The Engineer and The Plumber: Mediating Mumbai’s Conflicting Infrastructural Imaginaries


Two decades ago, the rules governing the provision of piped municipal water supply in Mumbai became linked to the policy frameworks governing eligibility for a property titling scheme. This article outlines the ideological basis and practical implications of the shift, as well as the contradictions of the new regulatory regime. The article demonstrates how these contradictions have been mediated by the material and practical knowledge, embodied expertise, local authority and wide-ranging socio-political work of two sets of actors: municipal water engineers and a cast of characters known locally as ‘plumbers’. The social, political and hydraulic imaginaries animating the work of ‘plumbing’ are bound up with a temporal and spatial imaginary distinctly at odds with the network-flow conception of hydraulic engineering within which the work of water supply planning and distribution in Mumbai is conceptualized, materialized and institutionalized. The hydraulic and legal contradictions of these clashing infrastructural idioms––of flow and event––have rendered the regulatory framework highly unstable. These contradictions eventually erupted in Mumbai’s waterscape, leaving the city’s water infrastructures suspended in a highly politicized state of limbo between dueling infrastructural imaginaries.