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Katia Hise & Irene Leonardelli

Agrarian Transformation and the Social Dynamics of Groundwater 

Katia Hise is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz studying Sociology and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, with a minor in Education.


The branch of the T2GS project based in India is centered in the highly industrialized state of Maharashtra, and more specifically the area of Pune. This region faces a number of challenges related to agrarian transformation and water accessibility, including ongoing water scarcity, groundwater depletion, agricultural neoliberalization, and shifting gender relationships to agricultural labor. During my interview with Irene Leonardelli, a PhD candidate focusing on water issues from a feminist political ecology perspective, she explains how the work she is involved in looks at, “processes of agrarian transformation and water reallocation from a feminist perspective to try to understand how water scarcity is affecting the lives of the farmers, and particularly of women, but to look especially at the ways that changes in water availability goes hand in hand with changes in gender labor relations, migration patterns, tenure relations, [and] consumption patterns…” 


Irene’s research is supported by two main organizations, one of them being the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM) and the other being the Advanced Center for Water Resources Development and Management (ACWADAM). SOPPECOM, which is involved with the T2GS project, works on natural resource management in rural areas, focusing specifically on water issues. They develop strategies for sustainable and rational natural resource use, and work to support women, and people who are landless or from lower castes through advocacy work. ACWADAM approaches water issues from a more hydrogeological groundwater perspective, focusing on managing groundwater through participatory processes based in hydrologic science. 


Because Irene’s scholarship takes a feminist perspective, much of her research focuses on the “feminization” of agriculture in the face of agrarian transformation, which refers to women increasingly taking on the bulk of agricultural labor. Irene explained that, “Nowadays, women do all the work that is related to seeding, weeding, harvesting…Men are responsible for irrigating the fields and spreading pesticides, but since many men work during the day in factories in the city, they are away for most of the day. Many women also started to do the work that was historically done by men…” Due to global neoliberal shifts since the 1980s, many small farmers have gone into tremendous debt while trying to invest in agribusiness and the cultivation of commercial crops. These commercial crops, such as mangoes and flowers, are grown primarily for export and high-end domestic markets. They require large amounts of water, but Maharashtra is a drought prone region due to low rainfall and years of groundwater depletion, so many of these farmers have been unsuccessful in their attempts to compete with large scale commercial farmers. The struggle of these farmers has had a profound impact on the social relationships within the community, with men having to work in cities, women taking on more traditionally male labor, and even the suicides of thousands of farmers. 


One specific case study that Irene’s research has been centered around is the use of wastewater in the cultivation of flowers in a region where water scarcity is a historic problem. She explained that historically, villagers could, “cultivate only four or five months a year, and the rest of the year they have had huge issues with water availability, so many of the people had to migrate and work outside of villages in areas where water is more available.” This use of wastewater can be seen as both positive and negative. It is beneficial to local farmers, because it provides them water for irrigation all year around, but it is also contaminated water that contributes to polluting aquifers, impacting the food crops, and of course impacting the health of people and animals. The dynamics of this issue of water availability are crucial to understanding the ways that the T2GS project, and the other organizations that Irene is involved in, are approaching questions of water governance and water justice. Irene stresses the need for an interdisciplinary approach when researching water issues. She says that the T2GS project is “merging social sciences with hydrogeology and anthropology,” looking at how people organize themselves around groundwater, water infrastructures, the geology of place, and the numerous other social and economic relations that must be addressed in order to get a full picture of the water issues in Maharashtra, India.

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