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Fluid Hegemony: A Political Ecology of Water, Market Rule, and Insurgence at Bangalore's Frontier


Since the turn of the millennium, the city of Bangalore (officially Bengaluru) has experimented with a series of neoliberal, market-oriented reforms to overhaul the institutional, pricing, and financial aspects of its urban services. The city's water, in particular, long considered a service that must be subsidized by the state, has been targeted under interventions that seek to commercialize, rationalize, and privatize delivery, while simultaneously deepening certain forms of regulatory oversight. Supported by a melee of international development actors and administered by state-level experts, these policy changes have been especially focused on reforming the city's outskirts, where unruly growth and conflicting governance arrangements have produced highly differentiated patterns of land tenure and water access. Analysis of why certain water policy imaginaries are ascendant today, how programs of reform are conceived of and by whom, and to what ends they proceed in this dynamic peri-urban frontier landscape is essential to an understanding of metropolitanization in the Global South more generally.

Yet, critical scholarship on Bangalore and elsewhere has largely neglected the articulations between new infrastructure policies and the local politics of peri-urban frontiers. This dissertation addresses this gap through a multi-sited ethnographic study of policy-making and practice affecting the governance of drinking water at Bangalore's peripheries. It investigates two case studies: (1) a program that sought to reengineer municipal management of citizen complaints, and (2) a project that aimed to extend piped water to residents financed, in part, through the debt market and upfront cash contributions from peripheral residents. The study draws on archival research, in-depth interviews, and participant observation to interrogate the underlying logic, material significance, and political contestation surrounding these projects in the peripheral localities of Bommanahalli, Byatarayanapura, and KR Puram.

This research argues, first, that reforms derive not only from the fiscal concerns of the current moment, but also from a preoccupation with disciplining the conduct of local government and citizens in line with market principles. Crucially, this is a regime of rule that is deeply inflected with the enduring legacies of state-led development. It is the concoction of the developmental approaches of yesterday and the pro-market approaches of today that marks the homegrown logic of neoliberalism in India. Second, for all the rhetoric purporting to have overcome the incompetencies of a previous era, today's neoliberal interventions are marked by profound contradictions and limitations. A narrow focus on financial criteria, for instance, has resulted in a disconnect between the promise and material reality of water several years after new market-based policies and programs were instituted. Third, the grounded workings of new water policies cannot be understood without grasping the politics of the peripheralized middle class--a sizeable cross-section of the middle class that is propertied, but that nonetheless does not enjoy the same degree of tenure security as its elite counterparts. Through collective organizing, members of this social grouping contest and ultimately compromise over cost recovery-focused water pricing policies in order to legitimate their property claims in this globalizing and increasingly exclusionary city. The research thus reveals that the outcomes of water policies are contingent on historical geographies of struggle and insurgent claims to space in the places where they unfold. Overall, this dissertation elucidates how neoliberal hegemony in the urban waterscape is fluid and mutable--prone to becoming imbued with a diverse set of interests and to taking shape in and through a terrain of citizenship politics.

These findings, relevant for other rapidly urbanizing regions of the world, point to the need to rethink urban water praxis such that it valorizes diverse ways of knowing, anticipates the points of friction between water and spatial policies, and is sensitive to how and why institutionalized top-down schemes actually take root at the grassroots level.

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