Pipe Politics, Contested Waters: Embedded Infrastructures of Millennial Mumbai

Pipe Politics, Contested Waters: Embedded Infrastructures of Millennial Mumbai

by Lisa Björkman

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Winner, 2014 Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences

Despite Mumbai's position as India's financial, economic, and cultural capital, water is chronically unavailable for rich and poor alike. Mumbai's dry taps are puzzling, given that the city does not lack for either water or financial resources. In Pipe Politics, Contested Waters, Lisa Björkman shows how an elite dream to transform Mumbai into a "world class" business center has wreaked havoc on the city’s water pipes. In rich ethnographic detail, Pipe Politics explores how the everyday work of getting water animates and inhabits a penumbra of infrastructural activity—of business, brokerage, secondary markets, and sociopolitical networks—whose workings are reconfiguring and rescaling political authority in the city. Mumbai’s increasingly illegible and volatile hydrologies, Björkman argues, are lending infrastructures increasing political salience just as actual control over pipes and flows becomes contingent on dispersed and intimate assemblages of knowledge, power, and material authority. These new arenas of contestation reveal the illusory and precarious nature of the project to remake Mumbai in the image of Shanghai or Singapore and gesture instead toward the highly contested futures and democratic possibilities of the actually existing city. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822375210
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 09/17/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Lisa Björkman is Assistant Professor of Urban and Public Affairs at University of Louisville, and Research Scholar at CETREN (Transregional Research Network), University of Göttingen.

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Pipe Politics, Contested Waters

Embedded Infrastructures of Millennial Mumbai

By Lisa Björkman

Duke University Press

All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7521-0



Unmapping the Distribution Network

Hunting for Maps

At the outset of my research in Mumbai, getting my hands on the water department's official maps of the distribution network seemed the most sensible way to begin; once I had maps, I reasoned, I could tack them up on my walls and refer to them as I proceeded. I envisioned pressing colorful, meaning-laden pushpins into these maps, whose patterns would reveal to me important geographies of flow and access and blockage. But getting hold of the kind of maps I had in mind proved to be somewhat less straightforward than I had anticipated. While I had imagined that procuring maps would be a jumping-off point in my exploration, instead the processes of locating, gaining access to, and attempting to make sense of various maps of Mumbai's water supply network became themselves fertile and generative research sites.

Within the first months of my arrival in Mumbai, my repeated requests for maps from the Mumbai Municipal Corporation's Hydraulic Engineering Department (the water department) produced a stack of five or six enormous blueprints. I collected my coveted stack from the department's head office downtown one sweaty afternoon in November 2008. Pleased with my acquisition, which seemed to signal the real beginning of my research, I loaded the carefully folded treasures into a large tote bag and jealously guarded them close to my chest throughout the hour-long, bone-jarring ride back to the eastern suburbs in the ladies-only compartment of the Mumbai local train, while businesswomen and fisherwomen — pressed against one another in the sticky, angular embrace of rush hour — sighed their annoyance at my bulky bag. At home my landlord and downstairs neighbor, Dilip, who had taken a keen interest in my somewhat unconventional but possibly very useful network of contacts inside the Municipal Corporation, joined me for the initial unfurling on the floor of my apartment. We crawled around excitedly on the smudgy blueness, identifying familiar landmarks — There's the slaughterhouse! There's the Atomic Research Center! — but after a few minutes the thrill of recognizing things wore off as it became apparent that my maps did not correspond in some very significant ways to what I had seen (and what Google Earth imagery suggests) on the ground in M-East. The cluster of seven-story Slum Rehabilitation buildings that I had visited the day before was represented on the blueprint as an open expanse labeled "bone factory" (later I learned that there used to be a bone-grinding facility on the site, but it had been closed for over twenty-five years); a neat row of small squares signaling residential blocks and a larger square labeled "recreation ground" trespassed in the space on my blueprint where the all too real Deonar dumping ground should have been depicted; the site of a well-established, three-decades-old working-class residential neighborhood was identified on the western half as a "playground," and on the eastern half as, somewhat cryptically, "Nazara Godown." Perhaps most puzzling were the stretches of road depicted on the blueprint that had absolutely no counterparts on the ground.

Conversations with senior engineers over the following weeks and months offered an explanation for these confounding noncorrespondences: the blueprints I was given were not "maps" in what I had unthinkingly taken to be a shared or conventional understanding of that idea — a visual representation of things that might be presumed to actually exist in the world. Rather, it was explained to me, the blueprints are a variety of plan. The water department's official procedure for keeping track of the city's ever-expanding network of pipes and valves, I was told, is to continually draw them onto the city's development plan sheets. The blueprints from M-East that I was given (which, needless to say, are the most recent available) were dated between 1976 and 1980, meaning that they are copies of the 1967 Development Plan. These blueprints, in other words, are representations not of any present or past arrangement of things in the world; rather they are historically imagined possible futures onto which information about the present city is supposed to be depicted.

I say supposed to be depicted because the water department abandoned these practices sometime in the 1980s. Until the mid-1980s the water department had a functional survey section whose sole responsibility was to "update the plans" when a new water main was commissioned. There was a "set rule," a retired senior engineer named Kulkarni explained to me, that any time a new water main was laid, the local ward office would tell the survey department, who would send someone to go and survey the new line — to actually go to the site and see, "with their own eyes," the physical location of the new pipe. Members of the survey section known as "tracers" would then draw the new main onto the plan. This practice, Kulkarni explained, was inherited from British engineers, who used to keep track of water mains on colonial-era "survey sheets." These older, colonial-era sheets differed from the current development plan sheets in three important ways: First, colonial-era survey sheets were much more detailed — approximately eighty-two times larger in scale than the present-era plans. The sheet I had, which was labeled "surveyed in 1919; corrected up to 1927," even depicts trees, with symbols differentiating coconut from palm. Second, the colonial-era sheets existed only for the Island City; since the suburbs were annexed only in the 1950s, the Municipal Corporation has no survey sheets for suburban areas like M-East Ward (see figure 1.1). Indeed the only existing survey for the area now comprising the M-East Ward is the 1833 land revenue survey, which shows the boundaries of area gaonthans (agricultural settlements) and koliwadas (fishing villages). Third, and perhaps most important, unlike survey sheets, which profess to visually represent things presumed to actually exist in the world, development plan sheets depict a not yet realized arrangement of space in an imagined future. Senior engineers would become animated recalling how they had overseen the laying of new distribution mains along the routes of proposed "DP Roads" (development plan roads) that were never constructed (or sometimes that were constructed with dimensions unrelated to those indicated on the plan). One engineer described his attempt to later access one such pipe, the laying of which he had supervised in the mid-1980s, only to find that a high-rise residential complex had been constructed in place of the road.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation's (BMC) survey and tracing system seems to have been at least formally operational until the early 1990s. Each ward had a fitting book (see figure 1.2) into which data about new mains were to be entered: the name of the street or neighborhood where the new main was laid; the diameter and length of the main; the number and size of any valves controlling water pressure, timing, and flow into the main; the number of public outlets (standpipes or hydrants) that would be fed by the new main; the case number of the new main; the number of the survey sheet onto which the new main would be drawn; and information about the funding source for the new main. The current M-East Ward's logbook that I was shown in 2010, however, had only one entry: a listing from 1995. The evidence and memory of this now defunct system of recording and updating information about the water supply network thus presents a needed corrective to much current writing about urban infrastructure in the Global South — which tends to depict cities like Mumbai as somewhat timeless in their infrastructural dysfunction — and also a puzzle: Why did the Mumbai water department stop mapping its work?

The decline of formal mapping practices, this chapter shows, intersected in the 1980s and 1990s with a highly mobile, globally empowered development policy discourse extolling market logics and encouraging the involvement of private-sector actors in municipal services while condemning government-run systems as inherently corrupt and inefficient — ideological battles that would effectively colonize the political and discursive space around water-related questions for nearly two decades. While Mumbai would emerge from the decades of debate over privatization with water infrastructures still squarely in the hands of the municipal bureaucracy, the years of anticipation and speculation on the seemingly inevitable forces of privatization have nonetheless had serious and lasting hydraulic effects, particularly in the havoc wreaked on the department's informational infrastructures. In step with a globally ascendant audit culture hoping to render market risks knowable and quantifiable (as per the exigencies of private-sector contracts) and in response to an increasingly acute shortage of manpower, the water department adopted a series of labor-saving tools and calculative technologies. Yet these new measurement instruments were largely incommensurable with the material and technological particularities of the city's water infrastructures; the data-collection tools ultimately generated a constant stream of meaningless facts and figures. With the department's long-institutionalized, human knowledge–centered informational infrastructures (of surveying and mapping pipes and of monitoring and auditing pressures) falling into disuse, the calculative fantasy of market management effectively unmapped Mumbai's water infrastructures.

Waiting for Privatization

Beginning in the 1980s concerns about water access in the world's growing and globalizing cities were increasingly refracted through the lens of the privatization debates. Official discourses of various international lending institutions increasingly sidelined conceptions of water provision as a state-provided service in favor of a notion of the urban resident as a consumer who makes individually reasoned, calculated choices regarding "infrastructural goods." After water was famously declared "an economic good" at the 1992 United Nations International Conference on Water and the Environment in Dublin, the notion that the full "costs" of water provision should be recovered from consumers came to infuse international debates on water management. "Water has an economic value," the World Meteorological Organization proclaimed in a statement released at the conference's conclusion, "and should be recognized as an economic good." With international lending and aid organizations (particularly the World Bank) increasingly advocating marketized conceptions of water and recommending private-sector involvement in its management as a way to extend and rationalize services (and to stem the alleged inefficiency of public utilities), the Dublin Conference both reflected and sparked global debates on the most appropriate roles and responsibilities of states and markets in allocating and distributing water.

Privatization and marketization are of course not the same thing. Marketization (as outlined in some detail in the introduction) describes a process of framing something as a commodity as well as the management principles and logics animating commodity framing. Privatization, on the other hand, refers simply to who provides water and may or may not involve various elements of marketization. Moreover privatization can describe a huge variety of legal-contractual agreements between governments and private actors; the content, terms, and duration of contracts described by the term privatization can vary dramatically, from an agreement in which the private company is granted short-term responsibility and authority over aspects of operations and maintenance, to the complete divestiture of the utility, including sale of the asset or resource to be provided. In between are a range of options, which can involve many different kinds of risk- and investment-sharing arrangements; the commonly heard term public-private partnership refers to the wide range of possible arrangements falling short of complete divestiture. Between the 1980s and the first decade of the twenty-first century the policy framework advocated by World Bank consultants shifted focus somewhat, from the privatization question of who provides water (state institutions or private sector actors) to the rationality underpinning its delivery: from a "state-hydraulic" (Bakker 2005: 546) model of infrastructural development planning to a logic of marketization (Bakker 2005, 2010; see also Rose 1999). During these interim years, however, while the theoretical, political, and material-hydraulic stakes of these multidimensional debates were being fought (both in pipes and on paper), cities across the globe were transformed into high-stakes laboratories of policy experimentation.

The multidimensional conceptual shifts in international policy discourse set the stage for a handful of high-profile privatization debacles; in 1999, for instance, the signing of a forty-year concessional contract for municipal water operations in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba led to spectacular price hikes when the U.S. corporate consortium Bechtel attempted to implement an ideologically driven full-cost pricing scheme. Bolivians poured into the streets to protest the contract, which was reviled not only for its price increases but for allowing the contractor to collect charges even on rainwater harvested in local wells and for going so far in protecting corporate interests and shielding the company from financial risk as to give Bechtel the right to actually seize the property of delinquent consumers (Finnegan 2002). The dramatic popular uprisings in the face of brutal police and military violence against the demonstrators led the Bolivian government to withdraw the contract and became a powerful symbol and inspiration for the growing ranks of antiprivatization activists worldwide.

By the time the Delhi Jal Board, the capital city's water utility, approached the World Bank for a loan in 2002 to fund a citywide water audit to be used in the writing of an operation and maintenance contract, activists were thus primed for battle. One prominent Indian nongovernmental organization, headed by the world-renowned environmental activist and writer Vandana Shiva, charged, for example:

The various policies of the World Bank related to water have already created acute water shortage throughout the country. Today, bowing again to World Bank and WTO[World Trade Organization] pressures, the government is rushing to privatize water and hand over its ownership to giant corporations. Privatization of water will totally bypass people's needs, sustainability and equity in the use of water. The government is signing away the water rights of the people to giant MNCs [multinational corporations] like Coca Cola, Pepsi, Monsanto, Mitsubishi, Hyundai, Suez, and Vivendi. (quoted in Navdanya 2011)

Using the newly implemented Right to Information Act, Indian antiprivatization activists acquired thousands of pages of documentation pertaining to ongoing negotiations between the Delhi Jal Board and the World Bank that revealed egregious irregularities in the bidding process (Singh 2006). The media spectacle that ensued led to the withdrawal of the Delhi government's loan application, and activist organizations celebrated the shelving of the restructuring project as a victory for democracy (Bhaduri 2005).

Meanwhile in Bombay international ideological trends since the 1980s had fueled a wave of discussion and speculation on how and whether to increase private-sector involvement in urban water distribution, a set of conjectures that coincided in India with national-level debates over pension reform. According to rules framed at the time of India's independence in 1947, jobs within the Bombay Municipal Corporation are pensionable according to the central government's pension scheme. In the 1980s, however, in response to increasing life expectancy among the laboring classes, the government of India began to push for amendments to pension laws — an effort that met with overwhelming political opposition, due at least in part to the enormous size of the public sector. In the 1980s senior sources inside the Corporation recalled, the BMC's recruitment office was instructed by Delhi not to fill vacant engineering and laborer posts unless absolutely necessary. As a former additional municipal commissioner explained to me, "We were thinking to outsource these activities, so the municipal commissioner made a unilateral decision to ban the recruitment of staff." He continued, "If it's going to go private, and we've hired all these people, we're going to be stuck paying pensions until they die."


Excerpted from Pipe Politics, Contested Waters by Lisa Björkman. Copyright © 2015 DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix

Introduction: Embedded Infrastructures  1

1. We Got Stuck in Between: Unmapping the Distribution Network  21

2. The Slum and Building Industry: Marketizing Urban Development  62

3. You Can't Stop Development: Hydraulic Shambles  82

4. It Was Like That from the Beginning: Becoming a Slum  98

5. No Hydraulics Are Possible: Brokering Water Knowledge  128

6. Good Doesn't Mean You're Honest: Corruption  165

7. If Water Comes It's Because of Politics: Power, Authority, and Hydraulic Spectacle  198

Conclusion: Pipe Politics  227

Appendix: Department of Hydraulic Engineering  235

Notes  237

References  267

Index  277

What People are Saying About This

Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation - Steven Caton

"Pipe Politics, Contested Waters is a brilliant ethnography of water and Lisa Björkman is one helluva fieldworker: indefatigable, resilient, determined, and resourceful. Determined as she was to get to the bottom of things, what she finds is that she can't. The more she tries to map the infrastructure or follow the water engineers and their workmen to the sites at which the 'system' needs to be fixed, the more the solutions, if there are any, seem out of reach. A pathbreaking book, Pipe Politics, Contested Waters is destined to become a classic in the burgeoning literature on water and water sustainability."

The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity, and the Urban Imagination - Matthew Gandy

"Pipe Politics, Contested Waters is an important and original study of urbanization in the global South. Using the example of Mumbai's water supply, Lisa Björkman explicates the complex nexus of cultural and political developments affecting everyday life in the city while marking an important break in the historiography of urban infrastructure networks. Björkman tells an extremely complex story very effectively."

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