Bharat Punjabi: India and Canada can learn from each other about water management

Posted on Tuesday, May 25th, 2021

Water is an element, so its scarcity is more likely due to poor management than it simply disappearing. Dr. Bharat Punjabi, a Research Fellow at the Global Cities Institute at the University of Toronto, ponders India’s growing water scarcity at a picturesque, lush and expansive farmland outside Mumbai, India, where problems stemming from uninformed policy and governance is affecting farmers’ livelihoods.

Punjabi, 2015. Sakhare village, Palghar district, Maharashtra

Punjabi, as a PhD student conducted his fieldwork around Mumbai within farming communities facing the challenge of their water being taken away by the city. Following his fieldwork, the research project that followed took a deeper look at the communities, surveying them around water scarcity but also how their livelihoods were affected by the management of water.

“India is at a crossroads of a lot of environmental transformations inside the country, but also the global crisis of climate change, which is already hitting the water sector in India," says Punjabi. His research focuses on water transfers from rural to urban areas in large metropolitan regions in India, informal water-sharing arrangements involving power, politics, and appropriation through ethnography and extensive surveys.

Punjabi, 2010. Sakhare village, Palghar district, Maharashtra

Punjabi believes India and Canada can learn better water quality management from each other. For example, in Western India, where he conducts his field research, social movements have sprung up around using water more efficiently. The movements are well documented but have never developed meaningfully. “India needs more of a stakeholder approach,” he says. “there is a lot of potential for exchange on this, both intellectual and academic, policy and also people to people. India has a very vibrant water sector in India.”

Punjabi has taught courses related to economic geography, political ecology, water management, and the political economy of development at the University of Guelph, University of Toronto and the Western University.

He uses an interdisciplinary approach to harbor and create interest, a curiosity about India by focusing on its political economy but also learning about theories which have come out of the Indian context.

Dr. Bharat Punjabi

For example, a number of his students are in international development. So, he teaches for example, about Amartya Sen’s Capabilities Approach which comes out of the Indian development experience.

“For many students, the course that I teach will probably be the only course they take about India, so I want to teach them about India as well as I can,” he says. “My effort is about what India could teach students as well, not only about India but also the social sciences.” Inspired by his courses, many of Punjabi's students have traveled to India on internships, study programs or for research. Punjabi calls CIRCLE an essential, timely addition to furthering interest about India at the University of Guelph. “We have conceptualized this as a centre of Canada-India for learning and engagement, which is novel,” says Punjabi.

In fact, CIRCLE is in itself a circle…for learning.

“It’s not only Canada learning from India, or India from Canada,” he says, “they are both learning from each other, which is a big strength.”

Areej Amer is a student writer for CIRCLE. She is in her third year in the Bachelor of Arts and Sciences program at the University of Guelph.

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