Driving participatory reforms into the ground: The bureaucratic politics of irrigation management transfer in Pakistan

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Participatory governance is a means of making the state more responsive and accountable to its citizens. However, attempts to involve end users in decision making are often met with considerable resistance not just from political elites, but from the bureaucracy. I investigate how and why bureaucrats resist such reforms by focusing on the implementation of the Provincial Irrigation and Drainage Authorities Act (1997) in Pakistan, an Irrigation Management Transfer (IMT) program that attempted to put farmers in charge of water allocation, revenue collection, and dispute resolution. Drawing on qualitative interviews conducted in 2015 and 2019 with bureaucrats across the administrative hierarchy and water sector practitioners and consultants, I emphasise the role bureaucratic perceptions and incentives played in driving this program into the ground over two decades. My argument is two-pronged. First, I show that bureaucratic resistance to participatory programs needs to be studied in light of wider political events and processes, particularly patterns of political engagement and parallel attempts at devolving power. Second, I find that the precarious conditions under which irrigation bureaucrats work make them unwilling to cede what official power and influence they do have to farmers. In other words, I contend that bureaucratic resistance to farmers’ involvement in decision-making is the result of a more nuanced set of political and bureaucratic experiences than the perceived technical superiority and colonial inheritance of the irrigation bureaucracy. More broadly, my argument has implications for participatory reforms in other sectors and for decentralized government in Pakistan and in other countries in the Global South.

Original languageEnglish
Article number105056
JournalWorld Development
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Elsevier Ltd


  • Asia
  • Bureaucratic politics
  • Irrigation
  • Pakistan
  • Patronage
  • Water

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Development
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Economics and Econometrics


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