Leaky Pipes and Leaky Polities:
Infrastructure, Ruination, State

Andrew Dawson

University of Melbourne

Nadeem Malik

University of Melbourne


In his new book, Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship(2017), Nikhil Anand describes the everyday life of Mumbai's crumbling infrastructure. More than a brilliant account – and it most certainly is – of politics and socialties surrounding water scarcity in a context of apparently abundant water supply, the constantly breaking and being repaired water system that is the focus of the book stands for something much greater. It is a metaphor for another kind of leakage, of the state's very own power. In this article we review Anand's book and then draw out its important conclusions as the platforms on which this special issue of The Intergraph, 'Leaky pipes and leaky polities: Infrastructure, ruination the state' is built.

Leaky pipes

The focus of Anand's study is Mumbai's hydraulic system, a three-thousand miles long network of pipes that transports almost three and a half billion litres of water per annum to the city's residents. The network is part publicly and part privately owned and run, with considerable struggle taking place surrounding the future of that mix. It is managed, utilised and contested by a wide range of actors, both human and non-human. However, at the centre ofAnand's study are the city's settlement dwellers, whose access to water is the most precarious, and the water engineers and the 'Chaviwallas'. They are the public employees charged with turning on and off the valves that regulate supply. They are a veritable army – a valve is turned somewhere in the city between one and two times every minute. And they are 'key people' (the literal translation of Chaviwallas) in several senses, not only by their controlling supply but also because they are at the frontline of the considerable contestations surrounding that supply.

That there are grounds for contestation is, perhaps surprising. For, as Anand demonstrates, there is more than enough water entering the city to meet all of its residents' needs. Despite this fact, Mumbai is a place of enduring water shortage. The problem is that Mumbia'shydraulic system in an especially leaky one. It is estimated that fully one third of the city's water is leaked. Leakage takes several forms. Some of the apparent leakage is not real, the result of carefully constructedoverestimations of demand (about which more later). However, some is very real. At one level there is significant unauthorised and, thereby unaccounted access to water. In some cases, in what is euphemistically referred to as "social leakage", state water officials are complicit in this, as they permit unauthorised residents to tap into the water system. At another level the city's crumbling hydraulic infrastructure of bursting pipes and the like simply leaks water into the ground.What emerges from this is the near total pervasiveness of a politics of water scarcity in the everyday life of Mumbai's citizens.

Water scarcity becomes a central medium through which structural inequalities in the city are reproduced. At the bottom of the pool are the settlement dwellers, many of whom have moved to the city because, ironically their village lands have been drained and made arid by the city's vast water demands. They are subjected to the harshest rationing, receiving less than half the amount of water allocated to high-rise dwellers for example.They are granted inferior forms of water access, by group rather than individual. And, the reliability of their water supply is more precarious. Settlement connections are poorer - above ground and subject to breakage and lower pressure.

Inevitably, water scarcity frames social and political relations, especially for settlers.More than other residents of the city, the temporal lives of settlers are structured by the timetables of the state as they plan their lives around the visits of the Chaviwallas. And, as they wait they experience senses of both solidarity and competition with fellow settlers who are forced to queue communally and compete for water supply.

Indeed, gaining access to water for the settlers comes across in Anand's account as a matter of constant political struggle and machination. Settlers are compelled to engage, either directly or indirectly, in negotiations with an array of actors – state and local politicians, social workers, engineers, Chaviwallas, and plumbers in order to guarantee supply, whether legally or illegally.Their methods of persuasion are similarly various, ranging from campaigning and protest through to the giving of gifts and bribes. Inevitably, in this context, water access becomes a locus for the perpetuation of patronage politics, with politicians effectively buying votes in exchange for the promise of supply. As one of Anand's informants pithily remarked, "in Mumbai you need to create pressure to make water flow"(2017: 186). Inevitably also, water scarcity frames and refracts broader (and bigger) political debates, especially thoseconcerning immigration.

Despite the fact that there is more than enough water entering the city to meet all of its residents' needs, Anand illuminates what he describes as a 'ritualised' panic about water scarcity, especially in local media. The undoubted 'folk devils' (Cohen 1972) in the panic are the settlers. The panic has found political form in the emergence of a 'nativist environmental politics' in which, for example water scarcity is cited as a rationale for the introduction of a permit system restricting or preventing outsiders from coming to live in the city. Indeed, this kind of sedentarist politics is manifest not only in political rhetoric, but also in the very concrete matter of water rights. Proof of legal tenancy is, often central to being granted water connection and supply. This leads to a situation where, whilst state bureaucrats seek to avoid issuing documents that demonstrate residency, settlers constantly pursue them. Consequently, as Anand describes, documents often have 'curious lives' (2017: 89). For example, settlers will cherish, even the existence of an eviction notice because it demonstrates their one having had a legal right to 'being there.'In such ways, Anand describes how through the politics of water some settlers are rendered 'abject'.

Leaky Polities

In The Rule of Freedom: Liberalism and the Modern City Patrick Joyce demonstrates how, historically infrastructure has been central to the development of the modern liberal state, particularly by enabling the expansion of an administrative and technical field of governmental regulation (2003). This applied both to the cities and states of 'home' and the colonies. And, it remains the case. Indeed, undoubtedly, that is one of the reasons why the development of modern infrastructure is a priority of such high profile in parts of the developing-world. It is conceptualised as a route to joining the developed world and the apparent benefits of prosperity and orderliness that that portends.In this vein a plethora of sociological (see, for example Billig 1995) and anthropological (Larkin 2013) work has documented the effective, and especially, mundane ways in which states deploy infrastructure in the governing of their citizens. However, as Steven Jackson points out, the world we live in is fractal and always falling apart (2014). Infrastructure is no exception, and Anthropology has attended to this fact, albeit in very partial ways. Most famously, in 'Imperial debris: Reflections on ruins and ruination' (2008) Anne Stoler writes against the commonplace conceptualisation of ruins as the redundant material remains of social and political formations long since disappeared―AnkorWat and the like. Instead, she draws attention to how ruins often remain as "tenacious trace(s)" (2008: 196) of those earlier formations, "that weigh on the future and shape(s) the present" (2008: 194), like London's Roman Roads which, though recoated in tarmacadam a thousand times over, still manage to snarl the city with their archaic layout. In short, for Stoler,ruins have an oxymoronic character―they both endure and decay. However, what is largely missing from Stoler's account is that decay demands repair, a ubiquitous feature of contemporary life (Graham and Thrift 2007). The brilliance of Anand's study lies in its ability to capture the ways in which Mumbai's water infrastructure endures, decays and is repaired. And, more strikingly it conveys how that very repair produces social and political relations that, sometimes, ensure that the historic project of the liberal state endures, and, more often than not, decays too. Some examples:

At least in aspiration, the liberal nation state ought to have authoritative knowledge over that which it provides. However, Mumbai's crumbling water infrastructure and the leaks constantly undermine this. Leaks can rarely be found in order for them to be repaired. Indeed, the key technologies for their detection and measurement are malfunctioning. Sixty percent of meters do not even work. Thus, invariably, claims to know the situation of leakage rely on numerical fictions. And, people become acutely aware that the figures which are bandied around are 'interested', reflecting, for example, the water department's overriding desire to appear efficient.

Likewise, the liberal nation state ought to be able to control that which it provides. However, the centrality of low-level water engineers and the Chaviwallas in the everyday life of the water infrastructure give lie to this. Their crucial expertise is not that of the distant and protocol-driven bureaucrat, stereotypical of the centralised state, but a very "proximate" knowledge born of "improvisation" and "compromised relations with the materials, persons, and politics of the city's leaky infrastructure". In these ways – though he does not put it in such clear terms – the leaks in Mumbai's water infrastructure are but a metaphor for another kind of leakage, of the state's very own power.

Infrastructure, Ruination the State

In this special issue of The Intergraph we present five articles, based on case studies from the United Kingdom, Turkey, Cyprus, Pakistan, Bosnia and the former-Yugoslavia more generally that take-up and extend some of the substantive and metaphoric themes introduced by Anand.

The first two article, by Goodwin-Hawkins and Dawson respectively, consider the transformation of hydro-infrastructures from use in transport to sites of tourism. In both cases transformation is accompanied by important forms of re-representation. In the case of Britain's canals that are the focus of Goodwin-Hawkins' article this involves the 'folkification' and 'non-modernising' of an infrastructure that was central to Britain's erstwhile project of industrial modernisation. In the case of Bosnia's rivers that are the focus of Dawson's article it involves concealment of their 'atrocious' past as sites of burial for victims of internecine ethno-nationalist conflict. In different ways Goodwin-Hawkins and Dawson explore the need for and ways in which people are compelled to engage in 'labours of the negative' (Taussig 1999) in order to conceal the past lives of water infrastructures. The need is especially heightened in tourism, where the leisured presents of former infrastructures sit uneasily with their decidedly un-leisured pasts.

The next two papers consider, broadly what might be termed liminal infrastructures. In their article on Pakistan's (partly hydro-)electric system Malik and Dawson explore the effects of power outage. In developing-world contexts such as Pakistan infrastructure is one of the central means by which states can make claims to being modern. However, as Malik and Dawson show, when those infrastructures cease to function that can have the effect of rendering everyday experience as lived in pre-modern time. The infrastructure at the heart of Ozdemir's article is the water pipeline that connects the Turkish occupied northern Cyprus with the Turkish mainland. In her compelling account Ozdemir charts the complex negotiations, contestations and constitutions of political life that surround infrastructural upgrading, especially in such betwixt and between contexts as northern Cyprus.

In the final article Dawson works loosely with Anand's depiction of infrastructural leakage as a metaphor for state leakage. Specifically, he demonstrates how driving experiences on former-Yugoslavia's key roads infrastructure engenders an alternate conceptualisation of the end of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). The 'end' is rendered less as resulting from collapse, and more from decay. Indeed, Dawson argues, driving in the former-Yugoslavia gives on to a conceptualisation of SFRY as a political project that was, simultaneously and oxymoronically, about both construction and dissolution.


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Cohen, S. 1972 Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of Mods and Rockers, London: MacGibbon and Kee.

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Jackson, S. 2014 Rethinking repair, in (eds.) T. Gillespie, P. Boczhowski, and K. Foot, Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality and Society. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

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