‘Water mafia’ politics?

I’ll be at Ethnographic perspectives on South Asian politics in Manchester this Friday thinking about ‘water mafias’ and informal infrastructures…  Here is some recent media on drive against illegal borewells and tankers, tv reporter beaten up, congress to launch jal satyagraha… oh, and Bhavesh Joshi Superhero…

Less dramatic, my talk might go a bit like this…

In 2015 a new party came to power in Delhi with a landslide electoral victory.  Led by an anti-water privatisation activist, they had campaigned heavily around improved urban governance and services.  However, water is an ideal subject for accusations of inefficiency, bias and corruption.  By 2017, the ruling party had faced high-profile splits, arrests, and poor performance in municipal elections, all linked to water supply issues.

Unsustainable groundwater use supplies 80% of India’s urban water, often informally.  Despite its ubiquity, urban groundwater use, and its relation to politics has been largely overlooked by recent ethnographic attention to water infrastructures in South Asia.  In this paper I draw on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork in unauthorised colonies and urban villages to analyse the role of informal water infrastructures, and attempts to reform them, in Delhi’s politics.

I find that the political salience of water is both supported, and constrained, by technical and material factors.  Informal groundwater use, as a combination of material and social elements, extends beyond the state and social relations, and is difficult for any actor to sustainably capture and control.  The different temporalities and spatialities of different infrastructural modes (tankers, tubewells, piped network) give rise to different governance possibilities and shape the possibilities for further informal influence, political change or reform.  Attention to these informal infrastructures leads us to question the boundaries of concepts such as ‘the state’, ‘the economy’, ‘politics’ and ‘infrastructure’ and the performative ‘boundary work’ necessary to produce these entities as coherent effects.

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