Partisan Politics and the Tragedy of the Commons: Groundwater Depletion in India’s Breadbasket
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India's agriculture depends on groundwater irrigation, but this critical resource is depleting. Abundant supply of heavily subsidized electricity plays a key role in this depletion by allowing farmers to operate powerful electric pumps for lifting groundwater. We theorize that Indian politicians use their political power to allocate scarce electricity to rural constituencies for economic profit, and that this patron-client relationship causes groundwater depletion. To test this hypothesis, we use data from the universe of government groundwater monitoring wells for the years 1976-2003 in Punjab, India's breadbasket and home of the green revolution. We show several types of quasi-experimental evidence demonstrating that when the candidate of the Congress Party wins the elections for Punjab State Assembly, groundwater levels begin to decline faster within his or her constituency. The effects are the strongest when the Punjab Chief Minister is also a Congress member. These findings are consistent with the idea that politicians can only allocate scarce electricity to farmers when they are connected with state and national political leaders. While politicians from the regional Shiromani Akali Dal party, which competes with Congress for dominance in Punjab's de facto two-party system, also want to supply electricity to their constituencies, they are unable to do so because they do not have the same access to national decision-makers.
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