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In 1947, India Became ‘Free’. How We Use Water Is Not.

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People’s consciousness in oppressed nations does not readily recognise natural resources as commodities with an exchange and use value; rather, they retain mystical ties with resources. But in the current newly produced space, people are being expropriated from these cultural ties with resources. This is a catastrophic displacement of human emotions for a resource and not a revolutionary change in human consciousness.

One can’t deny that in the international market, resources have been converted into a commodity and consist of a certain exchange value. To blatantly loot the resources of the oppressed nations, the ruling class of various imperialist state, particularly the US, has created global institutions such as World Bank, IMF and other UN agencies. To facilitate the multiplication of profit gained on capital that the big imperialist bourgeoisie invests in, these institutions play a significant role in attributing exchange value to all resources in Third World countries.

The ruling class finances all the projects that focus on expropriation of resources for the sake of capital multiplication. Presently, colonialism rests on the export of capital and technology through loans and unfair terms and conditions hidden under agreements between the imperial powers and oppressed countries. Water is one such resource, upon which domestic and international politics is shaped.

“To write history without putting water in it is to leave out a large part of the story.” — Donald Worster, Environment historian

Representational image.

The Role Of Imperialism In Commodifying Water

Water is an important resource for the existence of life. In fact, human civilisation has developed around water. Water is both a natural as well as a social category. There is an organic relation between water and human society. Water has a dialectic relation with human social existence: while shaping human existence, it has also undergone qualitative and quantitative changes.

Altering the chemical composition and availability of water are the two major changes produced by human social relations. Since the times of primitive communal society, humans have used water for their social necessities. As water entered the commodity mode of production within capitalism in the early seventeenth century, the exploitation of water started being directly related to limitless growth of surplus value for capital expansion.

The spatial expansion of capital is a social necessity for capitalism. From here started the non-renewal exploitative relation between capital and water. This got further enhanced in the era of imperialism: capital exported from imperialist powers was to be valorised in the land of oppressed countries such as India. The exploitation of water resources by imperial capital became a social necessity. As a monopoly over capital in this era led to inter-imperialist clashes over resources, the only way to solve this was to look for labour and resources outside of one’s state boundaries.

This explains the export of capital to oppressed nations. And thus, we see a series of mechanisms designed to tame the resource in service of capital. The first among many such mechanisms was the construction of canals. Colonial powers in India constructed numerous canals and dams for the irrigation of land in order to reap raw materials for industries in England. Such was the level of emphasis on irrigation activities that the whole northwestern region of India came to be known as canal colonies.

The British built canals to irrigate land that was hitherto unproductive. For this, they built check dams and dams to divert water from the river to the canals. On this land, they grew cotton and wheat to export to England. The state also collected large revenue from this irrigated land. With this revenue, the imperial power collected enough capital to then invest in industrial production.

It is no exaggeration to say that the five rivers of the Indian subcontinent were the liquid basis on which human labour got crystallised abstractly in terms of a pound. The industrial capital of Britain emerged from water and in turn, also shaped water. The rivers saw a change in their ecosystem: the normal flow of the river got obstructed, which led to a decrease in the volume of water. People on the bank of these rivers were deprived of water so that powerful capital holder class living in far off places could profit from it.

One of the impacts of the canal was that groundwater got salivated and thus rendered unfit for drinking in greater parts of Punjab. In the age of finance capital, when money capital started dominating the industrial capital and productive forces, too, saw its highest development, the shape of exploitation of water changed as well. In the era of imperialism, the export of financial capital in oppressed countries paved the way for looting and plundering of natural resources such as water.

How Water Entered From Agriculture To Industries And Stock Market

The export of capital ensured plunder of resources and labour to create surplus value over the capital, while also helping in producing new commodities in order to meet the new needs of capitalist powers. Water remained a big investment arena for the capitalists. But this time, through the development of technologies, water came to be seen as a source of power generation. Thereafter, the commodity value of water expanded from the agriculture sector to also include industries and hence, as a financial good in the stock market.

Electric power itself became a commodity with a certain exchange value that could be bought by industries to facilitate the production of new commodities. This brought in a huge market of hydel power. Companies monstrously started expediting in this technology to convert water into power grew. The hydel power generation industry was started by BuRec company that constructed the first large big dam in the US, named Hoover Dam.

Representational image.

Later, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), along with World Bank and IMF, left no stone unturned in exporting the technology to all oppressed nations where it was easier to develop such dams as labour and resources were cheap and thus, power so produced could be used by corporations with less expenditure on constant capital. For the capitalist, this arrangement was a haven because the labour cost in oppressed nations was lesser than those in imperialist nations and now, even water, on which dams were being built, came too cheap.

Here started the whole business of big dams and the way in which they devastated the ecology, society and politic-economy of the people in oppressed countries. Further, the politics behind dam construction must also be located in the geopolitics after World War II. Dams were used as weapons to colonise oppressed countries. The export of dams, thereby, became an export of capital and hence,  started being seen as a challenge to socialism. Dams became instruments of class struggle in this regard.

World Bank And Himachal Pradesh’s Hydro-Space

Himachal Pradesh is a mountainous region located in the Himalayas. The Himalayas are young-fold mountains that are still at the stage of formation, on a rise due to the congruence of the Indian and Eurasian plates. Since this rise is an ongoing process,  the whole of Himalaya is a geological sensitives ecosystem. Humans have been a part of this ecosystem since pre-historic times and thus, given the ecological sensitivity, humans have so adjusted that their basic necessities are fulfilled while the natural ecosystem, too, remains intact.

But in the era of imperialism, the intensified plunder of resources for capital creation caused devastating effects on the environment and its natural resources, particularly water. Rivers and streams are important sources of water. In Himachal, there are five drainage systems — Chenab, Ravi, Beas, Sutlej and Yamuna. Except for the Yamuna, all the other river systems are a part of the Indus river system.

Hence, the whole Himachal, except for its southeastern part, can be perfectly placed in the Indus basin. These five rivers have many streams and channels. In the local language, streams are called khad, smaller streams nallah and rivers dariya. The mountainous land of Himachal is crisscrossed by several khads and nallahs. The two are important components of the riverine system.

Any disturbance caused to the main channel will have its consequences felt in the tributaries, too. The building of tunnels near a river has dried the tributaries of the river. Given this, any attempt to alter the flow of the river will have an impact on the overall hydrological space that the river produces. But the imperialist plunder of the resources does not care about such ecological loss. Instead, what drives them is the thirst for capital expansion. The valorisation of capital is the sine qua non for the existence of capital. Capital must always be in motion and to set this motion, natural ecology needs to be moved. In this regard, the TVA project is an important landmark

TVA is a US corporation commissioned in 1933 that was founded to modernise the rural hinterlands of the US through hydro-development projects that included electricity generation. It is interesting to point here that the TVA was authorised at a time when the US economy was in crisis. It was the year of great repression, the crisis was due to overproduction and the inability of the working class to consume the produced commodity. To resolve this crisis, the capitalist turned to spend on urbanisation and modernisation projects everywhere.

And the nearest site for capital valorisation was the hydrological space of rural America. Later on, the corporation started exporting its technology. The corporation, under the leadership of David Lilienthal, gained acceptance by the state of the oppressed countries. The project was portrayed as a symbol of modernism and development. The World Bank and IMF funded the projects undertaken by this corporation, which became a site for the production and reproduction of capital. In India, the TVA affected the whole Indus basin system. Water energy was tapped into to produce constant capital for capitalists in India and abroad.

Himachal Pradesh, due to its terrain and river flow, was best suited for the construction of a multipurpose dam. Considering this, the World Bank and TVA collaborated to construct multipurpose hydro infrastructure in the whole of Indus basin. They also projected this construction as a solution to the India-Pakistan conflict over water. This resulted in the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, in which the basin got divided between India and Pakistan.


Woman taking goat herd to river for water
As decided in the Indus Waters Treaty, the Indian state has the exclusive right to use water from the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi rivers. Representational image.

India got control over the east-flowing river and Pakistan over the west-flowing. The treaty laid out the hydrological bureaucracy in Indus Basin. The Indus Water Commission was institutionalised with the power to plan for hydrological infrastructure in the basin. In the institution, the World Bank was made a partner by vesting juridical and financial power to it. Thereby, Indian and Pakistani states were licensed to construct hydrological infrastructure in the basin.

To ensure the direct flow of imperial capital in this sector, the Indian state made certain institutional arrangements — the power generation sector was opened for 100% FDI by the Indian state. Further, to better serve the imperial capital, the Indian state centrally controlled the water resources — only 7.6% of hydel energy is under the control of the state government of Himachal Prades; the rest lies with the Centre. And in accordance with this was one of the biggest dams was made in Himachal — the construction for the Bhakra Nangal Dam started in 1948 and was completed in 1963.

The Bhakra Nangal multi-purpose dam construction was started under the leadership of Harvey Slocum, an American engineer who was commissioned by the Bureau of Reclamation instituted by the US in 1903. The Bureau was commissioned to oversee water resource management for irrigation, water supply and hydroelectric power generation. This bureau is older than the TVA and was commissioned in 1903.

The Bureau became more active at the time of the economic depression in the 1930s. Through the policies of the new deal in 1933, the Bureau started investments in hydel power production. And it was during those times that they appointed engineers such as Harvey Slocum to see to it that the technology gets implanted in oppressed countries like India, where natural resources like water are a useful site to produce a neo-liberal imperialist political-economical space in a few decades.

Given the geographic conditions of Himachal, it was selected for the manifestation of imperialist assault on natural resources. The Bhakra Nangal Dam was constructed on the same pattern. The dam is present in the Bilaspur district of Himachal on Sutlej river, which is one of the important rivers of the Indus drainage system.

As decided in the Indus Waters Treaty, the Indian state has the exclusive right to use water from the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi rivers, but the Treaty also mentioned that the use should be such that it does not disturb the domestic and other use by the state of Pakistan. Despite this, India, with the backing of the World Bank and other imperialist powers, has been constructing dams ever since the Bhakra dam.

It has been estimated that Himachal has the capacity to generate 24000MW of power, out of which about 10000MW has been harnessed. This has been done by building 813 big, small and micro hydel power plants. These dams are constructed to meet the water and electricity needs of Delhi, Chandigarh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana. It is in these areas that the imperial capital has its producing unit.

This is very clear from the fact that only 7.6% of hydroelectricity produced from the rivers of Himachal is provided to itself. Urban centres in the plains benefit from water supply at the cost of a huge electricity bill for the people of Himachal, power cut in winters, acute drinking water shortage and huge dependency on rainfall for irrigation. It is ironic that the region that is the source of origin of most of the rivers that makes India fertile has to starve for water, while its water is being used to generate electricity that brightens the possibilities of value valorisation for capital.

Himachal’s mountainous hydrospace, which includes dam construction on its rivers and canal construction, is a site for numerous utilities for the capitalist class. They are used for electricity generation that runs the factory and corporate house in the plains, provides drinking water, and is also proclaimed for mitigating floods. These utilities are presented as something universal, but if one dares to rob the mystification attached to such claims, we would find ourselves grappling with questions like: who benefits by the products and whose social labour is embedded in the production?

This imagination has been cultivated by the ruling class of India in the consciousness of people. Those from the plains perceive the Himalayas as a defender from foreign invasion and a giver of aesthetic bliss (in the form of tourism). The Himalayas are a life-giver, the abode of God (deo-bhumi), and protector of people in the plains. This is not just space reductionism but also anti-people. This imagination is an attempt to mystify the brutal language of exploitation by the ruling class.

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People from the plains perceive the Himalayas as a defender from foreign invasion and a giver of aesthetic bliss (in the form of tourism). Representational image.

For once, in the imagination of space, people are removed and what we are left with becomes a haven for the conqueror. What is left is a void that can be filled by any philosophical thought that can convert the space into a place suitable for the ruling class. The plains of north India have fixed the cultural geography of the Indian ruling class.

Brahmanism being one of the most important social elements in the formation of such cultural geography has provided a dimension for the Indian ruling class gaze on the Himalayas. In this series of exploitation, the World Bank stands at the top as the custodian of finance capital and technology. The Indian state has to depend on the World Bank for finance and technology in order to exploit the resources of this region.

The World Bank has a great interest in the Himalayas. Apart from funding almost all the hydel power projects in the Himalayas, the Bank, on March 27, 2020,approved $82 million to support and strengthen the transportation and road safety, resilience and engineering standard of its state road network.” The amount was granted as a loan to the State.

Additionally, the Bank is present in forest conversation and management, and the development of horticulture and agriculture. In horticulture alone, the Bank has approved $135 million as a loan to the Department of Horticulture of Himachal. There is an $80 million loan agreement on water management and agriculture. The World Bank has also invested $82 million on forest conservation projects. Such large scale investment in the Himalayas must be seen as a long-term projection for capital valorisation, the world economy at present is facing an economic crisis due to overproduction.

There are two contradictions inherent in capitalism — the contradiction between capital’s need to lower the wage and its need to have a market with people having certain minimum consuming capacity; and the contradiction between the capital’s need for limitless growth and natural restriction to this growth. These two have led the capitalist to look for spaces initially untamed by the capitalist.

The Himalayas, with its abundant resources, is the next site for the capitalists to shift the crisis, but only to intensify the underlying contradictions of capitalism. For there is a natural limit to capital expansion and when that is crossed, ecological crisis to capital growth is bound to crop up. But the ecological factor in value creation is so sharp a weapon in the hands of the capitalist that they tend to find the solution to the ecological crisis in value production itself.

woman carrying water
Representational image.

Constant expropriation of water from Himachal through the construction of hydro infrastructure to suck its water and release it to far-off places where industries or corporate houses have placed themselves has created a water crisis in Himachal. Added to it is the ecological crisis due to such construction that has depleted other natural sources of water as well, including glaciers, groundwater, water springs and lakes.

Unsurprisingly, the World Bank has also capitalised on these. It has approved a $40 million loan to “help” Himachal mitigate its water shortage. This is a typical imperialist response to a crisis fueled by imperialism. At first, they bring capital into the region to colonise the land, and once the capital has created a devastating ecological impact, then the same imperial power brings all the apparatus available to mitigate the impact. In doing so, it only create a new space for the valorisation of surplus value. The need for the valorisation of value chases the capitalist from one sector to the other.

Dams construction in Himachal has a unique relevance in squeezing the land of its resources. The people of the land are denied any share in this, and all of the generated energy is used to boost the loot of resources. And in this endeavour, the World Bank, the Indian state and local ruling class collaborate to what is termed as ‘participatory development’. Dams, thus, are the concertised manifestation of political, economic and social ties that bind imperialist, comprador bourgeoisie (can be loosely defined as the capitalists in India that are dependent on imperialism for technology and finance) and feudal ruling elements together.

In Himachal, there are about 20 big dams across its five rivers. Rivers such as Sutlej are so crisscrossed by dams that it has been converted into a seasonal stream for most of its length. For the lack of a better word, it can be called a ‘non-river’. Of all, the Nathpa Jhakri dam is of large importance. This dam was commissioned for work in 2004. It generates 1530MW of hydroelectricity. In this, construction companies from France and the UK were involved, while the World Bank provided the loan of $485 million for construction.

Kvaerner, ABB from Switzerland, Siemens from Germany, Alstom from France, and Sulzer Escher Wyss are the multinational corporations involved in this. They have invested in the project and share the profit. This is the largest hydropower plant in India. Recently, in the year 2019, the plant generated 100 billion units of electricity. This, then, is being supplied to Delhi and Haryana.

After this, another dam was commissioned for construction — in 2007, the Bank granted a $400 million loan for the Rampur Hydel Power Project. In all these projects, dam manufacturing companies benefited greatly from it. Besides this, the World Bank invested heavily and created a condition for economic and political dependency. The World Bank became more in a position to dictate its terms on India.

The Luhri Power projects are the recent proposals by the Indian state. Under this, hundreds of local populations face the threat of being displaced. These constructions have greatly diminished the flow of water in Sutlej. This is despite the fact that the Indus Waters Treaty prohibits such indiscriminate harnessing of hydel energy, hindering the flow of water to the lower riparian of Pakistan.

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