Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai

A review of Nikhil Anand’s Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai

In Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai, Nikhil Anand provides us with a rich and insightful ethnography of Mumbai’s water infrastructure and the ways in which it shapes and is shaped by the lives of those residing in the city’s slums or settlements. In doing so, Anand shows how “hydraulic citizenship” – the ability of residents to be recognized by city agencies through legitimate water services – is deeply important for Mumbai’s marginalized residents and how achieving this citizenship is a complex and iterative process that depends on a combination of social, political and material factors.

Hydraulic City advances our collective understanding of a range of important debates and questions including the implications of public versus private management of infrastructure and the relationship between infrastructure and larger issues of climate change. In this review though, I focus primarily on the important ways in which the book advances our understanding of how urban infrastructure impacts, and is impacted by, marginalized groups.

A key contribution of the book – advanced through the development of the idea of “hydraulic citizenship” – is in illuminating the far-reaching implications that arise when marginalized citizens are able to formalize their access to basic services. Through the stories of a number of settlers, we learn that they work hard to obtain legal water connections not just because they desire access to the water itself, but also because these water connections are often very helpful in allowing these settlers to establish their citizenship in the city. In particular, legal water connections provide water bills that are important for showing that certain households were recognized by the state at a particular point in time. The possession of these documents, in turn, allows settlers a pathway to make tenure claims in the future and also allow them access to other services such as housing, health and education. Yet, the fact that legal water connections have implications beyond the provision of water itself is the very reason that city officials go to lengths to avoid provide legal water connections to settlers even though, as various accounts in the book suggest, city officials are often somewhat sympathetic to settlers’ needs for water. Moreover, this fact is also the reason that nativist political parties make an argument against allowing migrants in the city and make it difficult for Mumbai’s settlers who come from other parts of the country to obtain formalized access to services.

At the same time, the book also illuminates how the process of achieving hydraulic citizenship is not a one-to-one interaction between an individual and the state but one that is made possible by a multiplicity of social, personal and political relations.

In particular, Anand highlights the complex web of formal and informal procedures, practices and rituals in which settlers participate in order to achieve this recognition - including the gathering of multiple documents showing proof of residency, obtaining a letter of support given at the discretion of the elected city councilor and participation in protest marches in the city center to demand their rights from city administrators. In turn, the process of navigating this web of procedures and practices can often have important consequences for settlers’ perceptions of subjective citizenship and belonging in the city. For example, Anand describes how protest marches for water not only helped settlers demand their rights, but also – because of the location of the protest – helped people on the margins participate in and enjoy the central life of the city.

Navigating the process of obtaining a legal water connection also requires settlers to rely on a host of connections- often informal and sometimes even illicit - with friends, middle-men, and city officials. In one fascinating account, Anand highlights how a meeting with a settler and her city councilor to demand water involved the settler conveying to the councilor the monetary value of her settlement’s vote (based on the bribes and kickbacks that the councilor could receive as a result of his position) and then demanding funding for water connections in her settlement on that basis. Yet still, at various points in the book, Anand provides a nuanced description of the relationship between settlers and state officials showing that – although they may involve money or material exchanges – that they frequently are not only about money and transcend even a mere exchange of favors. Instead, settlers often formed friendships with state officials on the basis of mobilizing their sympathies and a “politics of conscience”. Through these accounts, we gain an understanding of the profound impact that achieving legalized access to services has on the lives of marginalized citizens and on their relations with each other and with the state.

Hydraulic City has important implications for scholars in a range of disciplines seeking to understand the opportunities and challenges of public infrastructure in urban areas especially in the Global South. In the rest of this review, I will focus on three ways in which the book’s insights and arguments can contribute to the vast and growing scholarship in political economy and related fields that seeks to identify and shed light on causal explanations for inadequate public service provision.

First, while much of the above-mentioned literature builds on the premise that state actors directly provide public goods or services to specific areas or groups of citizens, Hydraulic City reminds us that, in many cases, state actors provide citizens instead with a set of rules and procedures, either formal or informal or both, that citizens must follow in order to gain access to these goods or services. A recognition of this actual process by which public goods and services are often delivered has important implications for how we understand the role of citizens in the process of service delivery. First, citizens have agency at multiple points in this process, not just in terms of voting for their elected representatives, but also in terms of understanding their eligibility for services, navigating the procedures and relationships required to gain access to these services and engaging in collective action to pressure state actors into providing access. Thus, while state-side constraints to effective public service provision receive much attention in the literature, a focus on citizen-side constraints is likely important as well and may offer important new insights for how to address challenges with service delivery. Yet, beyond focusing on citizens’ role in the voting process, existing scholarship has paid relatively little attention to the multiple ways in which citizens can play an active role in gaining access to basic services from the state. In joint work with Nikhar Gaikwad at Columbia University and Gareth Nellis at UC San Diego, we seek to address this gap using a field experiment in Mumbai’s settlements to assess the effectiveness of interventions aimed at alleviating citizen-side constraints to achieving a legal water connection. In doing so, we seek to shed light on whether, when and how citizen empowerment can be an important channel for improving public service provision.

A second contribution of Hydraulic City is to highlight dimensions of public service delivery that have significant consequences for citizens’ lives but that have been largely neglected in the existing political economy literature. In particular, much of this literature focuses largely on understanding the factors that drive the quantity and quality of public goods or services provided in the city. However, Anand’s fieldwork reveals how the key demand of settlers in Mumbai who had a water connection was to receive water on time, rather than to receive water for more time. This observation forces us to reconsider whether quality or quantity are the dimensions of service delivery that matter most to citizens.  Indeed, an entire chapter of Hydraulic City is focused on uncovering how the timing and predictability of water delivery also has wide-ranging consequences for the lives of settlers. In particular, the fact that there is a “water time” in Mumbai – meaning that water is available only during a specific period in the day as opposed to continuously - assumes that someone will be home and available to collect water. In turn, since water is typically considered to be a woman’s concern, this aspect of delivery means that women shoulder the burden of waiting for (and worrying about) water which has important consequences for their ability to work outside the home and, thus, for their financial independence and economic well-being. Moreover, the fact that “water time” - which Anand argues is a stressful time for individuals who have to negotiate with family and friends for access – is structured by the state has important distributional implications since the right time for some may not be the right time for others. These accounts suggest that a careful consideration of the causes and consequences of the timing and predictability of service delivery would be a fruitful avenue for further research. Moreover, as an excellent study[1] by Alison Post, Tanu Kumar and Isha Ray shows, interventions targeted at improving the predictability of service delivery could be an important avenue for improving citizens’ well-being.

Finally, a third contribution of Hydraulic City is to highlight how the materiality of infrastructure often results in a lack of control over this infrastructure by state actors. Indeed, Anand’s account of Mumbai’s public water network highlights that infrastructure is a dynamic product of material realities of steel and cement and their interactions with nature, laws, and social and political relationships. This dynamism, in conjunction with the decentralized and fragmented nature of the infrastructure itself, produces effects that often “exceed human intentionality”. Thus, individual or even collective political entities have less control over infrastructure than is often assumed and this lack of control in itself has important implications for the effects of infrastructure. For example, the book highlights how Mumbai’s water engineers’ inability to identify and fix “unknown leakages” in Mumbai’s water infrastructure has perilous consequences for the environment and for human safety.  In paying close attention to the material characteristics of infrastructure, Anand also reminds us to “expand the repertoire of actors and agents who are responsible for distributive decisions”. For example, in addition to the standard stock of bureaucrats, elected representatives and middle-men on whom citizens need to rely to gain access to services, plumbers and chavivalas (valve men) figure prominently in Anand’s accounts of how settlers gain access to Mumbai’s public water network. A consideration of the role of such actors and the structural conditions under which they have room to operate could allow us new insights into the explaining the successes and failures of service delivery in the developing world. Moreover, the book highlights how the physical nature of the infrastructure also affects the degree to which citizens themselves can control access to state services. In Mumbai, for example, residents can sometimes gain access to water without the sanction of state officials via the tapping of water mains or the use of booster pumps. These accounts suggest that further systematic studies of how the physical characteristics of infrastructure shape the well-being of citizens could provide important new insights.

Overall, Hydraulic City brings to life the fascinating ways in which the causes and consequences of infrastructure are deeply political. While it focuses on the particularities and peculiarities of Mumbai’s water infrastructure and the lives of those that surround it, its insights and implications extend well beyond this context and will be useful to scholars in a range of disciplines seeking a better and deeper understanding of the relationship between infrastructure and citizenship in all its forms.

[1] Kumar, T. Post, A, and Ray, I. 2018. “Flows, Leaks, and Blockages in Informational Interventions: A Field Experimental Study of Bangalore’s Water Sector.” World Development 106: 149-160, 2018.

Anjali Thomas Bohlken is an Assistant Professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech. Her recent work focuses on the politics of public service provision in India and parts of this work are published or forthcoming in The American Journal of Political Science (2018) and The British Journal of Political Science (forthcoming). She is currently working on a project with Nikhar Gaikwad and Gareth Nellis that utilizes a field experiment to assess the socio-economic, political and health effects of interventions designed to help residents in Mumbai’s settlements obtain legal water connections.

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