ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Make flow and let dry? Hydro-politics, infrastructure and sovereign informality in Delhi


Birkinshaw Matt - SOAS University of London, Anthropology & Sociology, London, United Kingdom


11 – Rethinking governmentality: Sovereign agency beyond the state in South Asia


Around half of India’s urban water supply is groundwater, often illicitly extracted, and one in three of Delhi’s 20 million residents use private groundwater. While water has long been associated with rule in South Asia, ‘informal sovereigns’ and ‘bosses’ have only recently begun to receive attention. In this paper, I examine non-state water providers’ control over territories and populations through a study of Delhi’s ‘water bosses’ (paani malik) and (lower-middle class) Resident Welfare Associations to consider sovereignty, governmentality and (infrastructural) violence. The paper draws on qualitative fieldwork in Delhi-NCR from 2012 till present including semi-structured interviews with over 100 individuals, including political party representatives, water vendors, and residents. I argue against understandings that informality is state-produced and that non-state actors embody ‘infrastructural’ (or ‘capillary’) state power. Instead, I show how the materiality of infrastructures shapes social relations at different scales, generating alternative centres of power ‘from below’ that tactically support, draw on and destabilise state governmentality.