The move to privatize water on a large scale didn’t begin yesterday.  The first noises were made around 25 years ago, when the International Irrigation Management Institute (IIMI) set up its headquarters in Pelawatte, Colombo.

Back then too the talk was about the efficient use of water. It was a design that was promoted by those who wanted to see rice being replaced by so-called ‘High Value Crops’.  It was an attempted strike not only on rice but on a nation’s cultural preferences.  It was about enforced dependency.  It was of course couched in the language of democracy: ‘user control’!  That’s the tried and tested method of securing control of resources: get the commons into the market and let the market forces sort things out.  In the end the wealthy get it all.

With respect to irrigation management what was commonly held and later acquired by the state in an absolute perversion done in the name of ‘socialism’ , was sought to be ‘handed back to users’.  The collective ways by this time had been subverted.  Societies weren’t flat.  There were and are big users and small.  There was and is a political economy of agriculture.

IMMI morphed quickly into International Water Resource Management.  That’s when that institute began investigating the possibility of controlling ground water resources.  Through markets of course.

Successive governments or rather key ministers in them were persuaded by interested parties to get the laws right to facilitate all this.  It came in waves.  Some highs followed by long periods when there was hardly a ripple.  Rauff Hakeem, the subject minister, recently submitted a cabinet paper seeking the establishment of a River Valleys Management Authority. This was in March 2015.  It was rejected by Cabinet.

The Opposition has brought it up, rather late in the day,  in the context of the upcoming election.  That’s politics.  The question is, is the idea dead?  Worryingly, this is an issue that keeps cropping up.  As mentioned, the ‘setting’ was designed in the late eighties and early nineties.  The ‘rationale’ was produced by ‘contracted research’.  ‘The Science’ if necessary can be cited as and when necessary.  An attempt was made in 2000 and 2001 but public protest buried that effort. This is why the public should not wait but keep abreast of these developments.

The rationale is all sweet, as always.  There’s pollution, the Minister says.  The users don’t know the true value of water (he does?), he says.  Agrochemical use is not properly regulated and quantity assessment is flawed, are other claims.    Shoved in the middle of it is this thing called ‘water tariffs’.

The paper is essentially a re-hashing of the earlier document put together by NGOs with dubious agenda and brainwashed or rather brain-purchased officials.  The details regarding water resources, land under rice cultivation and relevant costs have been scandalously cooked to justify ‘regulation’ in the manner advocated.  In particular the ‘water wastage in agriculture’ is wrung out from a framework of calculation that negates important but unquantifiable benefits to humans, animals, plants and the environment in general.  It is the work of neoliberal economists, clearly, and ones who are addicted to dumping the ‘uncomfortables’ into a dispensible column called “externalities”.

The impact will be on the farmer.  The small farmer in particular.  It will result in a new tax regime that will further impoverish the poor and marginalized sections of society.
Interestingly, the paper mentions the fact that the earlier version was filed away due to public protest.  Did the minister assume that the conditions are ‘better’ today in that the public will not protest?  Are the movers and shakers waiting for a ‘pliant public’ to see these ‘reforms’ through?

When they come back with a re-re-hashed version (who knows when?) will the public be ready?  They better be.