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Reviewing water governance in India through Shyam Benegal's ‘Well Done Abba’

By Mansee Bal Bhargava* 

“Good governance never depends upon laws, but on the personal qualities of those who govern. The machinery of government is always subordinate to the will of those who administer that machinery.” -- Frank Herbert
The film "Well Done Abba", released in 2009, is a 2 hour and 24 minutes long film. It is directed by the legend, Shyam Benegal, who is known for articulating various social issues through his films. The film is produced by Raj Pius and Mahesh Ramanathan and published by the Reliance Big Pictures. The casts of the film include, Boman Irani, Ravi Kishan, Minissha Lamba, Sameer Dattani, Ila Arun, Rajendra Gupta, Meena Nathani, etc. The film may not have made much noise in the box office, it is well classified in the genres of the films that are cross connecting social and commercial besides getting well into the classrooms of social science where courses like water governance are taught.
The MSc and MTech students** of the TERI-SAS Delhi studying the course, Water Resources-Governance and Institutions, are made to watch the film collectively and come up with a short essay on the key learning of the context, resource, value, community attributes, governing actors and mechanisms. In the process, the students are also meant to learn the collective process of coming together, scheduling for doing things (here film-watching), writing the essay, and publishing it.
The approach to watching the film itself was an interesting beginning to learn collective action. Such an easy and interesting assignment but not easy coordination between just eight people. So wonder how polycentric water governance happens in real time with multiple actors, at multiple levels, scales, positions, and with institutional prerogatives and mechanisms may be undertaking collective action on real life problems and solutions of water management. Ryena volunteered to make the group come together to watch the film. She asked for a feasible time to watch it to all of us multiple times on whatsapp. The students agreed to watch it virtually on a weekend first. Later the agreed time was changed multiple times by someone or the other. Finally, the students agreed to watch the film physically collectively in the classroom in the college. Vikas volunteered to download the film and bring it to college. Watching the film together gave a fun feeling as it is rare to do so in the classroom and discussing it further gave truly the meaning why it was asked to watch collectively in first place.
Then the approach to writing the essay was equally cumbersome collective action as was watching but yes a lot of learning again. It started with Rithish writing a small paragraph. Everyone had a discussion on whether each will write a separate essay and merge the text later. Bharat came up with the idea of brainstorming together at the college. After brainstorming he volunteered to make a rough draft and circulate it with the rest. Everyone read the draft and agreed to it, Pratha later added the authors names. So, in principle, he wrote the draft. Later, for publishing, Mansee had to rewrite the manuscript. Explaining this process helps to understand the tragedy of the commons, the prisoners dilemma, free-riding, the logic of collective action, willingness to accept and many more such micro economic theories of human behavior over collective action towards resource management. Anyway, the film review follows.

Review/essay on the film

Watching the film ‘Well Done Abba’ as a classroom exercise is a good way to get started with understanding water governance as beginners. Since governance as a concept is yet to be fully understood in society. Governance at its core is who does what, in which capacity to whom. The basic understanding to get started is to clear the myth that governance is not by the government alone. Governance is about every stakeholder/actor engaging in resource management like the goods and services provided by water (as in the film). In fact, since individuals make the institutions with the rules (formal and informal), the individual is the core unit of governance, with his/her position, role, responsibility, intent, and importantly morality. If every individual plays their part as per the rules and if everything in resource management is done in the way it should be, the people and process then result in the desired output/outcome that is often referred to as sustainability in resource/water management. Then there is what we know as good governance.
Well, while we are far from distinguishing government and governance, the film actually works around the individuals in the institutions how they unintendedly mis-rule a water service provision, in this case digging a well from public fund, which is a basic right of the community. Later, it is shown interestingly, how the individuals from the community come together to actually use the same rules to get the work done.
The film “Well Done Abba” denotes the state of governance and the corresponding social issues in the remote village of Chikkatpalli. The film is centered around the trials and tribulations of Arman Ali, who is a driver in Mumbai and his fight to dig a well near his home in the nearby native village. It also shows in a satirical way how the government machinery functions when it comes to beneficiary schemes for the people. Various social issues such as gender equality, lack of empathy for the suffering of people, stereotyping of women, social conflicts due to water scarcity and loss of humanism in times of suffering are well portrayed.
The central character Arman Ali arrives in his village only to find out that his twin brother Rehman Ali and his wife have resorted to petty crimes and theft of water for their survival. The effect of social relations in a community and how it gets altered in times of disasters like drought is well articulated. It shows how there was a lack of trust between communities which led to treating water as a private good rather than a social good. One owner of a well even went to the extent of keeping police security so that people don't steal water from his well.
The film also depicted the apathy of local government institutions and the plethora of rules that are available, however, can be easily misunderstood and manipulated. A situation highlights how the husband of the sarpanch took control of the power despite him not being elected officially. A typical case, of proxying for women in politics, position and power in the patriarchal system.
It also shows the sorry state of affairs in government offices when it comes to implementing welfare schemes for the people. The prevailing complex rules, regulations and procedures for such a simple task such as constructing a well makes the process looks so difficult, which we colloquially call the bureaucracy or the babudom. Arman Ali gets frustratingly confused in each and every step of the application process to get a well to be constructed in the backyard of his house.
The film shows how corruption is deeply entrenched at various levels of government starting from the clerk, tehsildar, engineer and upwards besides the very own knowns like the neighborhood’s photographer. The state of corruption is shown funnily a number of times, just to mention one example of the bureaucratic situation when Arman Ali and another poor farmer want to build a house by availing the government scheme Indira Awas Yojana. It explains how the money intended for a particular purpose gets looted by the officials in the name of commission for doing their regular job which leads people to fall into the vicious cycle of debt trap. In a funny way it depicts how corruption is disguised under various names and measures in the government offices by the officials from the top position to the peon. It also depicts various ingenious ways invented by the people to fool the government institutions and the people such as creating fake records.
The film beautifully explores the power of public awareness, pressure groups and their influence in elections and politics. This is depicted by showing how Arman Ali and others get together to devise ways to make the governing institutions and the representatives (politicians) accountable to the people. They publicize the issue using the media, and then the minister eventually gets into constructing the wells as an election priority to gain his vote bank. Interestingly, the entire bureaucratic process then gets into appraisals and giving awards to themselves for constructing wells for people in the constituency whereas the actual matter is different.
The film in some areas also dealt with gender issues such as fixing gender stereotypes for certain roles, making marriage of girl child more important than education, proxy political leaders, etc. The humanistic side of people is also depicted by how Arman Ali wants the well to be built so that he will be able to give water to people in need and how the boy Aarif Ali helps Arman Ali in filing a case in the police station as well as informing them about RTI.
Finally, the wells are constructed in every household (prior to the election) that was approved for. All in all, the ‘must-watch’ film is an important lesson to learn the nuances of governance with water as a case where individuals and institutions are at the core. The key message is that individuals make institutions along with the institutional mechanisms which are also again written by (some) individuals at some point in time at some level. Therefore, individuals play a crucial role in the way society is and can be governed. While we are impacted by the resource (water here) goods and services, we deeply impact their production, provision and management. It is also therefore crucial that individuals know their rights and duties, besides learning to ask questions to seek accountability from the elected and selected government representatives, who are colloquially referred to as ‘the government servant’. The day we the ‘master’ citizens become aware and awakened to be ready to act in the governing process, the governance system can be made more approachable and accountable.
---
*Entrepreneur | Researcher | Educator | Speaker| Mentor. More info on her at: www.mansee.in
**Students of TERI-SAS: Bharat Ramachandran, Meghma Mitra, Pratha Mishra, Rayena Sarkar, Rithish Ninan Alex, Shaivya Saxena, Sneha Chakraborty, Vikas Meena. MTech (Water Resources Engineering and Management) and MSc (Water Science and Governance). More info on TERI-SAS at: https://www.terisas.ac.in/

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