Forms of (attempted) water commodification in India: A brief review

@ATREE auditorium at 3.45 pm on 16th March, 2015


In the critical literature on commodification of natural resources, one can distinguish between two broad strands. One strand takes the position that natural resources should not be commodified, with arguments ranging from the ethical to those that draw on notions of the commons. The second strand takes the position that natural resources cannot be commodified (in the strict sense of defining a clearly delienated unit that can be exchanged and putting in place a competitive market where the ‘correct’ price is determined). This could either take the form of a general argument (à la Karl Polanyi) about the social embeddedness of nature and the kinds of counter-movements that result in response to any attempts to commodify it or more specific arguments (à la Karen Bakker) about how particular forms of natural resources such as water may not lend themselves easily to commodification due to their peculiar biophysical and socio-economic characteristics. In fact, there is now a large literature dealing precisely with all the extra-market work that goes into converting natural resources into commodities (successfully or not). This paper would deal with different forms of one particular natural resource, viz., water that have sought to be commodified in India and the regimes of ownership, kinds of user rights and markets, and triggers and facilitating circumstances that underlie these. The implications of this diversity for debates about commodification will also be briefly considered.

About the speaker

Priya Sangameswaran is currently Assistant Professor in Development Studies at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Priya works broadly at the intersection of developmental studies and environmental studies, drawing on heterodox economic theory, post development theory and political ecology. Although her primary academic training is in economics, she increasingly draws on concepts, concerns and methodologies from the other social sciences, particularly anthropology, sociology, and critical geography.

Priya received her PhD from the University of Massachusetts Amherst on the question of equity in community-based water projects in Western Maharashtra, with a particular focus on the link between access to land and access to water. Subsequently, she undertook a review of the concept of ‘right to water’ in different discourses (human rights, state legislation, and civil society initiatives) as well as a brief collaborative study on the privatization of water supply in Hubli-Dharwad, Karnataka. More recent research has been focused on understanding different discourses and processes involved in the ‘reforms’ in the water sector in Maharashtra (across urban drinking, rural drinking and irrigation sub-sectors) in the first decade of the twenty-first century and how they link to larger debates about neoliberalism, rights, commodification of natural resources, and democratization. Current research projects include a study of changing ideas of nature in cities (particularly contestations over the boundaries between land and water in Kolkata) as well as a contemporary history of Wagle Industrial Estate and other selected industrial areas in Thane city (in the state of Maharashtra) focusing on how changes in land use and economic activities are related to transformations in the space of the city and discourses of urban development.