The Cauvery Water debate — opinions

This was inspired by the controversy around cauvery water debate in mid-september 2016.

Before we begin, I’ll set down my biases and priors and  assumptions:

  1.    I’m from TN, living in bangalore for about 10 years.
  2.    I’m unaware of the actual rain level, agricultural needs, ecological needs and others.
  3.   I’m not going to propose a verdict as much as a process/method to deal with the conflicts that don’t depend on politicians or supreme court.
  4.  I’ve travelled in TN, to most parts in my youth, and trekked to most parts of Karnataka(speaking broken kannada) in the last 10 years,(obviously not as much as TN) and have a grasp on the cultural/mental attitudes in general.

 

One reason I’m ruling out political solution is because we live in a representational democracy.  The way the incentives are in that setup are for the politicians to do what gets them the most votes from the biggest part of their demographics. Trying to expect them to talk to politicians from other state and  come to a compromise is hard because on top of representational democracy, we have a  multi-party system.  Which means, there’s scope for local parties to not care about the interest of the other state parties and people. I’ve seen a few national parties taking contradictory stances, based on which state’s division they are making statements from.  In addition to this incentives, this is a situation with  prisoner’s dilemma type dynamics(i.e: to say, if one agent stops co-operating and defects, then the rest are better off doing the same.).  The only rewards for the politicians in this are media-time and vote bank support .

 

So what I do advocate is a mix of open data and predictive models plus persuasion and media (attention) frenzy that’ll overtake anything like the top-down media stuff the politicians can stir up. It won’t work without both of them, but I have no clue/idea about what will be successful and what will not in the latter case, so will focus majority of the post on the first.

Advocating open data access (water level, population, catchment area, drought area, cultivation area, predicted loss of agricultural area etc….) managed /maintained by a panel of experts, but open to all for debating and opining..

Major points(on the open data front):

  1.    Make the data open and easily  available . Here the data will be catchment areas, agricultural need estimates, actual rainfall, water table levels, water distribution wastage/efficiency, sand mining and their effects on water flow, economic impacts of the water shortage(bankruptcies, loss of revenue, loss of investment etc..). (There are some platforms like this and this already in India)*
  2.    Create/use a open data science platforms let bloggers and volunteers, modify the models (for estimates) and make blogs/predictions based on the given data, but with different models and parameters. (Some tools can be found here and here)
  3. Try to present the models in a way they can be interacted with even by people without programming experience. (The notebook links i provided above need python knowledge to edit, but anything built with this won’t)
  4.  Add volunteers to cross-check some of the data, like sand-mining, rain fall level, etc..
  5. Publish/collaborate with reporters to inform/write stories around the issue, with the help of models.(something with atleast the level of science journalism.)

 

Some thoughts(on the media – based persuasion front):

  1.  Recruit enough people interested in the exercise of figuring out details about impact of the issue.
  2. Make sure you can reach the ones that are currently most likely to indulge in violence(I can only guess at details, but  better targeted marketing strategy is what we need).

 

O.k: Enough of the idealistic stuff.

  1. Will this work? Well the question is too broad. Will it work to bring out the truth.. Ah it can bring us closer to the truth than what  we have.  And more importantly can define/establish a method/platform for us to get closer to data-driven debates and/or arguments.
  2. Will it cut the violence/bandhs/property-damage etc? Well that  boils down to the media and marketing front activism or work done. Leaving that persuasion part to politicians with skewing incentives towards gaining votes(from the steady voting population) is the problem now.  So can we have alternative parties (say,  business owners,) trying to use persuasion tactics only to discourage violence? I don’t know, but it seems likely that violence and martyrdom is preferred mostly by politicians and dons, but not the rest.(say media, local business owners, sheep-zens etc…). So this move has lower expected probability of violence.
  3. Who will pay for all this effort? Ah.. a very pertinent question. The answer is well, it’s going to be hard to pay the costs of even maintaining a information system, not to mention the cost of collecting the data.. That said, I think the big challenge is in the cost of collecting the data, and finding volunteers(something like this in US) to collect it for free. As for the hosting, building and maintaining an information system, I think there can be a cheap way found.
  4.  Is this likely to happen? Haha… no.. not in the next half century or so..
  5. Is there a cheaper way? Ah.. Not in the global/community/country level.. But at the individuals(media/politicians/public(aka u and me) ) sense yes, but it’s not really a cheaper way in the cost it inflicts. May be I’m just not creative enough, feel free to propose one, just be careful to include the costs to others around you now and others to come in the future.(aka your children)
  6. Why will this work? Well apart from the mythical way of saying “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”, I think this approach is basically an ambiguity- reduction approach, which translates to breaking down of status illegibility. (One reason no politician is likely to support this idea.) Status illegibility is the foundation of socio-political machinations and it applies to modern day state politics. So this will raise the probability of something close to a non-violent solution.
  • — I haven’t checked whether these data-sets  are already openly available, but I doubt they are and even if they are, some of the data are estimates, and we would need the models that made the estimates too to be public.

 

UPDATE: A few weeks after this I looked up on the google maps, the path followed by cauvery from origin to it’s end at the sea, and realized, I’ve actually visited more of the places it flows through in Karnataka and a lot fewer in TamilNadu. But that doesn’t change my stance/bias on misuse/abuse of sand mining and lake resources as housing projects in TN as that’s a broader , pervasive and pertinent issue.

 

UPDATE-1: A few months after writing this there was a public announcement, which if you read close enough is a typical persuation-negotiation move, with a specific action(and strong concession, and right now) demanded from the opponent, in exchange for a vague, under-specified promise in the future. This whole thing was on the news, is more support for my thesis that the incentives for politicians are skewed too much towards PR.

 

UPDATE-2:  Some platforms for hosting data, models and code do exist as below(although with different focus):

  1. Kaggle
  2. Drivendata
  3. Crowdai

so the question of collecting, cleaning, verifying and updating data is left.Also here’s a quora answer on the challenges of bootstrapping a data science team, which will be needed for this.