Water Temples and the Romance of Participation: India's ancient heritage?
Running parallel with this history of participatory surveying are interrelated stories about other technologies that raise similar questions about when and how participatory self-governance becomes a reality. India's historical experience with infrastructure has provided stark examples of both redistribution and exclusion. In the nineteenth century, British engineers plowed the Deccan Plateau with canals that protected many communities from drought, while simultaneously netting food distribution into centralized networks of railroads, markets, and taxation that penalized local communities and proliferate famine. In resistance to the British pattern of exclusion, post-independence intellectuals labored to invent a form of governance characterized by participation.
In the 1970s, a number of anthropologists sympathetic with notions of indigenous or ethnic wisdom began working on material relationships under the influence of E. F. Schumacher and Gandhi wondering about historical precedents for a small-scale, village-based political economy in the control of self-directed communities. One of these anthropologists was Steve Lansing, an American anthropologist whose work in the 1970s on Balinese water temples was taken up by Elinor Ostrom as a source of inspiration for her work on the commons. In 2012, Lansing's presentation, retooled from a thesis in the history of archaeology to a metaphor for the spontaneous emergence of order on the internet, spiralled to the top of the Poptech talks.
When this work was new, in the 1970s, it was embraced by civil engineers and nonprofits rather than internet startups as a possible guide to resilient, decentralized systems. Many drew inspiration from these romantic accounts of India's village past. In the 1980s, Indian environmentalists like Anil Agarwal began to lobby for the revival of medieval temple tanks for water storage, drawing on a British anthropological tradition of describing India's heritage as an ancient commons dedicated to protecting the rights of all.
The power of this myth had a profound effect on legislation. By the 1990s, most major towns in India had passed laws mandating rainwater catchment on all buildings. By 1996, participatory organization was officially mandated for all activities supported by the Indian state. These acts enshrined the conception of the ancient commons, as revived by British anthropologists, Gandhian political economists, and modern-day environmentalists, as a fundamental good.
Powerful though this commitment is, however, its results in practice are questionable. Recent observers have reported that decentralized interventions like temple tanks, rainwater catchment, and local neighborhood groups had problems in recharging a groundwater table on a regional scale. Temple tanks were revived sporadically and rarely maintained; unfunded mandates were insufficient to provision the city with rainwater catchments. Neighborhood groups spend their energies currying favors with local political parties to maintain water connections, rather than lobbying for broadcast change in the water allocation system at large. These stories suggest the challenges of negotiating resources at different scales. What can we learn from India's massive experiment with participatory technologies? Are decentralized water collection mechanisms capable of creating meaningful environmental interventions on a regional and national scale?