Values: A policy problem

Down the road from our farm, a couple of farms were bought, the land use category was changed and there’s a ‘water theme park’ under construction. This small 5-6 KM long valley flanked by low rise hills has a reservoir occupying the lower trough. It was constructed as a minor irrigation project for the region’s farmers. The villages that fell under the submergence zones were relocated. The reservoir helps provide water for winter crops like wheat and chickpea grown in this otherwise arid region in Central India. 

The farm owners of the region and the water theme park will abstract water from the reservoir and ground aquifers differently. The reservoir was intended as a water conservation project to help farmers. 

But Maharashtra state also introduced a policy for development of ‘recreational sites’ around such water projects meant for irrigation, across the state. The policy sits at odds with the purpose of these essential irrigation projects. 

There is a problem with the current approach in policy making and especially in areas of environment and conservation. It is normative and value-based. These, we know, are interpreted differently by various groups. For example, recreational value versus economic value.

Robert Lackey writing on ‘Values, Policy, and Ecosystem Health’ argued that normative assumptions are problematic for policy making and tend to be misleading. I see similarity with the situation we now face in our region. And, that is why this excerpt is an important one –  

Consider any specific ecological policy issue: Who are the stakeholders and how should their conflicting input be used to define ecosystem health? The task is relatively easy when policy problems are defined narrowly, such as licensing a particular chemical or authorizing a timber harvest rate for an individual forest. The task is more difficult for achieving broad societal aspirations such as ecosystem health. For example, who are the stakeholders for deciding policy on national forests? Are they local, regional, or national citizens; some weighted combination; or all citizens equally? Obviously, local residents are most directly affected by policy decisions about national forests in their area, but the forest belongs to everyone; thus, urban voters several time zones away may have the controlling political power. For example, defining stakeholders as those most directly affected would result in national forests being managed primarily for the benefit of adjacent residents. Conversely, defining stakeholders as all members of society would most likely result in different policy priorities.

Values, Policy, and Ecosystem Health

In our local ecosystem, does the water theme park owner hold an equal stake like the farmers do for whom the irrigation project was meant in the first place? The theme park comes with a promise of stimulating the local economy and bringing in some jobs. Irrigation policy was meant to develop water resources for farmers in arid areas to help them improve crop yields and incomes.

The visitors’ recreational value stands in contrast with the utility value for the resident farmers of the region. It would be far less complicated if these two were not at odds. Or, when there was no threat of the water-intensive theme parks not extracting disproportionately large amounts of water from the aquifer and the reservoir. 

Policy making could do better by starting with carefully thought problems and stakeholder definitions. The overlap of a vague recreational sites development policy conjured up in the state capital now stands to undo development oriented irrigation policy. 

2 thoughts on “Values: A policy problem

  1. Of all the possible recreational ventures (which often add spurious economic stimulation to the immediate environment and communities) a water park in an arid agricultural region would seem completely inappropriate to me. But you know whose money talks.

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