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I had the pleasure of reading Austin Zeiderman’s wonderful book on Bogotá, titled Endangered City, even before being asked to participate in this “Author Meets Critics” panel organized by Asher Ghertner. But the opportunity to reflect on Zeiderman’s work again in light of Nikhil Anand’s equally impressive Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai has been intellectually generative and thought-provoking in a variety of ways—having to do with each’s arguments about urban governance and in the context of my own work on the politics of urbanization in Mexico City and elsewhere. After reading Anand’s book I have asked myself whether the fact that Mexico City was itself built on a lake and began as a settlement spreading across a series of canals sustaining water-based agriculture (chinampas) would or should matter to the story of the city’s urbanization, independent of whether it is even a story similar to that of Mumbai. Likewise, Zeiderman’s efforts to link urban governance and planning practice to risk also suggest a new way of examining cities across Latin America, where the Rockefeller Foundation’s urban resilience framework has been embraced at breakneck speed. Both these books will be central reference points for future scholarship on urbanization across the globe.
On a personal note, Anand’s arguments about water have inspired me to consider some under-studied aspects of Mexico City’s urbanization. One in particular has to do with the city’s southern periphery, home to the peasant-based communities who built their cultural identity around the water agriculture of the chinampas. But just as significantly, reflecting on Anand’s work on water in light of Zeiderman’s concern with violence and insecurity also prompts me to widen my own understanding of risk and conflict in Mexico City to include violent skirmishes over water and who controls it for what purposes. In recent years that city has experienced a series of “water wars” pitting communities against each other as well as against a state that seeks to dominate local water rights and resources in ways that have generated both social conflict and physical displacement. As such, the issue of violent conflict is a thread that unites the story of these three cities (Bogotá, Mumbai, and Mexico City), in turn laying the foundation for new ways of theorizing urbanization trajectories, citizen–state relations, or forms of citizenship and other relevant subjectivities. Both Zeiderman’s and Anand’s books have added a twist to this more conventional discussion, however, by linking standard social science scholarship on governance and citizenship to a deep focus on how topographical and environmental conditions are embedded in both water politics and security governance in Mumbai and Bogotá.
Beyond entering into the Latourian world that such a move beyond rigid human–non-human determinations signals, the question is whether we should interpret these two books as being similar in epistemological conception and aim? Endangered City and Hydraulic City are both masterful ethnographies that concern themselves with risk to a great deal—although by emphasizing risk management I may be unfairly pigeon-holing Anand’s focus on water into a discourse that is not front and center in his book. However, to me it is clear that the issue of water supply and how Mumbai’s residents struggle to push back against uncertainty and provide for a steady, reliable, or healthy access to water could and should be read as a story about how citizens manage the risk of living without this basic need. But despite this commonality, the books approach this shared topic from different analytical vantage points, with one appearing to emphasize urban risk management “from above” and the other doing so “from below.” Stated differently, despite a general concern with environment and risk, Hydraulic City interprets this domain more through the lens of citizenship and Endangered City conceives it more through the lens of governance. Granted, to say that the latter is more focused on the state and the former more with citizens should be understood as a purposefully provocative claim, if only because these notions are in fact two sides of the same coin and because in both texts the ways in which citizens and the state interactively negotiate this terrain together is a clear part of the story. The deep ethnographic and anthropological chapters that stand at the heart of both books make this beautifully evident. Even so, in terms of analytical framing, a focus on the context of liberal governance as well as on the urban and national political conditions that frame risk and security discourses comes through more in Endangered City, while Hydraulic City more manifestly tackles the complexities of negotiation, hacking, and resident push-back within civil society—albeit often with others, both private sector actors (plumbers for hire) and even state actors themselves.
My point here is not to defend this distinction as a hard and fast claim, or even as a critique (because it is not intended as that). Rather, my rationale for highlighting the distinction is to establish the grounds for generating a series of questions about whether, how, and why there may indeed be similarities and differences in the nature of citizenship and urban governance in these two urban contexts. Are Mumbai and Bogotá markedly different when it comes to the nature, power, and activities of citizens and states; and if so, what might be driving these differences (independent of authorial prerogative or scholarly inclination)? I raise such questions with the hope that they might inspire a larger scholarly conversation not just about how to better understand some of the main governance and citizenship challenges of our times, but also so they will force us to consider the relative value of grand theory or established analytics versus historical specificity in accounting for them. In the remainder of this short commentary I will pose several questions aimed at revealing why these accounts might be different, despite the common biopolitical and technopolitical framing they employ.
The first set of questions has to do with regime type and even the nature of democracy. One would expect that federalist, strongly democratic India provides a very different setting for negotiations between citizens and the state than does the more democratically weak and institutionally centralized political system in Colombia. Also, the fact that Colombia’s quasi-militarized regime has strengthened its authoritarian capacities in response to decades of ongoing political violence (‘la violencia’) has probably mitigated against ongoing efforts to decentralize politics. Similarly, the embrace of economic liberalization by the Colombia state has been intricately embedded in a co-dependence with the US government, an arrangement very much informed by joint efforts to fight drug-trafficking and violence. India, in contrast, has a long socialist tradition and has only recently embraced neoliberalism. To what extent do these structural and historical differences in regime formation explain why citizenship “from below” might be an emergent theme in Hydraulic City, while risk governance “from above” is more evident in the Bogotá case.
Along these lines, there are also key macro-economic differences in the two countries. The late embrace of neoliberalization in India (coming within the last decade or so) may also explain the relatively surprising absence of water privatization in Mumbai, so well noted by Anand, another difference that might be keeping the local state at bay in the story over water. In Latin America where neoliberalization emerged in the mid-to late 1980s, privatization has long been a policy of choice, albeit a contested one. Yet because privatization inserts a market logic into urban servicing that turns residents into consumers (in turn breaking the more direct social contract between urban residents and governing authorities), citizenship as an organizing principle for claims-making may not readily materialize. Likewise, a location with a highly activated citizenry willing and capable of asserting itself around water claims, as we see in Mumbai, may be sufficiently organized to oppose privatization, thus suggesting that the absence of privatization could even be the effect as much as the cause of a vibrant citizenship.
Another set of questions concerns the role of political parties. India is a competitive democracy with a strong party system, but Colombia is known for its hybrid democratic arrangement in which political parties have alternated in power in a compromise forged during the years of La Violencia. To be sure, India has gone through periods of state “emergency” where political parties were sidelined by autocratic moves of national authority under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, just as Colombia has in recent years moved to a new political party configuration in which important political leaders, including several mayors of Bogotá, such as Enrique Peñalosa and Antanas Mockus, are representing independent political parties not linked to the historical power sharing arrangement between the Liberal and Conservative parties. But the point here is that the political party systems in these two countries have different histories and dynamics that differentially affect the way citizens are linked to each other and the state. This not only raises questions about whether parties are playing the same role in both contexts, perhaps even redirecting decision-making power about urban policies to either citizens or the state in one or the other case. It also suggests that the nature of governance and citizenship will likely be affected by these different party systems.
One could also pursue a similar set of questions with respect to urban planners, many of whom may be state bureaucrats who nonetheless may see themselves as straddling the state and civil society and who in some contexts are likely to be involved in urban servicing, governance, and policy implementation as elected officials. As a country that recently shed British colonial rule (1947), the nature and active role of the formal planning bureaucracy in India not only traces to legacies of British planning. There is also a strong civil servant tradition associated with strengthened managerial capacity that gives urban policy makers and planners considerable authority and legitimacy in India. Such a profile also helps establish their considerable independence from elected officials in the state and political parties. In Colombia, in contrast, and just as in many Latin American countries, the field of planning has not been as professionalized or embedded in a civil servant tradition, and as a result urban planners and other technocratic authorities are likely to have less relative autonomy to undertake urban policy decisions; they are also more likely to be dependent on elected authorities when it comes to urban servicing decisions. Such differences are likely to affect the nature of governance from above and below, if you will, possibly even suggesting that the differences between Mumbai and Bogotá in terms of risk management and urban governance could be dependent on the presence or absence of a relatively autonomous strata of urban planners.
It is not my intent here to produce a laundry-list of historical differences between the cities addressed in this book, although if one were to do so, it would be important to move beyond political institutions and traditions, institutional and ideological, and also embrace some of the urban peculiarities of the cities in question. This would include not just the topography and environmental context mentioned earlier, but also the size and socio-spatial structure of the cities in question. Mumbai is a megalopolis in ways that Bogotá is not. The cities also play different roles in the national political imaginary, and vice-versa, with these histories suggesting a preoccupation with different types of risk. Bogotá obviously must engage with the path-dependent history of violence in Colombia in ways that have pressured citizens and authorities to seek to control risk for many, many decades. It is not clear whether Mumbai’s engagement with water is at all related to challenges that are so deeply ingrained in the national political consciousness. Such questions could go on and on. The point however is to place a concern with historical specificity on the table, and ask our authors whether and how attention to context is part and parcel of their larger arguments, and how divergent contexts might produce divergent narratives of risk governance.
This of course does not absolve our authors from responding to queries about any universal claims about risk embedded in their work. One way to probe along these lines is to ask whether the concept of risk—and the discourses that unfold around it—is related to time, or shall we say theories of modernity. In Endangered City, Zeiderman concludes his account by highlighting a “shift in political imperatives and how they articulate with other logics of urbanism and their future vision. Yet the overall implications of this shift are clear: once cities are viewed as problems of risk and security rather than say modernization and development, resources once dedicated to concerns such as housing, poverty, health, and education are reduced and redirected to the basic goal of survival” (206-207). Such a claim not only suggests that discourses of risk may be tied to a historically-specific shift in consciousness about the fundamental building blocks of governance or state-society relations. It also begs the question of whether—if this were indeed a critique of time or the contemporary epoch as much as an indictment of conditions specific to Bogotá—it would also ring true for the case of Mumbai.
One way to explore this is to ask whether those who are concerned with the management of water risk in Indian cities would also agree that standard modernization and development discourses are being pushed off the agenda, particularly when it comes to the state’s responsibility to citizens or the latter’s social welfare expectations of authorities. In a related vein, one could also ask whether it is universally true that in cities where risk management is a central concern, issues of poverty—or material wants and needs—have in fact receded from the governance agenda? Might all this depend on context, including some of the regime type and political party factors noted earlier; or perhaps even the nature of the risk under discussion, with threats to bodily insecurity more disruptive to enlightenment ideals than water scarcity? To put some meat on this question, at what point does water deprivation in Mumbai become articulated as a problem of risk—similar to the framing of security concerns in Bogotá—as opposed to basic material deprivation? In an era of multiplying vulnerabilities, will citizen mobilization (and state responses) to offset poverty and other more “conventional” forms of deprivation become less significant because the notions of risk are becoming politically hegemonic? And what does this mean for citizenship, or the state-society contract associated with liberalism, both in theory and in practice?
Some of these issues could be reframed in light of a question Zygmunt Bauman raises in his seminal Liquid Modernity (2000). In the context of a wider interrogation of the extent to which citizens can accommodate the rapidity of societal change with discursive and political repertoires drawn from the 19th and 20th century, Bauman raises the possibility that in those countries most ravaged by late capitalism and in which poverty and inequality remains pervasive, we cannot expect the same subjective engagement with the notion of risk. Repeating Ulrich Beck’s statement that “what food is for hunger, eliminating risks, or interpreting them away, is for the consciousness of risks,” Bauman goes on to say: “In a society haunted primarily by material want, such an option between ‘eliminating misery and ‘interpreting it away’ did not exist (my emphasis).” That is, “[h]unger cannot be assuaged by denial; in hunger, subjective suffering and its objective cause are indissolubly linked, and the link is self-evident and cannot be belied. But risks, unlike material want, are…. not ‘lived’ directly unless mediated by knowledge” (210). The burning issue thus becomes: who is mediating the production of knowledge about risk in Mumbai and Bogotá, and why might the discourses used to do so produce either engagement with or separation from conventional welfare-state or liberal state logics? To answer such a question, we need sound empirical evidence of the interaction between the material conditions (i.e. mudslides, water scarcity, etc.) and how they form the basis for promoting and internalizing discourses of risk as a form of governance over vulnerable populations, as seen in the case of Bogotá, or even as a basis for mobilizing civil society, as in Mumbai.
These two extraordinary books have laid the foundation for such inquiries, and by so doing they have contributed to a larger theoretical discussion of the ways that risk has become part and parcel of urban governance and citizenship in the modern era, even as they have revealed the empirical processes through which this has occurred in two very different country contexts. Through these two fascinating and meticulously detailed accounts of urban servicing and governance, focused on Mumbai and Bogotá, we have seen how each city’s built environment is constantly being made and remade through the actions of citizens and the state, whether through exchanges fueled by the language of risk or in the struggle over who is responsible for servicing the material needs of citizens. The million-dollar question is whether there will be limits to such interactions, posed perhaps by the deepening and acceleration of risks that continue to call into question the capacities of humans to co-exist with the non-human world—and if not addressed, could form the basis for the demise of citizenship, urban governance, and indeed liberalism itself, at least as we have come to know it. I can only hope that we are still around to engage these critical questions as climate change and other forms of risk continue to present themselves, so that future scholars can build on Zeiderman’s and Anand’s path breaking work in ways that could help stave off apocalypse, both human and non-human.