The Chennai Water Crisis, Governance, & Media Narratives, with Kavitha Rajagopalan

Aug 27, 2019

Chennai, one of India's largest cities, is facing an ongoing water crisis due to drought and mismanagement. Senior Fellow Kavitha Rajagopalan explains how it got to this point and gives some important background on the city and the state of Tamil Nadu. Is climate change to blame? How does it connect to Indian politics and culture? And, beyond water trucks and desalination, how can Chennai solve this existential problem?

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to Global Ethics Weekly. I’m Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council in New York City.

This week I'm speaking with Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Kavitha Rajagopalan. Kavitha has worked as a journalist in the United States, India, and Germany. She is the author of Muslims of Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West.

For this podcast, Kavitha and I spoke about Chennai, India and its water crisis. In June of this year, due to drought and mismanagement, the city—the sixth largest in India—effectively ran out of water. Conditions today are not as dire as they were a couple months ago, but this situation is ongoing and has received a lot of attention in the international press.

As you'll hear, Kavitha gave some important background on Chennai and the state of Tamil Nadu, looking beyond the current environmental issues. And we spoke about governance of water resources, narratives around climate change, and what happens when municipal issues turn into global news stories.

We ended with a rundown on the current issues in Jammu and Kashmir and some of the history of that region.

You can go to for more from Kavitha, including our podcasts about the Indian election, Venezuelan refugees, and the Christchurch mosque attacks. You can also find a link to an article she wrote about Chennai for

But for now, here’s my talk with Kavitha Rajagopalan.

Kavitha, thank you so much for coming back. Great to see you.

KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: It's great to see you. Always great to be back here.

ALEX WOODSON: We're going to talk today about Chennai and about water resources and how to manage those and maybe a few other things.

Just to start, what kind of city is Chennai? I know you spent some time there; your family has roots there.

KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Chennai is a very fascinating city. It's a real hodgepodge of a city, and its history is unusual in the ongoing history of India.

India, of course, is an ancient land that was also colonized for 300 years, so the history of urbanism can be very much punctuated into sort of a pre-modern period, a pre-colonial period, and then the post-colonial period. Cities in the South can generally be broken down to—I guess during the pre-colonial period you had these traditional temple cities like Thanjavur, for example, in the South, and those cities all grew up around these great temples that were seats of the holy rule, so designated kings.

Kings would have their seats in these cities, and they would build these temples, and the temples were really more like cities themselves. They would have a plaza or a town square, and they had different functions within the city. They provided services, they provided education, and the entire hierarchy of society would organize themselves around the temples.

On the other hand, you had these port cities, agrarian cities that were more functional-based. So, you might have had a city that was ruled over by a merchant prince or a city that was ruled over by a cow herd leader or the leader of a tribal people. Or you might have a king who oversaw fishery villages. Those were all there. Then, you also had a number of different princely states throughout India.

All of this was disrupted, changed, modified, and amplified under colonial rule, where the essential function of late British colonial rule—initially, of course, the East India Company came essentially to set up trading mechanisms, but really over the course of the 300-year colonization of the subcontinent, British colonial rule was all about control and extraction, as colonial rule is generally about. So, most of these cities that grew up, the big Indian cities that you see today, were either seats of governance, seats of finance, or seats of extraction.

Chennai to a certain extent was all of these things. It was on a coast, and it was a big feeder city for a lot of great agrarian resources from the South, and it was also home to a huge amount of civil service infrastructure that came up over the late part of the British rule.

Chennai was originally a fishing village I think in the way, way back days. I'm not terribly familiar with the ancient history of Chennai, but I do know that the original name of the city was Chennaipatnam, which means the city or the place of Chennai.

Then, I think in the 16th or 15th centuries there was a fort and a missionary site that was set up there by Portuguese colonists, who were not very successful in the South but did have some early forays, and they set up was is called the Fort St. George. There's a main market center near the sanctum district called Luz to this day. That was also a part of what eventually became the later collection of Chennai. Then, British rule came.

We do have a temple town that was there, the city of Thirumayilai, which is where my family is from. Under the British rule it was known as Mylapore, but its original Tamil name is Thirumayilai, and there's a big temple there to Shiva and to the goddess. That's still there, kind of a central feature of that part of town. There are several temples throughout Chennai now.

But Chennai itself was for much of the post-colonial period a post-civil service city. It was a little sleepy, a little quiet. There was some industry on the outskirts. It was never this kind of bustling, aggressive city the way that Bombay, for example, or Delhi were, these big colonial seats of power, or even Calcutta, which has been very much informed by the experience of intellectualism but also of conflict, war, resistance, and refugees.

Chennai was removed from all of that. It wasn't directly touched by partition in any way, but it is still the fourth largest city in India.

Around the 1990s, when India started shifting over from a sort of socialist, Nehruvian vision of governance and started shifting more to international trade, getting rid of protectionism and tariffs and opening the economy to the global view and trying to become very clearly more than just a regional hegemon but a global superpower, around that time the automotive industry really started establishing itself in Chennai.

Some of the main economies and economic drivers of Chennai—there was obviously a little bit of outsourcing stuff, but unlike, say, Bangalore or Hyderabad, in the 1990s Chennai was not focused on becoming the main seat of outsourcing. That was not going to be the main economic driver for the city. So, you had automotive plants, and then you had basically this growing population—because it was the regional power—of seasonal workers, and you had governance, and then you had agrarian distribution. It wasn't necessarily even the largest port city at that time in the region.

But Chennai has slowly evolved, and now it has become a conglomerate city. There is a certain amount of outsourcing work that is done there from major financial institutions. Global financial institutions will do back office outsourcing there. It's not necessarily a call center place, but they have back office outsourcing.

There are some major international corporations that have headquarters there. There is a decent amount of finance and service, and there is just massive, massive, aggressive real estate development and investment that has happened, and that has completely transformed the face of Chennai.

Against that backdrop is this ongoing question of identity and caste politics in Chennai. Under British rule, the Brahmins and I think the upper castes in general really had a lockdown on power, education, and even land ownership in Chennai. That all has been an ongoing push and pull.

After independence, Tamil Nadu was one of the states in India that formed a very, very strong cultural separatist identity. Tamil language is not at all rooted in Sanskrit. It is an ancient language, and the culture and identity are very separate I think from the sort of post-Sanskrit identity.

During those post-colonial years, when all of these different states were trying to figure out what it meant to be Indian, I think Tamil Nadu was very much taken with the idea that it did not want to be colonized again, only by the North.

I remember my father used to tell me when I was little that there were times when he was a schoolboy and he remembered people lying across the train tracks to keep trains from the North from entering the city and from polluting the culture, and there was a large movement to purge Sanskrit words from Tamil and English words as well and to really revive this very rich, very powerful literary tradition.

A lot of great, beautiful, independence-era literature came from Tamil language. One of the great Indian liberation poets was a guy named Bharathidasan, who was Tamil. It's really a complicated identity where you have Tamil Brahmins who identify very much as Tamil but also see themselves as slightly separate, and caste politics and caste identity still continue to be a major source of pain and trauma in Tamil Nadu. It's not the same kind of caste wars that you might see in certain Northern states, but there's a tremendous amount of violence and pain and suffering that has resulted from caste oppression that is also very much overlaid with racist and colorist tones as well.

ALEX WOODSON: It's great to have that background. I think for a lot of people, me included, I didn't really know too much about Chennai until you saw all these stories a few months ago about this water shortage. Some might have in mind the vision of the shrinking reservoir. That's the gif that has been played over and over.

But you were writing about this—obviously, this isn't a new issue in Chennai—six, seven years ago. There's a lot to discuss there about what happened with the water management in Chennai.

I guess maybe the best way to ask it is, what's the root of the issue? Why is Chennai special in terms of water? Why aren't we hearing about water issues in other Indian cities? Why has this become such an issue in Chennai?

KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Chennai has massive amounts of monsoon rain. Literally, it has buckets of water that just fall for free from the sky. It's not the desert. It's not Israel. It's not the Gulf. It's not even Rajasthan, that has massive—actually, when you talk about water shortage and drought issues, most of the imagery that Indians will be familiar with are images of the deserts of Rajasthan with the cracked earth and these starving farmers and carcasses of thirsty cattle all over the place. I think Indians will be familiar with that imagery, or even Gujarat.

But in the South, the monsoons have been very reliable. What's really heartbreaking about all of this is that every year when the monsoons come, Chennai also suffers with massive amounts of flooding. You'll remember two or three years ago there was a massive flood, and there were just torrents of rain all over the city. People were trapped, and houses were lost, and it was extremely devastating to much of the city.

But the main problem is that we do have flooding in Chennai pretty much on a cyclical basis, and in order to manage this flooding the city has created these off-pathways that will basically divert and pipe rainwater out into the sea, and then during the off-season there are water shortages.

There are several different things at play in the water shortages. The number one culprit, the number one issue, is real estate development on waterfronts and land encroachment. Over the last 15–20 years, basically all of the massive, naturally occurring water catchments have been either built upon or built in or have been shrunken. Basically, the city does not have enough land to meet the demands for high-end real estate and for large towers and for parking garages. As the city's population explodes, the demand for real estate is such that the city has found itself having to build on top of waterways.

The other major problem is that because of this high level of development and also the ongoing expansion of industry in what was once the city's outer limits, you have a high level of salination and water toxicity that has come into the groundwater. Some experts—I'm not familiar with the research on this—say that the main problem is that a lot of these major corporations have sunk foundations so deep into the ground that the water doesn't flow freely in the ground and that all of the bore wells have just been having to go deeper and deeper and deeper into parts of the Earth where there's toxicity in the water.

What happened is that as the city's population has grown increasingly the city has had to extract water from outlying regions, to bring water into the city. So, you have massive tanker trucks bringing in water from the outskirts of the city, and that has contributed to desertification and water shortages in the agricultural regions outside of the city, far outside of the city.

That in turn has triggered massive amounts of rural-to-urban migration, seasonal migration but now increasingly permanent migration of low-income people and villagers from the outside of the city. Many of these people have come into the city over the last 40–50 years and have established informal housing developments—in India everyone calls them slums, but I think most of us consider them informal settlements in the city world—along the waterways in order to access water.

Over the last 15–20 years what has really been the problem is that the term "encroachment," instead of being assigned to major real estate developers who have seized public lands with the permission of whoever has been in power at various times or had been given public lands in return for certain other things, instead of assigning the term "encroachment" to them, that term has been assigned to very, very poor residents of informal settlements who are low-income workers, if they're able to get work at all.

Over the last 15 years what has been very interesting is that there has been a lot of activity to simultaneously address the water issues and to also clean the waterways and to clear the slums. Slums have been scapegoated—have essentially been assigned blame for toxicity and pollution in the waterways.

When my father was little in Mylapore, there was a big canal that ran behind the house, and that canal used to feed into the sea, so it was carrying goods and people back and forth between various points in the city and out to the sea. There is pretty much no more running water there. There have been slum settlements there for decades, and when you walk past the slum it smells. There is stench. There is toxic waste, there is human waste. It's a mess.

So, I think it's easy for people to look at the waterways and see informal settlements there and draw that blame, but I think it behooves the government to actually identify what the real source of the problem is. It doesn't have to a blame game issue, but identify the source of the problem and realistically take steps to address it.

At the same time that all this slum clearance stuff has been going on and this scapegoating has been going on, the city has also undertaken a new initiative, which has been highly touted throughout the country, of mandating and requiring every individual home to harvest rainwater. You tell me: What's going to catch more rain? A single tank on your house roof or an actual lake or a reservoir?

It's like a lot of this is very image-oriented. I'm not saying there's anything terribly wrong with having a rainwater catchment tank or cleaning up your riverbank or providing proper housing for people, getting people out of unsafe slum dwellings and getting them into formal housing. I think that's all fine on paper. But it's all how it's implemented.

Also, around the time of the slum clearance there were people who, if you could identify that you lived in a regulated, registered slum—there are certain people who they considered local—if it was formalized, that meant that it was given access to city water and had running electricity that was given during one of the city code adjustments in the previous period, then you might be eligible to be placed in what was essentially public housing that was further out on the outskirts.

I think a lot of people had hopes for that, but then those housing developments were never fully completed. The water pressure would be so low that there wouldn't be any water that would reach the apartments in the top rooms, and the bus routes didn't make it out that far.

One of the big challenges has been that the city population is massively expanding, but the city limits are also massively expanding. Chennai's official population is, depending on which parameters of the city you look at, anywhere between 5 and 8 million.

But if you look in the last few years the city has expanded the official city limits to incorporate certain districts that used to be exurbs into the city corporation, and a lot of that is for electoral mapping and politics and also just economic reasons, but unfortunately then all of those people need to be served by city services. They need to have waterways, they need to have running water pipes sent out there, sanitation, garbage pickup. They need to have electricity, and they need to have bus routes.

A lot of the reasons why people move into slums and informal settlements in the first place is to be able to have access to work and to not have to pay a huge amount of money for some kind of city bus that—if you live in some outer district, your fare is going to be much higher, or your buses are going to be much more infrequent. Also, if you live in the city, then your kids can go for free to the city schools.

So, what we were seeing—I don't know if this is still the case—about six or seven years ago when these slum resettlements were happening, these informal settlements were being destroyed, paved over, and people were being placed and assigned into these high-rise projects basically on the outskirts of the city, is a lot of the school-going population was declining, and you started seeing spikes in street children or children running away from home and joining street groups.

Then, you would see people just abandoning their assigned public housing and coming back to the city and setting up another informal settlement, where they would be criminalized. There were also massive moves similar to the "broken windows" thing to clear the sidewalks of street vendors. So, a lot of people who were very marginalized, who were poor, and who were from villages or from the city themselves—who had been born and raised in the city but just were poor—were being criminalized for just trying to live.

At the same time the city's droughts, water shortages, pollution issues, and flooding have only gotten worse, so we know that scapegoating and targeting the very poor has not worked because they weren't the source of the problem in the first place.

Now, as climate change is starting to really pick up and the signs of climate change—which have been present certainly in the South of India for a long time but are becoming much more aggressive and violent—we know that monsoon patterns are going to change, wind patterns are going to change, typhoons are going to change. We know that things are going to get much worse in terms of the volume of water that falls at a certain time and the periods of heat and dry in between.

The time to act was long before now. I think a reasonable government should notice these things, and I think there are many intelligent and thoughtful people inside city government who are aware of these challenges, but it's very difficult to get a bureaucracy of that size to move.

ALEX WOODSON: If you could get a bureaucracy of that size to move, what would you do about this issue? You can't just sweep this under the rug because everyone needs water. People are going to die without water. It's not like there's high crime in a city, and you can ignore that. But you can't ignore no water.

Just in reading about this—I'm sure there are more ideas than this—but it seems like one of the biggest ideas is desalination of water from the ocean. What's happening now is that water trucks and I think trains, too, are bringing water to people in different parts of the city. I was reading that you have to buy tickets for it, and sometimes you have to wait on line for hours.


ALEX WOODSON: I can't imagine how stressful that would be. Those aren't long-term solutions. What could be a long-term solution? As you said, it's a city where up to 8 million people live.

KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: I think part of the problem is that public trust in the government water supply is nil. Pretty much everyone who can afford it—and many people who cannot afford it—are purchasing drinking water. That puts a tremendous strain on water supply and on the water market. It also creates all kinds of demand for black market water, which means that regulation of water quality is not possible.

I think the main problem is that there needs to be some effort to rehabilitate public trust in city water. That means that city water needs to aggressively work on—it's interesting that you mentioned the ocean thing. I find it difficult to even listen to these proposals without laughing myself because Chennai has water that falls from the sky. It's not Dubai. It doesn't need water from the ocean. So, massive amounts of bringing in water from the ocean only to divert rainwater back during monsoon season into the ocean is so absurd. It's like the height of surreal governance play.

I think what needs to happen, obviously it has to be a multifaceted effort, and it has to take place across many different city bureaucracies.

Part of the challenge, too, if you think about city governance in India, is that you have municipal corporations, but you also have this infrastructure that was inherited from British colonial rule, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), which is India-wide, and basically manned by people often from outside of the city who are Western-educated or educated in English medium schools. So, the city corporation is responsible for some aspect of the water infrastructure and for sanitation infrastructure, but Metro Water, which is the main water agency in the city, is an IAS-run, federal government-run body. So, those need to be coordinated and possibly even housed together.

Then you have land use, land management—all of these different departments sit in different places, so the coordination between all of those is not really there. They have conferences and meetings and everyone meets together, but it's not necessarily all in concert with each other.

Of course, with all of these urban management issues—sanitation, waste, slum management, affordable housing, education, public health—they all touch on each other. It's a massive governance challenge for a city the size of Chennai that's growing as rapidly as it is that has such vast gaps between rich and poor and influence as well.

I think electorally the very poor have quite a bit of influence because just having the numbers is important to be able to get into office, but in terms of actually being able to buy power and buy access the very poor can't do that. So, there's a dance between influence, power, and wealth, between city-led government and state-led government and federal-led government. There are all of these different moving parts. Getting all of those together is a huge challenge, but it does need to happen at some point.

I think the other main problem would be trying to figure out what is the first priority. Obviously, at this state in India's development and in Chennai's development we're not going to see any kind of scaling back or decline in real estate development or high-rise development. But what can be done possibly is some sort of effort to create large-scale catchments.

I don't know enough about urban development or architecture to know if this would be feasible in a place like India, but I imagine something like—if you look at New York, under the Bloomberg era there were a lot of people who took issue with how this played out or what it has and more importantly has not done to address the fundamental challenges of climate change and how it will affect the city. But there were a lot of public-private partnerships where the city government was able to say, "Look, if you want to have access to this valuable waterfront real estate, then you need to take ownership for cleaning it up and creating a public space and creating a green space, and you need to have these kinds of green elements and affordable housing elements within your development."

There are many who have pointed out—accurately, I think—that in the end those public-private partnerships have really not served the very poor and have not served the overall climate change preparedness needs of the city, but something like that is a first step. It's a realistic first step for a city like Chennai, where rapid real estate development and global investment is not avoidable at this point.

But who takes responsibility? Who is able to move quickly and take action to create a large-scale catchment of some kind or do a waterfront cleanup, not on the backs of the poor but with some sort of effectiveness? I think we should look into exploring that.

I do think that building public trust in the water, because there has been increasingly a lot of testing of the city water supply that found that it's not anywhere near as toxic or as befouled as people thought before, so maybe doing something—

The original challenge of water distribution and of public water supply in Chennai—I can't speak for other Indian cities—under British colonial rule the waterways that were running under the city served both sanitation and water supply. City wastewater would pass through these pipes at certain times, and then a switch would flip, and then drinking water would pass through these same pipes. So, there was always a high level of contaminant, of bacteria, of toxic stuff in the drinking water. That has changed over time, and a lot of that has changed just from pumping massive amounts of chemicals into the water but also rehabilitating the water supply so that you don't have to basically kill all this bacteria in order for it to be drinkable but just have it filtered and have it run in a different way. That might be a good step.

Desalination is important to the extent that we need groundwater desalination, possibly not seawater desalination, but right now the groundwater supply has been salinated because bore wells have been dropped so low into the ground. There needs to be an effort to correct the groundwater supply. There are many geologists and water experts who are at work on solutions for this. They just need to be given a platform to speak.

I think mostly we need to learn—not just in Chennai but throughout the world—to not blame water issues on the victims of water management decisions and on the very poorest of any given city. They are the ones who are the most affected by the toxic groundwater.

Also, by this growing water market you see people in informal housing or poorer neighborhoods who are spending up to 50-60 percent of their monthly income on drinking water, and that is evidence of a failure of governance and of market features.

ALEX WOODSON: When I first emailed with you about this topic, I think the way you phrased it was, "When municipal issues become international stories, a lot of the reporting is wrong," basically. It's a little troubling for you to see that as you know the issues. What has been wrong in your view in the reporting on Chennai and its water issues?

KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Media on all levels—local media, national media, and international media—love their narratives. These days the hot narrative in international media is, "See, we told you. Climate change: We're all screwed."

India's water issues, Chennai's water issues are not a climate change story yet. Chennai's water issues are a management problem, a governance problem. It will become exacerbated by climate change. It is being exacerbated by climate change because the number of people who will have to flee the coastal towns and flee into the cities will grow. The demand for drinking water will grow. If there isn't any kind of reasonable water infrastructure, then the demand for trucked-in water is going to continue to grow, and it's already way past the breaking point in a city like Chennai.

Aggressive change needs to be made. Climate change is an issue. It needs to be taken into consideration. But I think a lot of times people like to say, "See! Look, they don't even have any water in Chennai. Climate change is real."

Climate change is real, but human failures are also real, and humans have been failing Chennai for a long time. Climate has been changing for a long time, too, and the two have happened at the same time.

I think unfortunately the "Twitterization" of international media does contribute to this a little bit. It's the same when you look at tweets or international short media coverage of the fires in the Amazon. Those are entirely human at this point. That's agribusiness that's being emboldened by the government that is in power there. That is a governance issue, and it's going to exacerbate the climate issue.

The scarcity mindset is going to make things worse in Chennai, the scarcity mindset that is much more exacerbated by climate change and the movement of people.

A city is a living thing, and Chennai is a living city that is very complicated. It has a long history that has experienced multiple levels of trauma. It was a colonial city. It was a city with a tremendous amount of caste-based trauma. It's a city with religious-based trauma. It's a city with race issues. It's a city with silence issues. It's a city with corruption issues. It's a city with ongoing infrastructure management issues. Overlay that with massive amounts of rapid globalization and wealth and capital and inequality and massive growth right in a place that is far below sea level. You have a lot of challenges there.

I don't think it's fair to just say, "See! Look, they don't have any water in Chennai, and the Amazon is burning. Climate change." That's headline thinking. That's not white paper thinking. Not even white paper thinking. That's not human-level thinking.

ALEX WOODSON: I think part of the reason why people want to say, "See, look!" is because there are people out there who say climate change isn't real and it's not happening. It's a little perverse I guess to look at these things and be like, "Oh, wow! Yeah, we were all right. Climate change, the world is on fire."

KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Exactly, but just because there are people out there who want to gaslight themselves doesn't mean we have to gaslight ourselves.

ALEX WOODSON: That's very true.

Do you want to talk a little bit about Kashmir?

KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. I was thinking back to—I don't know if this made as much of an impact in international news for people who are not India watchers, but in January 2018 there was this heartbreaking case of the abduction and rape of a little child, a little Muslim nomadic girl, from a Gurjar tribe in Jammu and Kashmir. After being missing for several days, she was found to have been beaten and raped multiple times and murdered. It ultimately turned out that the person who was seen as the ringleader in the trial that followed and then in the conviction that followed was a priest at the local temple.

What happens, and what's so interesting is that during the trial and even following the conviction of these men there were massive rallies and protests on the street—and here's the dot-dot-dot—in support of the perpetrators, not of the child.

This I think pointed to the depths of ethnonationalism and the heat of anything around Jammu and Kashmir and around Hindu-Muslim relations in India. One of the main organizers of the protests in support of these terrible people, these objectively horrible people who committed atrocious crimes against an innocent child, was that, "Well, these people, these Gurjar Muslims, are trying to encroach into Jammu"—Jammu is a Hindu-majority part of Jammu and Kashmir—"and are trying to encroach on our water and forest resources."

Again, you see how this term "encroachment" is part of a different narrative in the Indian press and in Indian society. It is the language of blame, and it's not necessarily just about actual land. It's about identity and who has the right to that land. I am not a Kashmir expert, but like anyone of Indian descent I feel very deeply about the pain and suffering that has happened on the Subcontinent and around the Kashmir conflict.

I don't know how familiar our listeners will be about it, but very, very, very briefly, Jammu and Kashmir was a princely state, and after partition there were some issues. There were some conflicts, and the rulers of Kashmir decided to go with India.

Shortly afterward, there was the first war for Kashmir between India and Pakistan, and that war ultimately ended with a ceasefire that was negotiated at the United Nations. This is all part of India foundational mythology, how there was this statesman named Menon, who gave this impassioned speech before the UN General Assembly. It's all a part of Indian foundational mythology.

At that time, Jammu and Kashmir was created. It was a state of India, but it was a complicated situation where 70 percent of the region came under Indian control, and 30 percent of the region was under Pakistani control.

But then there was also some part of the land that came under Chinese control. It's uninhabited largely, but there are also some small Chin settlements. We will remember the Chins from all of our conversations in Myanmar. These poor people have been shunted around throughout the region and denied identity everywhere. But by and large, the large populated areas fall under Indian and Pakistani control.

I think the next war that happened was in 1965, and this was right around the time—there was a war in [1962] between India and China [around] the same time. Then, in 1971 there was another major conflict over Kashmir. During that time, the Line of Control was established, and that Line of Control—the original Line of Control was established in 1947, but the Simla Conference solidified the Line of Control.

This is what's interesting about India. This goes back to the last conversation we had about borders and citizenship. This Line of Control is possibly one of the most militarized, highly, highly securitized borders in the world. At the same time, India is also home on the Eastern side to some of the most porous, open, and unprotected borders in the world. This is all very interesting. That's just a little callback to our last conversation.

Then, in 1999 there was an incursion over the Line of Control from the Pakistan-controlled side, and that led to yet another war, the War of Kargil. Kargil was crazy, too. Kargil is at the top of this mountain. These Indian soldiers were essentially going up the sheer mountain face like sitting ducks. It was a huge part of this Indian pride narrative of these fierce jawans, who are fearless and willing to take a bullet in order to protect this part of India.

It's all very powerful for Indians, and I think one of the really big challenges is that under the 1947 agreement Jammu and Kashmir was given certain specific rights. Article 370—which is the article of the Indian constitution that enshrined much of this quasi-autonomy of Kashmir—contains within it Article 35A, which gives that region certain specific freedoms and rights. One of the biggest sticking points has been that non-permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir who are Indian may not buy property there or establish permanent residence there.

Now, under the scrapping of Article 370, and part of the reason so many Indians are now happy, is because Indians can now buy land there and set up permanent residency there and live there and become Kashmiri residents.

This is clearly a challenge because the majority of the population in Kashmir is Muslim. Jammu is still Hindu majority, but the majority of the population in Kashmir is Muslim, and the overwhelming majority does not want to be a part of India. So now, if you have a bunch of Indians from other states moving there and establishing residency, then you shift that mindset.

But it sheds light to me I think on this concept of resources, land, whose land is it, who has a right to that land, who has power over that land, and what that has to do with some of these more I think universal questions of resource management. I think you and I both agree that everybody should have clean water and everybody should be able to not be evicted or subject to ethnic cleansing on their land over identity issues, but that's not the way the world works, and it's certainly not the way Jammu and Kashmir works or really any other part of India.

ALEX WOODSON: I think that's really all I have for now. Is there anything else you wanted to finish on?

KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Let me just say, I think as we go forward into the era of peak climate change with the refugee crises that will follow, the flooding crises that will follow, the toxic issues and possibly disease issues that will follow, I think we are going to be called upon to learn to see things on both a global and a very local level. I think it will behoove us to always keep that context in mind and to understand that the people who are really going to be responding in a kind of constructive way are the people who are rooted in that place.

I think we've moved away thankfully in global affairs thinking from the sort of 1990s era thinking where you can have expertise that's removed from local knowledge. I say that with full awareness of the irony of me speaking with some level of authority about Chennai when I don't live there, but I do think there is a tremendous amount of intellectual produce that comes from Chennai itself, and I think we should really be doing more to look to what local people are saying.

ALEX WOODSON: That was Kavitha Rajagopalan, Carnegie Council Senior Fellow and author of Muslims of Metropolis. I'm Alex Woodson

Thanks for listening to Global Ethics Weekly.

You may also like

Elephant Butte Dam on the Rio Grande, central New Mexico (with low water level) CREDIT: David Groenfeldt

MAR 21, 2019 Article

On World Water Day: Think Globally, Act Ethically

"On this World Water Day (March 22) we urgently need a campaign to disrupt global complacency about protecting the planet's water. We adults, who are in ...

Rajasthan, India. CREDIT: <a href="" target="_blank">Shutterstock</a>.

APR 28, 2016 Article

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Innovations: "The Third World War Will be About Water"

Rajendra Singh, known as the "water man of India," believes that critically depleted aquifers around the world can be revived with community effort.