The politics of infrastructure: Interview with Nikhil Anand

Dr Nikhil Anand (Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania) talks about his recent work on water supply and access in Mumbai, how it relates to citizenship, and understanding infrastructure as a socio-political process. Interviewed by Saba Sharma.

Could you talk a bit about your recent work on Mumbai?

I recently published Hydraulic City, a book which explores the way in which infrastructures are vital sites to explore how citizens are made and maintained in everyday life. I did this by looking at the everyday work of engineers as they worked to make water flow to the city, and the way in which that work, both metaphorically and literally, meets the work done by people living in settlements, who have more precarious access to water, to actually get water to flow into their homes.

In your work, infrastructure is a major theme, how do you conceptualise this idea?

I think of infrastructure as a social and material process, of making relationships between bodies and things, both always in formation and also falling apart. Infrastructure is decomposing and breaking down as much as it is being composed. So, the idea is to theorise life through infrastructure, both to understand how infrastructure structures social life but also the way in which people continually need to do significant amounts of labour, labour like engineering in the everyday.

It’s interesting that you talk about this more expanded idea of what infrastructure is. Because when it is talked about in policy or law, it has quite a narrow definition, and the images it evokes are of roads, bridges, water, etc., in very technocratic ways. Do you think this idea of infrastructure as also being social might have implications for policy as well?

It’s true, typically we think of infrastructure as a technical system, somewhat divorced from politics — infrastructure as technically administered systems to ensure people have access to things. Thinking about why we think infrastructure as such is generative. First, that narrative of infrastructure is in itself an effect of liberal government, that seeks to provide technical modes of responding to fundamentally political questions. There can be few things more political than deciding who to allocate water to and for how much time, but it is rendered technical and apolitical through the language of policy. I think the story of infrastructure as beyond politics or as technical is an unstable story. Engineers who are working in the city know very well that this is just a story, and it’s not based on their everyday practices. They’re aware of infrastructure being a technical and political system of managing relationships. So why is this story so hegemonic and stable? Historians have demonstrated how reading infrastructure as a technical, apolitical thing is quite peculiar both from the perspective of urban history and everyday practice.

How did you find that the people that you interviewed and worked with – both engineers and people on the ‘supply side’ of infrastructure as well as those trying to access it – relate to this language of infrastructure? 

They have uneasy relationships with it. Engineers, for example, insist in conversations that water distribution is technical subject, and that they are best qualified to adjudicate these matters. But practices of the everyday reveal that while, of course, it is indeed a technical subject – you need to know about pressure, water mains, how to divert water from one part of the city to another– these are all technical issues; political questions are never far from this work. So, for instance, deciding where to spend time repairing leaks, is a fundamentally political decision: which leaks will be repaired and which won’t, who is pressuring them, who is being served (and not) by water infrastructure. This work is fundamentally political. Residents in Mumbai’s settlements have a very strong sense that water infrastructures ought to be extended to different residents of the city regardless of legal status. This is a normative, political claim, that everyone should receive water. They were very attuned to questions of inequitable distribution, but did not always organise their politics around questions of inequality, but rather inclusion. So, their demand was that people should receive sufficient water, but that what might count as sufficient water may be different in different neighbourhoods, and they were demanding their fair share, not necessarily an equal one.

Is there a question of legitimacy, that certain kinds of infrastructures are legal or illegal?

I think a lot of people across the policy sector are concerned with the question of illegality and/or informality. A lot of residents recognised that some arrangements were legal and some were illegal, although in the settlements where I worked, the illegal connections didn’t always have the negative moral charge that the word illegal carries, instead it signified an accommodation that they had to make to get water because no one was extending it to them. Illegality is a sign of marginality, more than bad morality or corruption or shady behaviour. It wasn’t authorised, but it wasn’t bad.

That’s very interesting because it has some parallels with the ways in which patronage is conceptualised generally as well perhaps. There’s one school of thought that just says it’s wrong, but it’s also a way of doing politics for many people, and people distinguish between what’s good and what’s bad about it rather than just classify it as bad outright. 

That’s true, and I speak about patronage as one way of connection-making and relation-making, and it may interrupt the practices of citizen formation and normative liberal claims on the state, but patronage itself is just another mode of getting your fair share from what is seen to be an exclusionary system.

Just a final question – do you have any other upcoming work on infrastructure?

I’m co-editing a volume with Akhil Gupta and Hannah Appel called The Promise of Infrastructure which will be out in August of this year with Duke, and this volume, with nine wonderful collaborators looks at how thinking with infrastructure can help us re-frame conversations and theories around time, politics and progress. I’m also starting a new project about relationships between the city and the sea in Mumbai, and infrastructures are in the margins of that project in some way (sewer lines do go into the sea!). I continue to be interested in the topic.