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An Interview with Quadrant Fellow Nikhil Anand, August 1, 2012

Nikhil Anand studies the natural and political passage of one of the most essential elements on earth: water. His project analyzes the many ways in which the city of Mumbai’s water infrastructure and distribution system leaks, flows, and withholds water to the people who depend on it for their livelihood.  Amir Hussain talks to Anand about his research and writing.

Infrapolitics: Public Systems and the Social Life of Water in Mumbai

When I meet Nikhil Anand at Overflow Coffee in southeast Minneapolis, we both note that the large porcelain cup fountain with overflowing water is a strikingly apt metaphor for Anand’s project. The water leaks and overflows—symbolizing plenitude as well as its resistance to containment.

Anand, an assistant professor of Anthropology at Haverford College, has been researching the city of Mumbai’s water infrastructure system, from its arrival from rural areas about 100 miles away from the city to its distribution path across various population groups within the city. Two years of ethnographic fieldwork involved speaking with Mumbai’s civil engineers, city officials, and settlers (“slum dwellers”) in order to learn of both the “formal rules governing water distribution in the city as well as the everyday practices through which water is accessed.”

The rules and the everyday practices don’t always neatly align, explains Anand, and it is precisely this misalignment that allows the city’s marginalized population—about 60% of Mumbai’s population live in settlements—to have access to fresh water.

Mumbai has experienced large population growth since the partition of India in 1947, and through the late 1980’s during which time many rural peoples lost their livelihood. The city has been unable to keep up with demands for affordable housing. Now, much of the settlement growth comes from urban families having children. Anand uses the word “settlement” to describe these housing arrangements because of stereotyped associations that come with the word “slum.” “The settlements have a variety of spatial arrangements and also infrastructure arrangements. There’s a huge range of settlements in the city that the word ‘slum’ doesn’t quite capture. Like other places, settlements are places where choices made are always circumscribed by class structures,” he says.

Formally, settlements are “illegal housing,” or housing that is not certified or approved by the city administration; those living in settlements who lack paperwork showing proof of residence since 1995 are unable to obtain a water tap connection legally, says Anand. These water regulations exclude large swaths of people without paperwork, including recent migrants. Yet, according to Anand’s research, settlers have been able to make improvements in their settlements, including water connection taps, in the last two decades.

Marginalized by the state through these policies and marginalized by the market because of prices, how did these settlements make some compromised gains despite huge obstacles? The project is centered on how settlers are able to make their lives better in the city by making reliable claims to the city’s water,” says Anand.

Working in the field of political ecology, Anand has been involved with tracing the distribution of natural resources—water, in particular—and analyzing the ways in which political relations create equitable or inequitable distribution systems. In Mumbai, for instance, large amounts of water, like other resources, often end up distributed to a very small percentage of people.

While Mumbai’s public water system is politicized in this way, Anand found that settlers actively resisted—and continue to resist—water privatization projects. His site visits included a public-private water distribution effort that was defeated by settler opposition. The settlers’ successful resistance to water privatization called forth another research question for Anand: What makes water so resistant to privatization?

One of the things I’ve found in the course of doing this research is that the public system allows settlers to make claims which allow them access to water that the private system may not allow,” says Anand. “Moreover, the popular imagination almost requires water to be publicly distributed. Many people in Mumbai insist that if the government is not distributing water, what business does it have to be the government? It’s not a technical question per se. It has something to do with the place water occupies in our imagination. It also has to do with the materiality of water that challenges private distribution—the way it flows and leaks troubles attempts to regulate it in a water-tight way as much as other resources like electricity or food.”

In 2008, Anand produced Ek Dozen Paani (One Dozen Waters), twelve short films about water created, directed, and shot by youth. The films, which can be viewed online at http://vimeo.com/channels/ekdozenpaani/, show the struggle over water—real and symbolic—in Mumbai’s settlements from the perspective of the youth who live there. “Mithi Nadi” (Sweet River), for instance, speaks about water and human relations in Mumbai in the poetic voice of a river.

During his year-long residence at the Institute for Advanced Study, Anand hopes to contribute to the ongoing discussion about urban water infrastructure, and to complete his book project. “The conversations anthropologists, geographers, sociologists, urban planners are having across the disciplines here at the IAS makes it an exciting place to think this work through.”

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