Grabbing groundwater: capture and extraction in the urban political economy

Authors: Matt Birkinshaw*, Aga Khan University
Topics: Urban Geography, Water Resources and Hydrology, Political Geography
Keywords: water, infrastructure, urbanisation, politics, Global South
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/8/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 49
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper analyses the contribution of everyday resource governance to urban political economy in the Indian capital, Delhi. Through the concept of kabza, (‘capture’ or ‘grabbing’), I focus on groundwater, a major source of urban water globally, to argue that water governance, viewed as capture, extraction and influence, opens a productive analytic on the relations between society, technology and nature. Outlining the history of informal land development at the edge of the city and its interplay with urban politics, caste relations and migration, I introduce a ’small technology’ widely used across the Global South, the tubewell. While water grabs have largely been discussed through work on corporate actors, I show how local personalised forms of control and capture speak to wider understandings of state-society relationships. I argue that the technical and material features of tubewells enable 'capture' by locally powerful actors in order to extract revenue and generate influence. However, tubewells’ relationships with a larger environmental system renders them unpredictable political-economic allies To show this, I shift physical and temporal scales to explain the effects of hydrogeology on local patterns and politics of groundwater use. Focussing on the relationship between these three scales, the street or lane (galli), the aquifer, and the city, I connect these socio-material networks to the larger urban political economy.

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