Why the Bombay High Court questioning of the IPL’s use of water is wrong on several countsMuch of our discourse is made up of false binaries and the Bombay High Court served up a doozy the other day. Hearing a Public Interest Litigation against Indian Premier League cricket matches being held in Maharashtra, the judges sternly asked representatives of the Board of Control for Cricket in India:

“It is a question of priority – a game or people… Are you going to maintain gardens and stadiums when people are dying? Is this what you are saying?”

The either/or they posited between “a game or people” is a classic false dilemma. The truth is that people are not dying of thirst because of the IPL. If they are dying, it is because of the failure of successive governments to make adequate provisions for years when rainfall is deficient and even for years when the monsoon is generous.

I’d like to ask Justices Kanade and Karnik a counter-question: “If we stop maintaining gardens and stadiums, will it prevent people from dying?”

The answer is obvious.

Saving the water used to maintain Wankhede stadium’s turf will make no difference to the people of Latur, or even of Thane. Nobody in drought-stricken regions will get a single extra drop to drink as a result of IPL games being shifted out of the state. Water cannot teleport across the nation, magically disappearing from one place and appearing where it is desperately needed. In any case, the total amount of water used over the course of the many weeks of the IPL across all three stadiums hosting games in Maharashtra is estimated to be six million litres. While this may seem like a lot, it is not even one five hundredth, or less than 0.2% of Bombay’s daily water supply. Shifting the IPL out of the state will be tokenism of the worst kind.

During their long admonishment, the judges called the cricket body’s use of water “careless” and a “criminal wastage”. It might be that the Wankhede curators use water inefficiently. If that’s the case, I hope they will adopt streamlined methods, but no evidence was provided of sloppiness during the hearing. Rather, the petitioners and judges deemed obscene the very idea of cultivating a lush carpet of grass during a drought. The news channels, which thrive on false choices (Umar Khalid or Lance Naik Hanumanthappa! The Film and Television Institute of India or starving farmers!), have eagerly adopted the court’s argument.

Behind the entire charade is an assumption, occasionally made explicit, that cricket is “mere entertainment” and therefore not only dispensable but objectionable during crises. I can understand why the optics of celebratory events can seem offensive in the midst of great suffering. However, since the water truce during which all beings put away their differences and share a dwindling resource equitably exists only in the Jungle Book of Rudyard Kipling’s imagination, we have to judge the functioning of the IPL within the legal and economic structure that is in place.

How IPL helps

Within that structure, to the extent the IPL impacts water supply across Maharashtra and India (and its impact is minuscule) it helps more than it hurts. It helps directly by boosting local economies. Those at the top of the pecking order receive what can seem like disproportionate rewards, but thousands of middle class and poor citizens gain as well, right down to the hawkers selling snacks and souvenirs outside Nagpur’s VCA stadium, and unemployed men making a few bucks by painting the colours of favoured teams on the cheeks of fans trooping in to watch games. That little money earned gives these people the means to buy water in parched months. It is unclear what will take its place should games be moved out of the state.

The IPL helps indirectly by contributing to the exchequer. The BCCI is a venal organisation which has tried every trick in the book to avoid being taxed. I am entirely against the IPL receiving any tax waivers. That said, Indian cricketers have 10% of their earnings deducted at source (and presumably more when they file tax returns). Foreign stars have 20% of their wages cut as tax deducted at source. Every IPL ticket sold provides entertainment tax to the state government. Every plane seat, every hotel reservation, every endorsement fee, every team sponsorship, every broadcast contract, is taxed.

The IPL, like all businesses, helps the nation by generating employment and providing tax revenue. The BCCI’s responsibility is to conduct the tournament safely and smoothly, to ensure patrons get their money’s worth and employees are paid their dues. It is no part of the IPL’s charter to provide water to India’s citizens. That’s what we have a government for. The government takes the IPL’s taxes, and ours, and uses them, in part, for digging wells, creating lakes, building canals and pipes so that all citizens have access to water. It receives enough tax revenues, and India receives enough rain, to ensure every citizen has water to drink, and bathe, and wash clothes and utensils. Our government has for at least two decades had the resources to ensure all farmers can water their fields. That it has failed to provide basic services to so many millions is the real criminal waste of resources.

Rather than make a scapegoat of the IPL, our judges would be better served by focussing on the real culprits. Rather than legislating from the bench and condemning metaphorical crimes, I’d prefer it if they stuck with criminality as legally defined. But as the Kolkata overpass collapse, the Girgaon Chowpatty fire, and the Kollam firecracker tragedy are demonstrating, criminals within government almost always get away. If we can’t fix culpability for acute calamities, how will we do so for a perennial catastrophe, a chronic condition that has claimed countless Indian lives over the past decades?