Mumbai’s water network has long distributed water, difference, and inequality through the city. Delivering over three billion liters of water daily to over twelve million people, the city’s hydraulic infrastructure is today the among the largest in the world. Its material form entails and makes intimate publics that are required to regularly petition for, request, and demand water from bureaucrats and elected officials. Both publics and their states are brought into being not before or following, but with the pipes, liquid materials, and intimate labors around water infrastructures that form the city.1
In the 1960s, Jurgen Habermas theorized the public sphere as a discursive space for collective, reasoned debate about matters of shared concern.2 In the time since, feminist and postcolonial scholars have nuanced this understanding of the public sphere by demonstrating that publics are plural, and that claims to who can participate in or be recognized as publics are riven with race, class, and gender asymmetries.3 But to date, the corpus of work on publics and publicity has, with some notable exceptions, been largely focused on discourses to theorize the making of publics.4 For instance, in his landmark article “Publics and Counterpublics,” Michael Warner argues that a “public is a social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse.”5 Nevertheless, as Brian Larkin points out, it is not only discourses, but also infrastructures that address publics, and in so doing, bring publics into being.6 How might infrastructures—as technopolitical forms—be entailed in the making of publics?7 As “communities of the affected,” hydraulic publics come into being through the intimate and material consequences of water distribution in Mumbai.8
Water has long gathered publics around wells, streams, rivers, and pipes whenever it has been found, even in the absence of the state, and its infrastructures make publics in many ways.9 First, water infrastructures in particular call for public institutions to be responsible for their management. Water utilities have historically been a key function of municipal government. Second, infrastructures do more than just distribute water and other “boring things.”10 Publics, as political communities, are constituted and gathered by the designs of networked infrastructures like water pipes. Finally, infrastructures such as pipes or roads produce public space, the very terrain on which political subjects gather and make claims to rights and distributive justice.
In Mumbai, claims to the control of water pipes are plural, public, and deeply contested between the city’s residents, councilors, engineers, and social workers. Claims to pipes, by councilors and residents alike, are made using intimate scripts of belonging to the city and to the family. As such, these practices challenge normative readings of water as a right made available through the public administration of water. Intimacy and bureaucracy are key to the generation of infrastructure, publics, and indeed, water in the city.11
Materializing water connections (Jesse Shipley)
Public infrastructures are historical forms that emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century to accomplish a particular political purpose. In public infrastructures, liberal theorists saw the promise of material forms that would free citizen subjects from the compulsions of feudal political communities.12 From their earliest days, infrastructures were seen as key processes to reconstitute publics. As they proliferated both in the colony and the metropole, roads, water lines, and trains shifted the loci of sovereignty and authority from autochthonous community leaders and princes to colonial officials who consolidated power through the administration of infrastructures.
Despite the promise of freedom from community leaders and princes, bureaucracies continue to depend on intimate, known relation–work to cultivate political subjects.13 How, asks Lauren Berlant, might we attend to the ways in which intimate attachments ramify not only in the makings of domesticity, but also in state formation and everyday encounters on the street?
[H]ow can we think about the ways attachments make people public, producing trans-personal identities and subjectivities, when those attachments come from within spaces as varied as those of domestic intimacy, state policy, and mass-mediated experiences of intensely disruptive crises? And what have these formative encounters to do with the effects of other, less institutionalized events, which might take place on the street, on the phone, in fantasy, at work, but rarely register as anything but residue? Intimacy names the enigma of this range of attachments, and more; and it poses a question of scale that links the instability of individual lives to the trajectories of the collective.14
Intimacy, for Berlant, always exceeds the domestic sphere. It is a collection of “attachments” that transcend the public and the private. In fact, relegating the “proper” place of intimacy only to the domestic sphere has long been a project of liberalism. Yet, intimate attachments seldom stay at home. They are regularly calling for, and being called out in more public situations: the street, the state office, and in times of crisis. They are key to joining individuals to collectives and institutions, and often to demands for infrastructure access.15
This is evident in Premnagar, a largely Muslim settlement in North Mumbai, the residents of which have long had water difficulties.16 The leaking pipes that joined the water mains to people’s homes also cemented these households together in their experience of water problems. Regardless of whether households in the network were wealthy or poor, almost all residents of Premnagar were subject to the crumbling and fickle state of the neighborhood’s water pipes. Their collective marginalization by their shared infrastructure demonstrated how its materialities constituted communities of shared experiences—publics, in this case, to protest and organize against their water difficulties.
As a city councilor of Premnagar, Farida bi was expected to resolve the daily problems of her constituents. Yet, living in the same settlement with her son, Salim, she also had the same water difficulties. In February of 2008, I was sitting in the ward office in Mumbai when Salim entered the room. Salim often acted as the councilor, frequently partaking of the privileges of his mother’s position. Broadly framed, a little stocky, and balding on top, Salim looked like quite a dada. His shirt hung out of his trousers. Recognizing Salim when he entered, the engineer quickly got off his chair and greeted him by shaking Salim’s one hand with his two, bending his body forward, and smiling obsequiously. It had been some time since Salim and the engineer had met. Salim had been recently married, and the engineer, not having seen him since, congratulated him enthusiastically. Beaming from side to side, Salim announced that he had also recently had a son. This got the engineer even more excited as he moved to embrace Salim. A party was in order!, he exclaimed. Salim agreed to host one soon, and the engineer promised to attend.
It was only after they had built associations and relations through chit-chat about their families that they settled down to talking about the water problems in Premnagar. The engineer was familiar with the area and its troubles, and said that the tender for a new line to Premnagar had been passed. “And the work order?” asked Salim, familiar with the many stages at which a project could yet not come to be. The engineer explained that as soon as the notification came from the city government, the work order would be issued. The engineer said that they would try to install an 18-inch line, but if this wasn’t possible, they would provide “at least” a 9-inch line. But either way, for the line to be pressurized, it was important to lay the pipe in a loop arrangement, he said. A little disempowered by the technology talk, but satisfied by the attentions of the engineer, Salim expressed his thanks. He left the office after extracting a promise that the engineer would visit his home soon.
Salim’s visit to the engineer’s office revealed the affective labor and the personal friendships through which state agencies, elected representatives, and political subjects work in Mumbai. Anthropologist Julia Elyachar has suggested that this “phatic labor” is productive of a social infrastructure that joins and organizes the city, and is vital to making life possible in it.17 As it appears here, phatic labor is not just a practice of the marginalized. Both the more and the less powerful use intimate, affective relationships to make political claims in the city.
As the councilor did relational work with the ward engineer, he engaged a set of social relationships that both emplaced him in normative family structures, and also made himself into a recognizable, relatable, and moral person that the engineer could acknowledge and respond to. If Salim was able to engage the city engineer, it was not just because of his position as an official interested in the improvement of the city’s public system. His modes of address and engagement, the body language of the engineer, as well as the ways in which they celebrated “his” election and recent fatherhood describe how public officials derive their power not just through the election, but also by performing as ethical and emplaced political subjects in the city.
Salim’s relationship with his mother was central to his political power, and also to hers.18 Being her son not only allowed for him to act on her behalf; it also allowed her access to bureaucratic spaces of the municipal government that were predominantly male. In his meeting with the councilor, Salim was able to perform as a proud father and son, and it was these familial performances that established a common grammar and mode of intervention for the city engineer, while also allowing for Farida bi to make demands through her son, on behalf of her constituents.
When Salim returned to his home in Premnagar, he would return to a neighborhood not only with tapering municipal supplies, but also to one that has begun once again to use well water amidst continued uncertainty around those supplies. While waiting for the municipal administration to act, the state legislator, then also of Salim’s party, had funded the construction of a well water network with his area development funds. Sourcing water from renewed wells in the locality, this network ran alongside the pipes of the municipal network and distributed water to overlapping publics. As they lay separate but proximate, the city- and state-funded pipes materially marked the plurality of the state. The councilor’s party workers were even responsible for administering and maintaining the network. They collected monthly fees, distributed water by the half-hour to different households, and ensured that water wasn’t extracted at a rate greater than the groundwater recharged.
Eight months later, one evening in October 2008, I visited Salim and his mother at their party office in Premnagar. They often held office hours, making themselves available to talk with their constituents. I learned that they were still waiting for the water line to come. They remained anxious and optimistic. As we began to chat, Salim and his mother would periodically pause to attend or listen to residents that would visit the office with various requests: school admissions, hospital treatments, building permissions… the line never seemed to end. Sitting next to his mother, Salim would sometimes try and manage these problems directly. Yet, his mother would frequently intercede, silencing Salim with an air of parental authority and recommendations that he obeyed. At one point, a small group of seven or eight women arrived. They had brought an older woman and her two daughters, who had water problems.
Residents and councilors both recognized these visits to the councilor’s office as being a routine way in which water complaints are redressed in the city. When water pressure would drop in their service lines, residents would seldom stay home or deal with the problem as individuated households. Instead, the water problem would produce a group—a public in Karen Coelho’s framing—to arrive at the councilor’s office.19 “When we go in a group, then the police get scared,” an older woman had once told me when describing how she and her neighbors would pressure state officials to respond. Going in a group—a public—I heard time and time again, was an important means of getting a fair hearing.
From past experiences and histories (and often times to resolve prior water problems), women in Premnagar had, over generations, learned the appropriate forms and rituals through which water services would come to be restored.20 The women would alternately entreat, demand, and shout at councilors to make the water reappear, as it should for the “public” (they used the English word here). Councilors would note their complaint and bring it up the next time they visited the hydraulic engineer in charge of their ward. They recognized that their failure to resolve the problem would only make the complaints more vociferous. Their constituents, after all, needed water not just to live, but ultimately also to vote.
The women who had assembled in Farida bi’s office had come to complain about the ways in which Iqbal, a party worker, was distributing water in their neighborhood. The women were all neighbors and the councilors constituents. The water that they claimed as public was not from the city pipes, but instead, from a local well water network that, until recently, had been getting well water from a network managed by Iqbal, a party volunteer. They had come to complain about his services. The older woman was the aggrieved party in this instance. Respectfully greeting the councilor, the younger women expressed that while they had not had any problem in the past, they had been facing significant hardship for the last two weeks. They said that they had been paying Iqbal seventy rupees a month for thirty minutes of water per day. Lately, however, Iqbal was only giving them twenty minutes of water from what he had been calling “his” well.
The women had corrected him, saying that the money had come from the state legislator, and that the well was built for them, for Pascal Colony’s residents—for the public. This didn’t please Iqbal. He proceeded to insult their mothers and told them they should make other arrangements if they weren’t satisfied. “This is why we are here,” the younger daughter said, complaining of Iqbal’s intransigence. Iqbal grew up in their area. “You cannot insult someone who is like a mother to you, right khala?” she protested, appealing to Farida bi. The daughter’s appeal struck a chord for many in the room. The women around her murmured disapprovingly.
Soon after, Iqbal was summoned. He defended his actions, saying that the well no longer had as much supply and that he was compelled to make cuts to make sure everyone received some water. While he was at first angry, he was eventually cajoled to extend the women’s water for more time. Satisfied, the women left, and Iqbal left soon after. When things were quieter in the office, Salim described to me the difficulties of his position in public service. He had to hear a lot of mach-mach in his line of work—nagging that often made water time and pipes its objects of concern. This nagging was both intimate and political. He had to deal with and respond to it in his public life.
As such, when the residents of Pascal Colony demanded water from the bore well network, they did not insist that water was their right, but neither did they request exceptional treatment. In their interactions, they performed a “cultural intimacy,” alternately being irreverent and obsequious in their demands for water.21 In their encounter at the councilor’s office, the daughter skillfully and deftly code-switched between demanding a rightful share as a state subject (from wells that were maintained by public funds) and aggrieved kin. She protested the ways in which Iqbal was treating her mother. Addressing the councilor directly as khala—aunty—she made a public claim for distributive justice using the languages of kinship and familial care.
Over the last four decades, feminist scholars have demonstrated how the boundaries between the public and the private are an effect of social, political, and economic power.22 While liberal formations of the public sphere seek to relegate intimacy to the private, in practice these kinds of relationalities are vital to the making of public institutions. The boundaries between public and private institutions and forms of subjectivity are frequently transgressed by social groups who deploy intimate registers of claims-making precisely to protest the abstracted relations posited by a normative public. These more situated, private, and sometimes violently intimate claims are generative of political institutions and economic life.23
Feminist theorizations of intimacy are particularly generative toward understanding the materiality and politics of infrastructures. As Ara Wilson points out, intimacy operates as a field of power that simultaneously structures infrastructures and generates political subjectivities in the city.24 In Mumbai, councilors and residents both recognized the force and the limits of intimate claims. In their public appearance, intimate registers of claims-making frequently reinscribed gendered subjectivities. Thus where the councilor’s son hugs and addresses the engineer as a brother, he also recognizes and responds to the women doing mach-mach, or nagging. Yet at the same time, we can also see how intimate claims address and question the morality of political rule. Residents demand and expect that their representatives do good work; that they work for the public. As settlers work to be counted among those deserving of water services, the hydraulic public is constituted by intimate repertoires of belonging, clientship, and citizenship in the city.
Securing water at home (Nikhil Anand)
Fifteen months after I first met Salim in the engineer’s office, the new pipe project that the engineer promised still only existed on paper, deferred to an as-yet unknown future.25 Forgetting that I had been in the room when the pipe was being discussed the year prior, Salim talked with me about its progress the following summer, in June 2009:
[The] 18-inch line has recently been approved. It took a year [for it] to be approved, the tender issued and the contractor identified. Now everything has been done. The contractor has said that they can’t dig the road and leave it open through the Diwali break, so they will start right after. It will be like the Ganges flowing through the area. Pray for us, that after November, January, February, the water problems of this area will be solved.
With enough hope (if not water) to fill the Ganges, Salim described the incremental, periodic, and discretionary manner in which infrastructure is extended in the city. Infrastructure projects seldom move seamlessly from planning through execution to completion. They are fickle. They extend and pause, in fits and starts, and are “suspended” for a range of reasons that might include bureaucratic procedure, engagements with existing laws and plans, economic incentives, elections, material availabilities, the monsoon, or in this case, Diwali, with no clarity on whether they may ever be completed. They are public spectacles, gathering an audience that observes and evaluates the social drama that unfolds in and through their material forms and intimate relations.
Salim had built his hope on this new line, and on its promise not only to deliver water to Premnagar, but also votes to his party. He frequently described how solving the water problem was his biggest headache, and by implication, that solving it would be his biggest accomplishment. For the councilor (and her son) to be successful in bringing a pipe to the settlement is also to demonstrate their power to her subjects, subjects who desire and subjectify themselves to political regimes by their very access to life’s vital material—water. Farida bi and Salim’s ability (and also the ability of their constituents) to do so is dependent not only on how or whether they represent them formally in city council meetings, but also on the success with which they can mobilize kinship relations (between the engineers, themselves, and their subjects) in their everyday work.
Crucially, while the political labor of pipe extension was necessary, it was not sufficient. Even when the pipe was eventually finished, water pressure would not be forthcoming. The engineer’s ability to fix problems was contingent on the “political situation” of the city’s water and its infrastructure.26 The pipes that city engineers seek to fix in order to resolve one neighborhood’s water difficulty were also enmeshed in socio-material relations with several others.
Thus, even when councilors and engineers successfully agreed to fix, repair, or install new water pipes for disconnected residents, they actively needed to negotiate with the city’s pipes, or in other words, how (and from whom) they could redirect water to remedy the situation. As they moved water to quell the demands of a protesting public in one neighborhood, they would invariably generate new protests, new petitions, and new publics in another. These emergent publics would demand that it is the duty of the government to “at least” provide water to its citizens.
Two Diwalis after the repair of the lines and the installation of the looped network, Salim managed to effect a small change in the water that flowed into his ward. He convinced the city water department to install a new valve downstream of Premnagar and began to close it for one hour every day. Through this operation, pressured water backed up into the homes of Premnagar between 3:30–4:30 pm.
Sure enough, this arrangement soon drew the attention of residents downstream of the line, which began to receive less water during that period of time. Over the course of a week, aggrieved publics regularly congregated around the valve, literally preventing the chaviwallas (valve operators) from closing it. An altercation and a sit-in ensued. Caught between the needs of Premnagar’s residents and those who lived downstream, the engineers were compelled to negotiate a compromise. They agreed to close the valve for only thirty minutes a day.
The negotiated settlement was a poignant reminder of the ways in which the city department is not the only authority in control of water in the city’s pipes. Water’s material properties, its sensitivity to the pressures both of topography and of protesting publics, also matter.27 The compromise also described how publics were elicited through the movement and stoppage of water. It illustrated how the city’s water pipes and valves constantly and regularly become sites for biopolitical claims, made by historic, dynamic, and differentiated urban populations.
Recent research on infrastructure has urged an attention to the generativity of breakdown.28 Breakdown is not necessarily just an interruption, but a moment of possibility for something, be it new and/or old, to emerge. Similarly, while they may come to the topic from different intellectual traditions, Lauren Berlant and Noortje Marres both insist that publics emerge in moments of crisis. “The public,” argues Marres, “is not a fixed body of individuals. It is merely those persons who are interested in an affair and can affect it only by supporting or opposing the actors.”29 What Marres is gesturing toward are forms of public engagement that are far more partial, situated, and instrumental than liberal theorists would suggest. She is encouraging us to notice how publics are formed beyond the discursive regimes of the public sphere. Publics become so in moments of rupture around things that matter. Thus, hydraulic publics are constituted through the actively distributed materialities that structure the city’s water infrastructure. As “communities of the affected,” they are brought into being through intimate and gendered claims to care for the enduring consequences of water distribution.
Attending to the intimate practices of claiming infrastructures through situated and personal relationships reveals that these socio-material relations are generative of an intimate public—one in which the known relations and scripts of belonging permeate and constitute publics and public authority in everyday life. The demands both of publics that never get enough water and those of pipes that constantly act despite their often flawed designs challenge engineers and councilors to authoritatively command and control the hydraulic state. Compromised by intimate social and material relations, Mumbai’s authorities are always anxiously trying to cope with the demands of the city’s water infrastructure—an infrastructure that while constitutive of their authority, has for nearly one hundred and fifty years, also been on the verge of teetering out of control.
This piece has been many years in the making since it was first drafted for a panel on the anthropology of infrastructure at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in 2013, and subsequently, at the School for Advanced Research in 2014. I would like to thank Hannah Appel, Geof Bowker, Domenic Boyer, Cassie Fennell, Akhil Gupta, Penney Harvey, Brian Larkin, Antina von Schnitlzer, and Christina Schwenkel, for urging me to think more carefully about intimacy and publics in these fora. I am grateful for the opportunity to present this piece at the Urban Democracy Lab at New York University, and also at the International Center for the Study of Global Change and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota in 2014, when Michael Goldman, Vinay Gidwani, Jean Langford, Karen Ho, David Valentine, Stuart McLean, and Ramah McKay shared very helpful feedback. Finally, I would like to thank Sara Rendell, Robert Samet, Elif Babul, Nick Axel, Jacob Moore, Jordan Steingard, and Caroline Terens for their careful readings and comments on the draft as I prepared it for publication.
The liquid grounds of citizenship (Nikhil Anand)
Materializing water connections (Jesse Shipley)
Securing water at home (Nikhil Anand)