The Social Life of Water in Mumbai

A Review of Infrapolitics: The Social Life of Water in Mumbai, by Nikhil Anand.

Nikhil Anand’s dissertation is a nuanced, theoretically ambitious, and timely contribution to political ecology, to the anthropology of the state, and to the emergent field of the anthropology of infrastructure. Anand’s methodological approach, where the city, the “urban,” is the site through which to study the state is provocative for scholars of urban studies. The work is based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork with poor settlers in the city of Mumbai, engineers in Mumbai’s water department, and with various other urban “experts” such as plumbers, social workers and city planners. Even for readers familiar with the complexity of life on the urban margins of Mumbai, this dissertation is eminently illuminating of how both inclusion and exclusion are profoundly iterative processes. Through an interrogation of the multiple ways in which Mumbai’s water is made, moved, directed, redirected, acted-upon, distributed, delivered and contested, Anand’s ethnography captures the dynamic and contingent nature of urban water infrastructure and the politics surrounding it. In this sense the dissertation is a remarkable contribution in cultural anthropology because it responds to questions being asked in the field about the relationships between social and physical infrastructures, between materiality and sociality. Urban South Asia and the city of Mumbai are particularly useful ethnographic contexts in which to interrogate these questions. As Anand illustrates so well, in cities like Mumbai, physical infrastructures associated with water such as pipes, dams, pumps, and taps are always embedded within socio-political domains. As soon as they enter social space, they produce and illuminate different structures of power and marginality. The dissertation is animated by the question of how material grids are constitutive of social and political life and how in turn political life adapts to and transforms material infrastructures. Anand looks at the intersections between social and physical infrastructures using James Scott’s notion of infra-politics (p. 40). This lens captures the deeply relational, contingent and negotiated forms of political practice through which the poor in India’s cities access what might otherwise be considered a “public” service.

Relatedly, Anand takes on some of the broader debates over public goods and on whether water is a right or a commodity. For Anand, the “public” dimension of the water system is important but for different reasons than are usually assumed. He argues that public systems are more amenable to infra-politics because they can be claimed and contested by diverse social and political interests. Therefore, Anand successfully unsettles these binaries between the rights-based and the commodity-based arguments over public goods. He argues that for Mumbai’s poor, water is a unique public good. The ways in which the poor access water is a deeply political project; the poor’s claims on the city’s water supply are made neither exclusively as citizens nor exclusively as consumers, but as both (p. 15). In both these domains, access to water and its infrastructures of delivery are produced through shifting and negotiated grids of political and cultural infrastructures made up of politicians, legal and extra-legal brokers, and plumbers.

In his introductory chapter that lays out his theoretical and methodological approaches, these processes of negotiation are what Anand calls hydraulic citizenship. Drawing from other work such as that of James Holston on citizenship on the urban margins, Anand’s concept of hydraulic citizenship is a form of political practice produced on urban margins through both social and physical registers (p. 10). It is constituted through articulations between what Anand calls the infrastructures of politics (laws, politicians, local strongmen and NGOs), and the politics of infrastructure (pipes, pumps, taps).

In chapter 1, “Making Water Mumbai’s,” Anand traces the development of the city’s Water Supply Department from the colonial period onwards. In a fascinating genealogy of the social and political relationships in the hinterland, where water is “found” Anand traces the ways in which these relationships and their material and discursive contexts find their way into the water supply and the political life of the city. Anand argues that the rhetoric of water “scarcity” has been a critical discursive regime through which the colonial and later the postcolonial state have reproduced their presence and power. These discursive practices are manifested in material practices of what Anand calls the hydraulic state (p. 66). These material practices of dam building and control over the flow from dams, historically succeeded in inscribing various registers of privilege: the city over the hinterland, of urban over rural populations, and finally of migrations from villages into the city of Mumbai.

In Chapter 2, “Settling Jogeshwari,” Anand locates himself in a settlement in Jogeshwari, a northern suburb of Mumbai. Jogeshwari is made up of several working-class, residential settlements. As Anand points out, most residents moved here through processes of labor and spatial displacement. Water has become an important way for displaced populations to register belonging in the city. In Mumbai, where urban belonging is determined by cut-off dates and documents that prove tenancy, access to the city’s water services connotes a formal recognition of living arrangements (p. 141). Settlers go to great lengths to acquire documents while state agencies go to extraordinary lengths to deny settlers these documents. To illustrate the various machinations involved in documenting, classifying and categorizing settlements in order to determine rights to land and to the state’s services Anand draws on the literature on political patronage and political machines. He suggests here that the social life of water in Jogeshwari reinscribes patronage systems along with continually renewing debates over who belongs and who does not.

Chapter 3, “Time Pe” (On time), is a fascinatingly rich picture of everyday life in Mumbai’s settlements and of the ways in which social life is constituted through the temporality of the water supply. Anand’s ethnography shows that water schedules in poor settlements produce unique arrangements of time and sociality between residents and the state and amongst neighbors, and household members. Given that women are the ones most responsible for household duties this temporality and the social negotiations required by the vagaries of the water supply are a vital way in which women in the settlement order their days. Through the experiences of four women in the settlement, Anand illustrates how time is experienced and personhood produced out of “water time.” This chapter is also attentive to how the temporality of water reproduces the gendered division of labor.

In chapter 4, “Personal Development,” Anand focuses on community organizations and local members of political parties and the role they play in connecting residents from the settlements to the state and vice versa. He uses the notion of “infra-power” to argue that personalistic forms of social work, patronage and brokerage networks are key nodes of the infrastructure of water. These machinations are what Anand calls “personal development.”

In Chapter 5, “Leaky States,” Anand explores how ignorance of the leakages in the water system is a vital domain of state practice. Anand argues that purposeful ignoring of the leakages in both the physical and the social system are integral to how the management of water is accomplished (p. 257). He argues that intermittent or leaky water supply is integral to state authority because it makes the state and its various everyday actors indispensable to the system in ways that a 24/7 system would not. It gives state actors the opportunity to exert action on the physical system. Further, intermittent supply also allows the poor to negotiate various new connections, through both legal and illegal means. In this way, social leakages actually expand the delivery of water to those who would otherwise be excluded. In this sense, ignorance of both social and physical leakage is what keeps the social and political order from devolving into chaos.

In chapter 6, “Municipal Disconnect,” Anand shows how Muslim settlers are effectively “disconnected” from the municipal water system (p. 328). Anand draws from James Ferguson and Julia Kristeva’s notion of abjection to illuminate how state officials, subject populations and their intermediaries (municipal plumbers) produce abjection through water supply. In a city where Muslims occupy a profoundly marginal position, Anand shows how Muslims settlers are constituted by the state as undeserving of hydraulic citizenship. Abjection is creatively navigated when the residents of poor Muslim settlements look for alternative systems of water supply. In their resort to various systems of water supply which are considered dirty and the antithesis of modern water supply, such as bore wells, these forms of “abject” water circumscribe different political subjectivities. Further, in their abjection they also elucidate the broader disenfranchisement of Muslims from the state.

In his concluding chapter, Anand comes back to a discussion of what the notion of “hydraulic citizenship” provokes. He concludes, very convincingly, that this notion of citizenship illustrates two very important domains of political practice in the global South. One is that “the state” is a fragmented, differentiated entity that operates through a wide variety of shifting relationships between actors and the social and physical networks that they encounter and animate. Second, that urban citizenship is never a completed project. It is instead contingent and must be constantly renewed and renegotiated.

This dissertation takes on and successfully addresses many important questions in urban and political anthropology, and in political ecology. It extends the work of others such as Julia Elyachar and AbdouMaliq Simone who theorize social relations as infrastructure. It is very well written, ethnographically rich and compelling, with the interesting use of “interludes” in between chapters. It also provides interesting insights into what it means to conduct ethnographic research in places close to “home.” It should be of tremendous interest to anthropologists, political scientists, urban planners, and geographers. While it is focused on Mumbai, its theoretical sophistication and breadth will make it useful and interesting to scholars working in many different contexts of the urban, global South. The author has accomplished a great deal with this dissertation; not least is that he proposes for cultural anthropologists a methodological and theoretical framework that gives materiality its due in socio-cultural life.

Tarini Bedi
Department of Anthropology
University of Illinois at Chicago

Primary Sources

22 months of fieldwork among settlers in Jogeshwari, Mumbai and in the field offices of the city’s water department

Dissertation Information

Stanford University. 2011. 408 pp. Primary Advisor: James Ferguson.

Image: Water Infrastructure in Mumbai. Photograph by author.

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