Anna Geiger & Irene Leonardelli
Agrarian Change and Local Groundwater Governance in Maharashtra, India
Anna Geiger is an undergraduate student studying Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems in the Environmental Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
One region of study for the T2GS project is in the Maharashtra region of India, a place home to 112 million people, 2,300 dams, and 3 million wells. The region of Maharashtra is complex, and reflects the issue of groundwater’s invisibility and the immense challenge of determining how much is used and by whom. I spoke with Irene Leonardelli, Junior Researcher and a PhD Fellow in the Department of Integrated Water Systems and Governance at IHE Delft who is involved in field work in Maharashtra through T2GS and other NGOs: SOPPECOM (Society for Promoting Participatory Ecosystem Management) and ACWADAM (Advanced Center for Water Resources Development and Management), working to understand water dynamics in villages in Maharashtra and move towards localized, sustainable management of water resources.
Water dynamics and use in Maharashtra is tied inextricably to agriculture, the main source of income for people living rurally. The region at large is undergoing a process of agrarian transformation of land changing hands, crops changing, power dynamics and gender relations shifting, and drought taking a toll on farmer’s lands and water supply. Drought and flooding in the region have led to the failure of crops and livestock in recent years, pushing farmers to take out loans from private sources and end up deeply in debt. In 2018, this led to the suicide of 2,761 farmers in Maharashtra (Bose). The wealthy have also been buying large parcels of land and shifting cultivation of land, as a rise in crops to export such as water-hungry sugarcane is being observed. Agrarian transformation has led to several dimensions of crisis affecting the rural population which Leonardelli cites including “dispossession, migration from rural to urban areas, over-exploitation of water resources, employment in large agribusinesses under exploitative conditions, among others.” Leonardelli works with NGOs and T2GS in the region to study these issues in her thesis, describing that her goals are “to understand from a perspective of everyday life how household dynamics change, in particular for women in this very patriarchal society. The idea is to try to reach the voices of marginalized people, like people from lower castes, to see how this process of agrarian change affected them. Then this data can be used by SOPPECOM and other NGOs to work with these communities to advocate for them and change policy so my research can fit into this wider project.”
The projects that Leonardelli is involved in relating to T2GS seek to not only assist rural communities in transitioning their use of water resources to be sustainable, economically-viable, and healthy, but to observe the power dynamics and nuances that exist within these processes. Two case studies being explored by T2GS in Maharashtra are the villages of Ravangoan and Randullabad, where contrasting water management systems and local groundwater governance have led to Ravangoan facing serious groundwater overdraft and mismanagement, and Randullabad being identified as an example of best practice in water management. Leonardelli believes that praising one case and looking down on another may leave out other issues at play, saying “It is easy to describe one situation as ideal and an example of best practice and another as an example of bad practice and everyone working for themselves, trying to extract as much water as possible. The thing is to see where one system and where another system have gaps. Is it really participatory? Is it really democratic? Is it really equitable?” The work of Leonardelli and T2GS aims to explore and shed light on these contradictions without idealizing one situation over another.
Another case study presenting complex contradictions is in farmland 60 kilometers from the city of Pune, where drought led farmers to initiate a project of using waste water from urban Pune to irrigate lucrative flower fields in the surrounding areas. Leonardelli’s aim in this project is to “explore the tensions between changes in the use of different water flows, changes in cropping patterns, social relations, and subjectivities, taking on an intersectional approach (disentangling differences in relations and roles structured on gender, caste, class), and how natures and people are affected by and affect processes of agrarian transformation at a micro level in everyday life.” Transitioning to water being managed as a common pool resource by localized, sustainable solutions is an immense challenge in the huge and complicated region of Maharashtra, but Leonardelli’s work with NGOs like SOPPECOM and ACWADAM and study through T2GS is working to deeply understand and improve the dynamics here between people, and between people and their water.
Bose, Mrityunjay. “Maharashtra Agri Crisis: No End in Sight .” Deccan Herald, DH News Service, 7 Sept. 2019,