Urban and Urbanization

Negotiating states of water: Producing illegibility, bureaucratic arbitrariness, and distributive injustices in Delhi

State quantifications of Delhi’s water supply proclaim some of the highest levels of access in urban South Asia. However, accompanying such representations are a number of discrepancies and ambiguities, suggesting an appearance of legibility is produced in the absence of data and key calculations. This paper examines the co-production of both knowledge and ignorance with regard to the city’s water, showing how their entanglement serves to powerfully shape both urban biopolitics and diffuse modalities of state power. First, I demonstrate that the appearance of legibility is maintained through fragmented measurement and bureaucratic practices that build material ambiguity into the system. Secondly, I examine the political, discursive and material effects of such illegibility, which include outcomes that are both arbitrary in nature (inadvertently allotting more water to one area versus another) and well as more deliberate (attributing blame for water wastage and loss to the very populations and urban spaces most excluded from the grid). Rather than a lack of intelligibility diminishing the powers of the state, the material ambiguity of Delhi’s waters furthers an everyday water politics of diffuse state power by which water is politicized at the local level while larger (infra)structural fixes are left off the table.

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Volume 36 Issue 5

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