The Engineer and the Plumber: Mediating Mumbai’s conflicting infrastructural imaginaries

Date and time
20 January 2016

6 PM

UCL Pearson Building, Exhibition Room GO07, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT

The Engineer and the Plumber: Mediating Mumbai’s conflicting infrastructural imaginaries


Dr Lisa Björkman (Department of Urban and Public Affairs, University of Louisville)


Professor Andrew Barry (UCL Geography)

Two decades ago, the rules governing the provision of piped municipal water supply in the Indian city of Mumbai underwent a dramatic shift, whereby access to water became linked to the policy frameworks governing eligibility for a property titling scheme – what the paper characterizes as “hypothetical property right”.

The paper outlines the ideological basis and practical implications of the profound policy shift, as well as the material, legal and political contradictions of this new regulatory regime. Focusing empirical attention on a neighborhood in Mumbai’s eastern suburbs, the paper demonstrates how these contradictions are increasingly mediated by the material and practical knowledge, embodied expertise, local authority and wide-ranging sociopolitical relations of an intermediate cast of characters known locally as “plumbers”. The social, political and hydraulic imaginaries animating the work of “plumbing” are shown to inhabit a temporal and spatial imaginary distinctly at odds with a network-flow paradigm within which the work of water supply planning and distribution in Mumbai is conceptualized, materialized and institutionalized. The hydraulic and legal contradictions of these clashing infrastructural idioms – of flow and event – have rendered the hypothetical property-right based water infrastructural regime highly unstable. 

The paper follows these spiraling contradictions, tracing how the instability eventually erupted in Mumbai’s waterscape. With the hypothetical property right based water policy framework delegitimized and effectively unmade, the city’s water infrastructures (their planning and operations) remain caught between dueling infrastructural imaginaries – suspended in a highly politicized state of limbo.

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