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Troubled Waters: River Governance and Environmental Responsiveness in India's Democracy

Access to water is considered a human right. Yet, according to recent estimates, 2.1 billion individuals have no access to safe drinking water, and water scarcity is a potential threat for more than 4 billion people. River systems are a crucial factor in this water crisis. While rivers perform essential functions for ecosystems and human welfare, side-effects of modernization (e.g. hydropower dams, river-side urbanization, industrialization) have poisoned, drained, and sometime even dried up many rivers, especially in developing and emerging countries.

Along with other ecological grand challenges, the degradation of rivers confronts modern society with the intractable problems of ‘reflexive modernity’ (Ulrich Beck), where progress grapples with failures arising from progress itself. Governing such ecological challenges puts liberal democracies under pressure. Because of their national dimension, liberal democratic regimes can hardly provide for the democratic governance of transnational ecological problems. Moreover, liberal democracies are overstrained by the hyper-complexity of ecological problems, as well as by the uncertainties arising from contradictory scenarios on future socio-ecological trends. These features of ecological problems can also favor techno-managerial modes of governance, which are difficult to combine with the cumbersome processes of democratic will formation and the emancipatory ambitions of ‘new’ social movements.

While sociological research on environmental governance shows a growing interest for democracy, it tends to treat liberal democracy mostly on the basis of abstract principles and values. Research on the concrete conditioning of environmental politics by liberal democratic regimes is predominated by traditional approaches of political science, with a focus on OCDE countries. So far, specificities of countries from the Global South, such as ethnic divides, post-colonial legacies, or tensions between the priorities of modern development and high vulnerability to ecological disruptions, have received scant attention in this area of research.

The project will address these gaps by investigating the governance of the Ganges in India’s liberal democracy, which faces major ecological challenges arising from fast-paced modernization, including an acute water crisis. The study will be guided by a sociological approach to political regimes based primarily on social systems theory. Using concepts of inclusion, internal differentiation, and responsiveness, the study will conduct a qualitative empirical analysis of how structural properties of India’s political regime (e.g. federalism, the parliamentary system, judicial activism, interplays between religion and politics) interact with the selective construction and political processing of ecological problems pertaining to the Ganges, which is considered both a ‘lifeline’ for more than 40% of India’s population and one of the world’s most deteriorated rivers.