ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Towards More Inclusive Water Management

Neha Khandekar (, Tanvi Agrawal (, Rashmi Kulranjan ( and Siddhartha Krishnan ( are associated with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru.

As much as it is a domestic, agricultural and industrial necessity, water is also a basic human right and should be managed as a public good. However, policy and practice related to water management have failed to create inclusive solutions due to blinkered disciplinary thinking about a resource that plays multiple sociocultural, environmental, economic and ecological roles. It is crucial for decision-makers to engage with interdisciplinary approaches to create truly democratic water systems.

As a fundamentally interdisci­p­linary subject and realm, water needs to be analysed through multiple lenses and managed using a ­capacious toolbox. In order to understand it, comprehension of the hydrological cycle is a prerequisite. Also, decisions on water, land use, agriculture, and sanitation affect each other; these interactions must be appreciated. It is also important to realise that developmental actions are influenced by social, economic, and environmental factors and, in turn, shape these contexts. ­Finally, the interactions between actions taken at different scales—local, national, and international—also need to be ­understood. This makes it evident that an interdisciplinary systems thinking is needed to govern water resources. However, the sector is currently managed in silos by institutions that use reductionist approaches. Ideas of some critical sociological thinkers can contribute to the more inclusive management of our ­water resources and truly ensure water for all.

Critical Thinking

The first benefit of engaging with critical thinking is developing a questioning perspective on the systems at hand. Indeed, according to Antonio Gramsci, intellectuals must question the status quo (Crehan 2016). This challenges complacency and allows for analysis on how to improve prevailing practices. While it is projected that evolution is linear and that modern insti­tutions surpass previous systems, many sociological thinkers have questioned this. Using such a critical app­roach, we can also recognise how ­problem-riddled current systems are.

Modern water management is dominated by a bias towards engineering and economic approaches. This domination of certain knowledge systems over others in a subject that is essentially interdisciplinary is reminiscent of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony (Calhoun et al 2012). Water resource departments in most Indian states recruit only civil and mechanical engineers. Their decision-making tools are based on merely economic criteria such as cost–benefit analysis, and the few participatory processes like stakeholder consultations are reduced to box-ticking efforts. This also leads to the hegemony of certain powerful classes over others.

For example, the stakeholders of a ­hydropower project typically include panchayats, non-governmental organi­sations, community welfare groups (that include farmers, users of irrigation faci­lities, women welfare groups, self-help groups, and ­village youth welfare groups), hydropower developers and the state energy department. Despite the presence of welfare groups, communities on the ground remain sidelined by the latter two stakeholders that unilaterally drive decisions to serve their interests in earning revenues from energy generation.

Due to the domination of ideas of ­profit maximisation over considerations of equity or ecology, there is neither benefit-sharing with locals nor their ­inclusion in decision-making around sustainability concerns. For instance, locals often find out about a life-altering hydropower project only after the arrival of machi­nery and workers in the area (Buechler et al 2016). For communities displaced by these projects, it is indeed hegemonic that someone in the distant lands has the power to write their fates and drastically change their lives and livelihoods.

The emphasis on engineering and economic approaches and neglect of issues related to equity, power, and justice has been widely criticised. As the late Ramaswamy Iyer had stated,

Rivers are not human artifacts; they are natural pheno­mena, integral components of ecological systems, and inextricable parts of the cultural, social, economic and spiritual lives of the communities concerned. They are not pipelines to be cut, turned around, welded and rejoined. (Umamaheshwari 2015)

Cullet et al (2012) also critique the popular reductionist perception of water as “a resource to be exploited for various water servi­ces, and not as a resource that has certain basic economic, social, environmental and cultural value.” Taking ­water out of this holistic context leads to its current perception as a resource to be tapped, used, and consumed in ways that make only scientific and economic sense. This hegemonic “scientism” also serves political interests; dominant ­values can be “apoliticised” by hiding them behind a smokescreen of “science,” preventing questions to protect the ­interests of the powerful.

Against Positivism

Jürgen Habermas, in addition to other sociologists, warned society against posi­tivism that sought to explain social dynamics through formulation of universal laws, backed by data (Turner 2001). Positivism takes the physical sciences as the standard of certainty and exactness for all disciplines. It believes that know­ledge is inherently neutral and that ­human values can be kept out of rese­arch and decision-making. Water reso­urce planning implicitly advocates this approach. However, science and policy, and indeed, water management are ­laden with values. Even the cost–benefit analysis, a seemingly technical and apolitical tool for decision-making, is based on several value judgments. Deciding to maximise economic utility, placing a value on the well-being of future generations by choosing a certain discount factor, and putting a monetary value on the natural resources that do not inherently come with price tags are all highly subjective steps within the cost–benefit analysis, which often get couched behind a seemingly objective benefit-to-cost ratio.

While positivism believes in the presence of an irrefutable objective “truth,” in applied settings, “truth” is in fact ­socially constructed. As Habermas illustrated through the consensus theory, truth or knowledge are not absolute but arrived at through a process that is ­socially negotiated (Ritzer 2010). Modern-day planning ignores the plurality of knowledge and realities. The domination of research and policy by powerful castes, classes, and gender recognises only their knowledge. Water projects based on colonial designs and heavy ­infrastructure reflect the masculine, centralisation-focused identities that ­designed these systems.

As demonstrated by Michel Foucault, modern societies privilege certain knowledge systems over others, creating an unequal distribution of power (Ritzer 2010). For instance, within agriculture are several cultivation techniques, which are varied in their resource requirements. The dominant agricultural paradigm established by the green revolution is characterised by high-yielding variety crops, intensive use of inputs, and market-­oriented farming that requires high irrigation intensities. This has led to investments in large hydropower projects for irrigation at the cost of land that communities relied on for generations.

According to Chambers (2019), the mindset behind the green revolution was that the farmers are ignorant and that there is a need to provide them with a fixed package of practices. These ideas came from powerful personalities like Norman Borlaug and Daniel Benor, and fitted the interests of the World Bank, to issue big loans fast. In privileging certain knowledges of agriculture, development, and well-being, the development paradigm has exacerbated the vulnerabilities of the marginalised, deepening the pre-existing power divides.

Critical thinking is a helpful tool to examine problems within contemporary systems. While ­reflecting on dominant narratives and paradigms is fundamentally an intuitive process, critical theory is a means to ­apply knowledge from the social sciences and the humanities to reveal and cha­llenge power structures, and ultimately improve society. Also, interdisciplinary researchers often invoke “Foucauldian discourse analysis” when enquiring on topics like caste- and gender-differentiated water availability and access.

Providing Solutions

In addition to highlighting shortcomings, sociological thinking can also point towards possible solutions in the water sector. Providing a practical solution to the problem of “whose knowledge counts,” Gramsci has developed the idea of “praxis,” setting the stage for participatory thinking and engagement with communities on the ground. He insists that knowledge can be produced outside the ivory tower and by the masses when they are able to organise productively. He further reasons that it is the responsibility of the powerful to facilitate this engagement (Calhoun et al 2012). Praxis, while mainly conceptualised for research, applies equally to policy and practice. Recent participatory methods operatio­nalise this thinking. For instance, partici­patory rural appraisal (PRA) methods, when implemented in the true spirit of the term, can be used to integrate ­local people into development initiatives and enhance their control over the resource allocation and decision-making processes.

Habermas moves forward on this idea of coordinated action and speaks of the importance of recognising multiple goals and interests in any situation. His ideas of “strategic purposive action” and “communicative action” address the possi­bility of moving beyond egocentric calculations and acting in coordination with others. Habermas’s work built up on Marx’s critique of capitalist systems that aim at maximising utility at the cost of ­human well-being. He proposed the idea of communicative action, which encourages actors to not be blinkered by the pursuit of individual successes, but to harmonise actions under the given circumstances to reach mutual understanding (Ritzer 2010). This approach can be beneficial in water resource planning, particularly in conflict situations. Discord often arises when downstream water users repeatedly get the short end of the stick because of the inequitable and self-centred behaviour of those upstream. Sharing water based on mutual understanding and dialogue, that is, communicative action, can help maximise collective welfare and alleviate conflict.

Gramsci’s praxis as a system of planning that is completely participatory is the ideal standard to work towards, and Habermas’s communicative action is a useful tool to employ. However, including all stakeholders in every decision may not always be realistic. In applied settings, certain voices may sometimes be left out of decision-making despite best efforts to the contrary. Further, current governance regimes are weighed down by inertia and will take time to evolve into more inclusive systems.

In response to similar challenges, gender sociologist Dorothy Smith provides the “standpoint theory,” a ready-to-­deploy instrument at any stage of a system’s evolution towards a transparent, inclusive ideal. Stating that “what one knows is affected by where one stands (one’s subject position) in society,” the standpoint theory highlights that know­ledge is socially situated, and asserts that it is essential for decision-makers to recognise their own positionalities with respect to those of others, particularly the marginalised (Applerouth and Edles 2007). Advocating for those in power to stand in the shoes of the disadvantaged before they act, the standpoint theory can encourage engineers, planners, and policymakers to cultivate empathy towards the aspirations, hardships, knowledge and lived experiences of sidelined communities.

Ultimately, engaging with the social sciences can ground us to the contexts we live and work in, create a sense of humility in our abilities, and inculcate a consciousness towards those on whom we have an impact. It is of value to employ critical theories to constructively reflect on current water management practices and improve these systems. While this thinking may appear as common sense, such concepts provide a framework to recognise implicit values and evaluate our approaches against our aims. Interdisciplinarity is fundamentally inherent to policy. Expan­ding the range of approaches that ­inform water governance in India can go a long way in making the system more just, inclusive, and efficient.


Applerouth, S and L D Edles (2007): Sociological Theory in the Contemporary Era: Text and Readings, London: Pine Forge Press.

Buechler, S, D Sen, N Khandekar and C Scott (2016): “Relinking Governance of Energy with Livelihoods and Irrigation in Uttarakhand, India,” Water, Vol 8, No 10,

Calhoun, C, J Gerteis, J Moody, S Pfaff and I Virk (2012): Contemporaray Social Theory, United Kingdon: Wiley-Blackwell.

Chambers, R (2019): “Personal Reflections on the Green Revolutions Narrative and Myths,” Institute of Development Studies,

Crehan, K A F (2016): Gramsci’s Common Sense: Inequality and Its Narratives, Durham: Duke University Press.

Cullet, P, S Paranjape, H Thakkar, M Vani, K J Joy and M Ramesh (2012): Water Conflicts in India: Towards a New Legal and Institutional Framework, Pune: Forum for Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India.

Ritzer, G (2010): Sociology Theory, Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Turner, J H (2001): “Positivism: Sociological,” ScienceDirect,

Umamaheshwari, R (2015): “A Visionary on Water Issues,” Hindu, 12 September,


Updated On : 23rd Jun, 2020


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