Leaky Sovereignties: An Ethnography of Neoliberal Reform in an Urban Water Bureaucracy

Quadrant: Global Cultures

This project explores the translations and localizations of neoliberal reform in Chennai’s municipal water utility. The primary protagonists of this ethnography are the agency’s "frontline" engineers who are simultaneously the subjects and objects of the reforms. The book tracks how reforms shape the professional identities of these mid-level state functionaries, how reformist programs are justified, implemented, and resisted within the organization, and how new bureaucratic subjects are produced through the internal disciplining or subverting of service norms and protocols. It shows how projects of "institutional strengthening," referring to a stringent commercialization of all operations, produce new hierarchies and stigmatizations, both within the agency and across its service interface with the public. It links these intra-agency formations to the wider political economy of water sector reforms in Chennai and across the country. The ethnography, further, reveals how efforts to rationalize the water grid are systematically undermined by informal acts of "tapping in" by groups formally excluded by the system, and how forms of "corruption" are often exacerbated by the exigencies of reform at the frontline. Finally, the book shows how "privatization" operates as a keyword of reform. State engineers reveal complex stakes in a privatized future, seeing in it both greater opportunities and an inevitable denouement to what they see as an impending collapse of the public utility.

University of Minnesota