brought about the end of a booming movement in Gujarat, while Ramaswamy Shaktivadivel (2007) writes that the easy availability of bank credit for sinking wells and the government’s electricity subsidy encouraged people to overuse whatever water was conserved by the recharge of wells. Rapid urbanisation and industrialisation meant increased demands for water, more industrial effluents in rivers, and the necessity of expensive methods to treat the polluted water to meet the needs of drinking or agriculture. In several states, government initiatives in drafting and implementing groundwater recharge policies increased, as did the problems of neo-liberal development.

The AOL’s role in the Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) in 2010 in Delhi was radically different. Although the short 22 km stretch of the Yamuna that flows through Delhi is the most polluted, the first phase of the programme (YAP-I: 1993–2003) did very little to enforce the treatment of effluents by industries in the area. Neither was the sewage system in residential areas developed to ensure that waste would not flow into the river. The plan was a bilateral project between the governments of India and Japan, the latter having provided aid of ₹ 705 crore through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to India. This aid was in the form of a loan with “lower-than-ordinary-interest rates for environmental projects” (JICA nd). However, newspapers complained that not much was achieved in terms of cleaning the river or preventing further pollution.2 In the midst of accusations of government ineptness, the second phase was floated in 2004 (YAP–II), against a fresh loan from the same Japanese bank. That was also the year when the demolition of the Yamuna Pushta slums—which evicted 1.2 lakh people, on the pretext of riverbed encroachment—drew criticism from rights-based organisations.3 The organisations alleged that the eviction was effected to free land for profitable projects like the Commonwealth Games (CWG) village and the Akshardham.

It was not until 2009 that the project received further attention, when the government requested a year’s extension to be able to clean the river before the CWG in October 2010. The event was to be held in Delhi and given the international participants and audience the city would have to host, ensuring accountability with regard to river cleaning became difficult. The Delhi Jal Board roped in NGOs for the project as they could mobilise the public as well as positive media attention. A date was earmarked for completion, 22 March, which is also recognised as World Water Day by the UN. Notably, the theme of the 2010 celebration of World Water Day had globally been planned on the theme “Clean Water for a Healthy World.” On 5 February 2010, Ravi Shankar declared that he and his followers would clean the sacred waters of the Yamuna and joined hands with UNESCO, World Bank, Microsoft and other private players, giving a call to volunteers to get ready for the “8 Days 8 Ghats” clean up drive titled “Meri Dilli, Meri Yamuna” (My Delhi, My Yamuna).

The inaugural programme in Purana Qila in Delhi included hymns and a play personifying Yamuna as a river deity. In the play, Yamuna is fed up with pollution and returns to her father’s (Surya, the Sun God) abode. Only after she is implored by the residents of the city, who tell her that they would die if she does not come back, Yamuna agrees to return. In the programme Ravi Shankar talked about the importance of seva and good deeds for attaining spiritual goals and peace of mind. The AOL claimed that about 5,000 volunteers manually cleaned the ghats and many other parts of the bank. Over six weeks, various pranayama courses were offered to residents of nearby urban villages and industrial areas, saplings were planted, children were taught how to nurture the river, and walks were organised in the city (AOL 2010). Note here that unlike Swadhyay Parivar’s sustained effort to build a sect around a water-conservation project, AOL had a fixed task for less than a month and its proselytisation was non-ritualistic and did not require the prior existence of a motivated local religious community. The collaboration of state and non-state actors, and volunteers from outside the slums effected the cleaning drive.

Let us now analyse the key features of the seva efforts of this millennium. In comparison with earlier religious organisations, gurus now project more and more of what Ikegame and Copeman (2012: 1–3) call “uncontainability,” where their roles are myriad and multiplying and are not bound by national boundaries, jurisdiction, or by what their predecessors had taken up. In that they are not contained even by just the numerical or ideological strength of their own organisation or teachings in a certain locale as shown above. Some authors identify the new middle-class resident and non-resident Indian clientele of the gurus as a key distinguishing feature in the way movements have changed (Warrier 2005; Srinivas 2008). And, in fact, the participation of urban middle-class volunteers in seva efforts of AOL is conspicuous. However the primary participation of the elites in seva has been a feature of developmental work done by Hindu organisations since Ramakrishna Paramahansa’s times. The state may not have opposed the proliferation of such organisations or their work. Individual secular leaders and political parties may have inaugurated temples and puja pandals. Beneficiaries among the lower classes and castes have been a characteristic of seva. But, in the case of new organisations, welfare work is done in collaboration directly with the state and international political and financial organisations. What lies beneath the “uncontainability” of the guru witnessed by Ikegame and Copeman is this unprecedented structural cooperation. Of course, the importance of the guru in this network needs to be highlighted. The guru is omniscient and acceptable to all. On the one hand, gurus travel far and wide, spread their message and establish their organisation across the world. On the other hand, they walk through the walls of the bureaucracy and speed up institutional mechanisms and converse in the language of international humanitarian policymakers. At the same time, they woo capitalists and media houses to collaborate in seva projects.

Faith in Private Players

Ikegame and Copeman (2012) argue that in the context of economic liberalisation, the state no longer retains an authoritarian and sacrosanct image, which the guru still does. This, according to them, creates space for “guru governmentality,” a concept inspired by Foucault. The guru is able to draw out the devotional side of their followers and ensure obedience. While admitting that the authority of the guru—coupled with their sheer wealth and connections—puts them in a rather powerful position in these times, I would argue that governance in general has changed since economic liberalisation, rather than gurus and religious organisations assuming an importance similar to that of the state. Global capitalism fosters disgust towards the state’s inability to deliver goods and services to citizens, and instead promises a better future through privatisation and competition; by encouraging citizens to repose faith in private players and govern their own selves. The nation state often negotiates and divides power with these sectors, for example, by inviting gurus to resolve humanitarian conflicts, plan land and water resource management, etc. From time to time, the AOL bags short-term projects with active endorsement from the state, like organising awareness programmes against HIV, mainstreaming terrorists and naxals, and making model villages. The AOL also invites corporations to collaborate with it to undertake CSR projects.4

In this section, the attempt was to delineate the organisational links established by religious gurus while undertaking water management projects. But what about the people or communities who are directly affected or earmarked as the beneficiaries of such projects? What form does the “government of the self” take at the plane of implementation, that is, in the relationship between the religious organisation, urban volunteers and community participation? The following section attempts to answer this question through reflections from my fieldwork in Karnataka.

Kumudvathi River Rejuvenation

My fieldwork in a water management project started by Ravi Shankar in 2013 in the Nelamangala taluka in the rural district of Bengaluru in Karnataka will form the basis for this section. The project, titled “Volunteer for a Better India,” was launched as an initiative of AOL by Ravi Shankar in February 2013 in Delhi to meet the Millennium Development Goals of the UN. The platform was not restricted to AOL members and Shankar invited the support of all “citizens.” The UN delegates, from UNICEF, UNODC, ECOSOC, UNFPA and UNDP inundated the panel of speakers during its inauguration in Delhi and pledged material and personnel aid, thereby driving public opinion at a global level. The years 2012 and 2013 were those of drought in India, with the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh experiencing their worst droughts since 1972. The AOL project started in Maharashtra, and was then taken to Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Imploring the people of Bengaluru city to join, fliers partially written in English were distributed in streets, calling for “Water for Bangalore.” An extract:

Water-scarcity in Bangalore city is growing. Tippagondanhalli reservoir which was once supplying water to most part of Bangalore city has dried up because of its major feeder rivers Kumudvathi and Arkavathi drying up ... Deforestation, quarrying, industrialisation on catchment area, sand mining, massive eucalyptus plantations, siltation of irrigation tanks have caused depletion of water levels and it would be eroded completely in just a few years. Fearing further consequences people are moving away from farming and migrating to Bengaluru in search of jobs.

Students (for example, from the Vagdevi School and Acharya Institute of Technology) and corporate employee groups (for example from Bosch, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited [HAL], and Oracle) started flocking from the city to villages in the Nelamangala taluka every Sunday. Participants of the Youth Leadership and Training Program around Bengaluru also offered seva in the area.5 The participation of locals was limited, even by the admission of the report published by the organisation. These volunteers began to desilt irrigation tanks and wells, constructing boulder checks and percolation pits and planting trees (International Association for Human Values or IAHV 2014).

Since Kumudvathi was one of the main tributaries of Arkavathi which was Bengaluru city’s source of water, this watershed development was crucial for many. According to the planners of AOL’s project, rainfall in the Arkavathi catchment area had not fluctuated much in the last 100 years (above 800 mm of annual rainfall), and yet rivers, ponds, and wells had dried up. As can be seen from the flier cited above, the right reasons were identified (like mining, quarrying, and eucalyptus orchards), but AOL did not attempt to correct any of these problems, rather concentrating on desilting and conservation. Its report did not state the quantity of water that was expected from this project (IAHV 2014).

Political Participation and Policy

The Karnataka government and the Indian Administrative Service officers were involved in the planning of the programme, including the main planner of the project who was a retired government geologist. The government was eschewing part of its role and yet overseeing the project. If the government had embarked on this project on its own, it may have had to do so under a rural employment scheme, rather than demand voluntary labour. The joint effort would also keep in check the rabble-rousers who demanded controlled mining, quarrying and industrialisation in the area. Among the companies who had joined hands with AOL as part of their CSR were Bosch and Phillips, both with plants near Bengaluru, trying to make good their claims of development of the region against acquired land. Bosch’s new plant, which was inaugurated in 2015, has a built-up area of 38,000 sq km. Another partner was HAL, which consumes 16–18 million kl per annum itself, of which more than 5 million kl was sourced from
Bengaluru (HAL 2014). It also consumes enormous amounts of energy, 80% of which comes from Bengaluru. In addition, HAL is linked to bauxite mining, which has displaced thousands of people from other parts of India. Other studies have found that through their CSR responsibilities and notions, most heads of corporations mainly targeted legitimacy with the state and not the needs of the people (see, for example, Sharma 2011).

I joined a team (comprising six urban middle-class volunteers) that was visiting one particular village in Nelamangala taluka in June–July 2013. The volunteers were happy with the AOL playing a paternal role towards the village community. Every member of the group shared a deep sense of disaffection towards the state—for having failed to educate or employ people from the village—and towards populist politics, which kept demanding rights for deprived communities. According to them, safeguards such as reservation and tax exemption for low-income farmers were unfair and affected growth, and the quality of education, products and services in the country. Notions about rural people being poor because they do not know how to use their resources were predominant in the Bengaluru ashram of the AOL and the team visiting the village. The leader of the team wasa 59-year-old urban middle-class male Brahmin, who is a retired government engineer and the AOL teacher in the city. He candidly asked us:

Why should villages look to the state for support? Why should those below poverty line ask for one-rupee rice? Ambedkar said Stand on your own two feet, but our state has created a lazy and beggar-like village community which has forgotten Basavanna’s edict of work is worship.

Here, going beyond Foucault’s idea of all-pervasiveness governmentality, one must also keep in mind the claims of citizenship of different classes. Urban middle-class India assert their citizenship by engaging in individual “rational” action, which included lending a helping hand to villages, while branding village communities as an irrational population who are standing in the path of their own development and that of the nation. It is because of rationality and industriousness, the urban volunteers reasoned, that the new Indian middle class is prosperous. According to John Harriss (2007) middle-class activism in post-liberalisation India forms the chunk of civil society organisation, and has progressively disempowered the landless and informal sector workers in terms of political participation. Global attention and funding reinforces this inequality.

Also, questions of governance cannot be separated from economic policies. The New Agricultural Policy in Karnataka, directed by the World Bank, negated the basic principles of land reform and promoted “corporate landlordism,” that is, heavy private investment in agriculture in seeds, marketing, processing, horticulture, aquaculture, dairy, poultry, cold storage, and leasing of land (Assadi 1995). Even irrigation and water distribution were planned to be handed over to private players. Land reforms invited “predatory capitalism” whose “principle beneficiaries are the speculators in land ... housing companies, leisure and luxury industry, the education industry,” companies building highways, etc, requiring acquisition of tens of thousands of acres (Nair 1996). While land ceilings were implemented, plantations were kept out of the ambit of the legislation. On the one hand, tribals were displaced from the Nagerhole forest in the name of eco-development, and on the other, the government was knee-deep in the illegal export of sandalwood from the same forest (Assadi 1996). Adding to the conundrum are the mining and quarrying industries, which displace innumerable people, destroy livelihoods and biodiversity, and absorb huge amounts of water. Both Nair and Assadi note that parliamentary left parties exhibited weak resistance to these policies.

Rather than demanding policy-level changes in agriculture and industry, civil society was shifting the entire attention on water conservation at a village or household level. My fieldwork took me to a village about 30 km from Bengaluru city, touching the Shivagange hills where Kumudvathi’s source lies. The AOL had found an enthusiastic local participant: a very fit sexagenarian Vokkaliga male, Somesh (name changed), who headed one of the few local families that took interest in the project. The team visiting the village from the city had very few regular members, even though hundreds of people would turn up for marches in the city for the same cause.

The village was populated by the Vokkaliga caste, which is an agricultural community, and is identified as a dominant caste in Karnataka. In this particular village they were not particularly wealthy; the maximum amount of land held by one family was 25 acres. Tenancy was not predominant and most families owned four to five acres of land. They traditionally practised dry farming, mostly of ragi (finger millet) along with pulses, limited wet farming of rice and animal husbandry. The population of the village, according to Somesh, was about a thousand people, but many had migrated to cities for jobs. Villagers reported that rejuvenation work was underway in the neighbouring Dalit village as well, where villagers’ participation was better because they still depended on income from the land, unlike the Vokkaliga village.

Somesh’s family owned about 16 acres of land, which they cultivated without additional paid labour. In about six acres, he had grown eucalyptus in the preceding few years as the revenue from it was quick and lucrative and the investment and effort was low. But, through his involvement with the AOL, he had come to know about the harmful effects eucalyptus has on the water content of the soil and was thinking about switching to the organic farming techniques that AOL was advocating. Other farmers of the village could not afford to switch or were not interested, according to Somesh. He was employed in the Central Reserve Police Force when his parents were alive but left his job to take care of the land once they died. His was not a very poor family. His brother, who was in the police force, could afford to send his children to English-medium schools in the city. Their involvement with the AOL was four to five years old and was reflected in some of their practices, like chanting Sanskrit mantras before meals and before starting to dig the silt in the kalyanis (step wells), calling medicinal plants by their Sanskrit names, claiming ayurveda as “our own,” and so on. They also said they were trying to introduce some weekly congregations in the village where hymns and worship could be regularised.

Who Benefits?

Volunteers from the city blamed the inertia of the villagers for not participating. But, according to the villagers to whom I managed to talk, they did not participate because they did not own too much land, nor relied on it for income, so the benefits of the river rejuvenation would go to the city rather than them. Some claimed that Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Gurantee Act had once been operative in the area—although it was not very beneficial—but now even that had been done away with. They had taken to other means of livelihood as rainfall and forest cover in the area had gone down and agriculture had become unsustainable due to the rising prices of seeds and manure. Ragi, they said, grew well in the area but was out of fashion and was not fetching money in the market, whereas cash crops needed a larger investment. Some also said that land acquisition was taking place in the vicinity and thus it would not matter even if they were successful in making the water situation better.

Somesh, however, was optimistic that the villagers would realise the benefits of the project if it was successful. At the time of the fieldwork, five kalyanis, one recharge well, and one large pond were rejuvenated in his village alone, apart from several boulder checks and soak pits. In all the villages combined, 14–18 kalyanis, five recharge wells, 74–78 boulder checks in the riverbed, two large ponds, and several soak pits were rejuvenated.

In the Maharashtra chapter, the same project was criticised for having widened and dredged the rivers too much with the help of heavy machinery, resulting in water stagnating or evaporating faster (Chari and Sharma 2016). However that did not seem to be the case in Karnataka, where most work was done manually using simple tools. In a year’s time, the AOL claimed the following achievements:

108 boulder checks constructed; More than 20 traditional step wells have been de-silted; More than 50 recharge wells have been constructed in more than 20 villages; More than 10,000 saplings have been planted and are being maintained; Positive impact of the rejuvenating activities is already visible in a few villages, with 10 to 15 ft of water standing in open wells and step wells even in summer. (IAHV 2014)

But, considering the economy of the area, which involves heavy industrialisation, quarrying, and mining, these minor achievements may not be long-lived. The forest department and the NGT have notified several companies to move their factories, although very late in the day (Madhusudhan 2013; Kumar 2013). So far, no action has been taken and the companies are standing their ground. The pressure created by civil society is also not enough.

To assess the importance of watershed projects, Sangameswaran (2006) studied the Adarsh Gav Yojana of the state government in a village in western Maharashtra. She found that NGOs had helped generate income in the village, provided health and education facilities, that more water was available in total, and people were able to get loans from the government, and that alcohol-related violence had reduced. But, she cautioned that since land and water sources were mostly privately owned, the landless continued to live in precarious conditions. Handpumps were few and spread across the region. Without these basic resources, they were unable to avail education. Reddy (2006) shows that in Andhra Pradesh, NGOs may have performed better than the government in developing watershed programmes, but taking into account the condition of forests and distribution of agricultural land was essential for providing real and long-term benefits to the people. She writes that instead of developing such strategies, the rural elite were building strong nexuses with NGOs, corrupt politicians, and contractors to further economic inequalities and money-based politics.


What we can see from the above description is this: on the one hand policies that are wrecking havoc on the ecology and livelihoods are progressing unhindered, and on the other the state–corporate–AOL nexus trying to allay people’s grievances and fears in the aftermath of the drought of 2012–13 in Karnataka by assuring them that groundwater conservation led by urban middle-class activists was a permanent solution. The civil society is participating in a process to control “the masses” and render them governable and obedient, notwithstanding the initial success of river rejuvenation. For the AOL, “dharna” (political demonstration), whereby people demanded their rights, was “negative.” The AOL rather preferred to take forward an idea of development and welfare that was held by the global urban elite. The platform was least bothered even about convincing the community about the benefits it envisaged, or about their participation.

Labour is differently conceptualised for different classes in this governmentality: for the poor, labour is imagined to be habitual, irrational, and for sheer survival, while for the middle classes, labour was conscientious “activism,” a labour of love in their spare time, negotiating with the demands of the global capitalist system. The civil society, especially organisations like the AOL contribute to the seamlessness of this governmentality by bridging of the gaps between state, corporations, corrupt contractors and the rural rich.

Often the justification of this order of things is the need for unity in the community. One young volunteer I met during the fieldwork said that he did not go to the AOL ashram because he did not want to take part in ritual worship, but volunteered in the river rejuvenation project in the village because he was distressed by the disparateness of his “community.” “Look at Muslim countries, look at Christian countries, if you say a word against one of them, all of them will answer back in unison. And look at Hindus, we cannot even call our country Hindu.” He said that Indian villages are in distress and they will rebel against whatever unity that remains, if not checked, and that is why participated in the AOL’S rural development programmes. The subservience of social inequality to religious-national unity is a slogan that is becoming shrill across the world. With this newer ways of control and management of people’s voices against inequality are also emerging.

For Foucault (1994: 307), the welfare mode of governance, followed by the neo-liberal form, were “numerous reappearances of the tricky adjustment between political power wielded over legal subjects and pastoral power wielded over live individuals.” Biebricher (2011) takes a Foucaultian approach to study FBOs and argues that FBOs are one of these reappearances which have been able to guide individuals to submit themselves willingly to very centralised structures of the state. Further, the discourse of service is integral to the functioning of FBOs as it binds people to the “one who directs their conscience.” He cites Lawrence Mead—who led the deliberations in the US leading up to the reforms of 1996—categorically stating “policies help the needy but also require that they meet certain behavioural requirements, which the programs enforce through close supervision” (Biebricher 2011: 402). The charisma of gurus and organisational emphasis on seva, thus, must be seen in this broader framework of global political and economic currents, rather than as a phenomenon of its own.


1 The contributions of NGOs like Professional Assistance for Development Action and Tarun Bharat Sangh in Rajasthan and Viksat, Mahiti-Utthan, Pravah, the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, and the Development Support Centre in Gujarat are notable. Organisations like the Watershed Organisation Trust and the Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management began their work in Maharashtra in the 1990s. Most of these organisations did not take a confrontationist position with regards to the state’s industrial policies and large-scale water projects. They worked despite the state, with the participation of the community and sometimes in alliance with the local government.

2 A collection of articles on the issue can be accessed at

3 See, for example, reports by the People’s Union for Democratic Rights and the Human Rights Law Network, both published in 2004, available online. Ruzbeh Bharucha (2006) released a documentary and a book on the topic.

4 See Capgemini’s partnerships with AOL are detailed in

5 The Youth Leadership Training Programme (YLTP) is an Art of Living course designed for rural youth, which claims to train them to become agents of change in their own localities or regions.


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