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Hydraulic Citizenship in a Leaky State

Nakul Mohan Heble ( is with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru.

Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai by Nikhil Anand, New Delhi: Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2017; pp xiv + 296, ₹ 995.

Nikhil Anand’s book, Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai is a neat weave of the water stories of the city of Mumbai. The argument that he builds in the everyday politics of claims and articulations, and depiction of the city water infrastructure that enables it, is insightful and deeply engaging for both an ethnographer as well as a lay person. Particularly for a first-time reader of anthropological work, the interludes that find themselves wedged between the six chapters act as islands of familiarity within such detailed work. A collection of short videos titled “Ek Dozen Paanimentioned in the book drives home some strong points with simple narratives. These stories shed light on the role that water plays in the settlements of Mumbai. Thesevideos have also been reviewed here as they neatly lie alongside the stories that the author tells. Water, the enabler of urban life as Anand puts it, or as Ismail Sharif from the first video calls it Zindagi (life), is reinvented in this book just as the role of the citizens, the political representatives and the infrastructures of water supply.

Most ethnographers find that the boundaries between friendship, research and politics amalgamate while engaging with research subjects. Recently, a young ethnographer in a workshop in Bengaluru, expressed how her positionality as a researcher came into question when a suicidal pregnant girl landed at her doorstep one night looking for help. At that moment, words from the second interlude “Fieldwork” from Anand’s book came to my mind. To see him analysing the researcher–subject relationship from his experience of being inundated with requests to resolve everyday troubles that the people in the settlements face, and apply it back into his narrative of everyday negotiations over water, is fascinating. This review begins with the secondinterlude because of the importance that Anand gives to the space that the researcher occupies and experiences while doing ethnographic research in the city. Within the larger story lies a lesson for young ethnographers who sometimes may miss out on giving sufficient attention to methods, experiences, positionality and reflexivity while conducting ethnographic research.

Hydraulic Citizenship

The introductory chapter begins with the descriptions of infrastructures, which are often seen as mere physical set of pipes and keys through which water is made to flow into the city of Mumbai. But, Anand breaks the hierarchical boundary between infrastructure and the beneficiaries/users by tracing the everyday mix of the material and subjective relationships, and how they shape each other. As citizens contest for the varying degrees of “hydraulic citizenship” and access to water, they in turn shape the infrastructures through which they claim water. A case in point is Alkatai, a resident of a settlement in Mumbai who is “… compelled to draw the state and its water into her home using her own bodily labour, by sucking water out of the pipes” (p 9). It is in this act of transforming public infrastructure that a citizen forces her citizenship to reach to her, fighting both the high pressure exerted by the state’s inaction in service delivery and the resultant low water pressure in the pipes. Anand goes on to explain that the concept of “hydraulic citizenship” is, therefore, not linearly defined by the processes of lawmaking or social and political recognition, but it is rather a “cyclical, iterative process that is highly dependent on social histories, political technologies, and the material-semiotic infrastructures of water distribution in the city” (p 9).

The Neo-Malthusian approach to water provisioning as a political agenda is swiftly deployed in cities such as Mumbai to alienate a certain (often marginalised) group of people. In Chapter 1, the author explains how such a rhetoric not only resides deep within the solutions offered by international urban think tanks and multilateral agencies, but also become tools in the hands ofentitled first-class citizens to restrict the marginalised groups. Questioning the idea of scarcity itself, he shows how power over the “scarce” enables cities to draw water from watersheds like rural Shahapur to the north of Mumbai, while the rural residents slowly become lesser citizens being left with drying agricultural lands.

Anand’s poignant words from the video, “System” tells us how these people are now forced to flow, like the water, to the cities in search of an alternate livelihood. In Chapter 2 of the book, he shows that their urban counterparts living in the settlements, are made “not of the city” simply because “they have not successfully mobilised the relevant documents to establish their urban citizenship” (p 57).

Having established that the notion of scarcity is created rather than located within its biophysical evaluators, Anand turns our attention to the settlers who struggle to become hydraulic citizens through a set of informal relationships expressed through friendships, promises and patronage with the state actors. By stating this, he emphasises on the locational and transactional meanings of the word “settlement” which are fused together when citizens of Mumbai “carefully and creatively manage and manoeuvre between different political subjectivities to make more durable forms of settlement possible in the city” (p 72).

In Chapter 3, Anand begins by drawing from Katherine Verdery’s concept of “etatizating of time” where states have the potential to seize time from its citizens who want to use it for their own purposes. By making mere time-seeking bodies out of its citizens, the state truly controls all means of production, including labour, which are bound temporally to their daily lives. Anand claims that it is in the large keys that are used to turn the valves of the city pipelines by the chaviwallahs, that the power to produce time resides. Dictated by the ward-wise water schedules, the chaviwallahs are connected to the citizens closely, especially to the presumed identities of women as collectors of water whose identities go beyond mere citizenship into a more gendered form of hydraulic citizenship that is not contested but forcibly accorded to women.

The corresponding video, aptly titled Chakraview, a play on the word chakravyuha, or a battle formation in which one becomes trapped with no means of escape, is emblematic of the unending wait that women have to endure by the tap. Although at first glance, this chapter may not seem like a good fit into the larger book, it, in fact, is a fresh perspective on the gendered state of the settler in the slums in Mumbai.

Politics of Water Supply

If one knows the city well, it would be easy to understand how various activities of a settlement in Mumbai, especially those that benefit the settlement as a whole, are run by locally managed and collectively run units of non-profit organisations. The manner in which these organisations garner political attention, reproduce socially beneficial acts and manage to keep the community together helps them negotiate for rights and stake claims over resources. In the detailed description of organisations such as Asha and Vikas in Chapter 4, Anand tells us of their proximity to the political and resource provisioning fraternity with whom such negotiations and contestations are made. Collectively, he calls the citizens, “groups” that represent them and the political actors as “the hydraulic public” (p 149) that form “social connections and discursive formations that are critical to accessing water and other critical services.” In his deep study of the people that run these organisations and their spatially located articulations of the exclusionary and discriminatory processes of water provisioning, Anand shows how the settler within the larger hydraulic public attempts to gain citizenship.

The introductory quote from Chapter 5 is contradicted by the lines from the Interlude, “Miracles.” While engineers express the inability of a normal person to understand the nuances of water supply (p 161), city bureaucracies (through their engineers) spend extraordinary efforts to “make water predictable, legible and boring” (p 220). This constant play of distancing and simplifying allows us to examine the leaky state a little closely. Within the technological narratives of detecting, reconfirming, fixing and avoiding leakage of precious fresh water from the dams that supply water to Mumbai, he describes how some leakages exist both physically and politically, and sometimes completely out of the control of the department.

According to him, such leakages also exist within the engineer’s frame of vision but is often ignored or corrected for their illegality rather than being dealt within the frameworks of the waterworks department. On the other hand, the relationships that criss-cross between the hydraulic citizens who want their water “time pe,” engineers who want to avoid leakages among other things, and the councillors whose spatial control gives them the power to dictate how water flows, allow for a reproduction of a leaky state that is always managed but not fixed.

Enveloped within the “differentiated social, material and political histories that form these infrastructures” (p 187), state officials struggle to keep up with the pace at which water complicates the urban landscape, while some engineers, decide to “work through it” rather than “work on it” (p 187).

Speaking of disconnection in Chapter 6, Anand also places an argument of unavailability that is viewed within the realm of the wider arena of cultural politics both within the city spatially and in terms of rights over access of a citizen temporally. Drawing from Amita Baviskar’s argument of how the political economy of a city’s resource becomes meaningful only when it is seen through the lens of its cultural politics, he paints a strong picture of the dichotomous cultures of two neighbouring settlements, Meghwadi and Premnagar, where the power of the politician and water engineer reigns supreme. In the short video “Pyaasa Premnagar” (Thirsty Premnagar), shot by a resident of the same settlement, a pattern emerges.

Legality and illegality coalesce into a web of leaky infrastructures, and dirty groundwater to create citizens who depend less on the chaviwallahs and more on plumbers who insist that their influence in the offices of the water department will ensure a steady and free supply of water to the predominantly Muslim residents of the settlement. In contrast, the political clout garnered through the electoral might, allows the largely Maharashtrian residents of neighbouring Meghwadi to influence their councillor to cut connections that pass to Premnagar leaving more for them.


As one goes through the book, it is not hard to realise that water is addressed and felt in numerous ways in the city, as it is in any part of the world. Embedded in various systems of knowledge, practice, access and power, the epistemic premise of water remains highly varied depending on its users and uses. By defining water as perceived in “multiple and incommensurable ways” (p 220), Anand urges the reader to notice the relationship that culture, myth, gender, religion and material benefits play in defining water and consequently the hydraulic citizen. But, what does this all mean? What does it mean to the citizen and to our larger understanding of urban cultural anthropology in particular?

Clearly, there is no one category of the citizen. Given that there are multiple citizenships that citizens can assume through negotiations and claims over the water infrastructure, the author also urges us to consider a multitude of citizens themselves who are divided between caste, class and gender among other differentiators. These degrees of differentiation influence how the social and material contracts between the citizen and the state over water distribution are honoured.

Having established that there is no one citizen, this book puts forth the claim that there cannot be just one “solution” to the water woes of a city, be it in the global South or in the developed West. Given that “public infrastructures are productive of abandonment, abjection, and exclusion in everyday life” (p 226), how can we even begin to imagine future cities? Anand provides no unique answer, but leaves us with a detailed explanation of the complexity of urban water provisioning and how future infrastructures can be carved out of the messy present through the use of tools that citizens gather in their everyday lives while dealing with the provisioning of water.

To summarise, the author brings in a fresh perspective into urban cultural anthropology of water and its users. His critical analysis of the construction of the hydraulic citizen within a leaky state is acquiescent of the historical, sociological and regional problems that define the relationship between water, state and society. Anand has been successful in his attempt of teasing out the characteristics of the inherently discriminatory water infrastructures, and has brought to the fore several stories of scarcity, disconnection, gendered contestations and leaky states, which are also seen in the videos.



Updated On : 27th Oct, 2018


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