Undercurrents of participatory groundwater governance in Rural Jalna, western India

Poonam Argade
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay, Mumbai, India; and Social Science Program, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, USA; psargade@syr.edu

N.C. Narayanan
Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas, IIT Bombay, Mumbai, India; ncn@iitb.ac.in

ABSTRACT: This paper analyses a participatory groundwater governance project called Purna Groundwater Management Association (PGWMA). A pilot project under the World Bank-funded Maharashtra Water Sector Improvement Project, the PGWMA project spanned eight villages in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra. In the case study, we used ethnographic interviews, discussions with villagers, and analysis of project materials. At the governance level, we found that the groundwater problem was conceptualised in a depoliticised way and involved an oversimplified notion of the community; it also deployed a checklist-type approach to equity, sustainability and participation, and attempted to commodify water. At the level of the community, our observations of peopleʼs access to groundwater, and of their perceptions and knowledge, showed that the project failed to inculcate the idea of groundwater as commons. While the project led to slightly improved water access, for the most part it redeployed caste, class and gender relations and led to negligible improvement in community participation. The study examines the paradoxical coexistence of the 'success' of the participatory governance model and the actual failure to steer the community-groundwater relationship towards sustainability. The case could not be entirely explained by existing critiques within development studies (the root cause of the over-extraction problem was unsustainably high groundwater need); it did not fit the 'implementation failure' critique, nor did we find a semblance of an 'ideal', 'traditional' system of resource management; a politicised understanding of the community was also insufficient. Using the Cultural Political Economy approach, we found that the historical sedimentation of high groundwater demand was linked to an imaginary of a 'better life' through social structures, political economy, technology access and postcolonial development policies that have influenced agricultural practices. The situation has become unsustainable due to dwindling water tables. Thinking through these 'undercurrents' of groundwater governance leads to a deeper understanding of the groundwater problem, its framings and meanings at multiple levels, and its links to equity and sustainability.

KEYWORDS: Participation, groundwater governance, hard rock aquifer, community-groundwater relationship, Cultural Political Economy, Maharashtra, India