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A Master Balancing Act

Abhinash Borah

By Lisa Bjorkman
2015, Orient BlackSwan, 2015, pp. 296, Rs. 895.00

VOLUME XL NUMBER 10 October 2016

  A multiplicity of sources—whether it be lived experience, popular discourse or scholarly work—seem to suggest a rather dim view about the state of urban planning in India’s burgeoning cities. Lisa Björkman’s book is a thoroughly researched and carefully crafted work that provides further evidence and perspective on this sorry state of affairs. The innovation of the book is the smart way through which it sets up and pursues the subject. Rather than provide an overall commentary on the state of urban planning and infrastructure, Bjorkman approaches the topic by focusing on just one aspect of the urban civic infrastructure—the complex infrastructural and informational network required to provide daily water to residents of a large and expanding city. The city in question is Mumbai, where Björkman manages to combine detailed ethnographic work with a historical perspectives of the city’s development planning to provide us with a fascinating account of the everyday struggles to provide water to the millions of taps in the city.1As she eloquently puts it in the Introduction: In contemporary Mumbai water is made to flow by means of intimate forms of knowledge and ongoing interventions in the city’s complex and dynamic social, political and hydraulic landscape. . . Mumbai’s illegible and volatile hydrologies are lending infrastructures increasing political salience just as actual control over pipes and flows becomes contingent upon dispersed and intimate assemblages of knowledge, power, and material authority. ‘Pipe politics’ refers to the new arenas of contestation that Mumbai’s water infrastructure animate . . .. (p. 3)   At one level, the success of the book can be viewed in terms of its ability to make intelligible the above claim that, at first glance, might appear to be rather elaborate in its articulation of the complexities surrounding the daily water distribution network in Mumbai. What is it that makes the exercise of supplying water to the city so challenging? The first and perhaps obvious guess would be to suggest a supply side story—there just isn’t enough water available to meet the vast demands of the ever growing city. As it turns out, the obvious explanation in this case is not the correct one. Björkman suggests right at the beginning that the total amount of water available is by and large adequate to meet the city’s needs. The challenge rather lies in the complex distributional network and it ...

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