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Murky waters: infrastructure, informality and reform in Delhi

Birkinshaw, Matt (2017) Murky waters: infrastructure, informality and reform in Delhi. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.zx7adosp46oq


This thesis contributes a rich empirical analysis of urban water governance in Delhi, with particular attention to informality, groundwater and reforms. My research aims to develop understanding of the relationships between reforms, under both private sector management and a new progressive government, and existing informal water arrangements, particularly groundwater use, which households rely on in the absence of adequate public sector supply. I draw on interviews with 150 residents, as well as water suppliers, project officials, government staff, politicians and party workers over 18 months of multi-sited research in South Delhi’s unauthorised colonies and urban villages. I use the idea of ‘informal infrastructures’ or ‘infrastructural informality’ connects my empirical research across different sites and scales. Bringing ideas from the literature on informality and infrastructures together under this framing offers modifications to the ways that ‘informality’ and ‘infrastructures’ are often understood and used. I use informality in this way ‘as a method’ to focus on the contingently enacted, materially and socially constituted character of various infrastructure processes. I analyse the informal governance and politics of water supply at three difference sites and scales. Within Delhi’s government network at an all-city level I note the formally and informally differentiated nature of the network and the challenges of knowledge and control of it. Outside of the piped network, I examine the decentralised infrastructures of tubewells and water tankers, primarily in the South Delhi areas of Sangam Vihar and Deoli. These decentralised supply modes are socially embedded in systems of party politics, caste and land-ownership with a range of opportunities for discretion, patronage and misallocation. They illustrate the connection and contrasts between informality in different resources, such as land and water, and infrastructures. I then examine an additional layer of urban water governance, in a Public Private Partnership (PPP) for urban water reform, in a zone around the Malviya Nagar area, also in South Delhi. I argue that the complexity of India’s urban social hydrology, even in wealthy areas, has been underestimated by this initiative, and that despite an evolution of the PPP model concerns over the project’s equity and viability remain. The high level of informality across different infrastructural systems in my research sites suggests the coexistence of a submerged ‘technopolitics’ operating through bureaucratic and technical modes of governance, with both overt and covert uses of intercession, personalisation and force. The study makes contributions to knowledge in the following areas: informal urban water supply in India, particularly in unauthorised colonies and urban villages, in a region of high groundwater use, its relationship to water supply reforms from both government and a multinational public-private partnership.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2017 Matt Birkinshaw
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
Sets: Departments > Geography and Environment
Supervisor: Mace, Alan and Low, Murray and Chari, Sharad

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