Experiments and Counter‐Experiments in the Urban Laboratory of Water‐ Supply Partnerships in India


Karen Bakker has characterized the scattered islands of networked water supply that are common in the cities of the global South as ‘archipelagos’. Those living outside of archipelagos utilize a variety of interventions, collectively referred to here as tendrils, to access water by informal means. Neoliberal imperatives driving infrastructure transformation aim to alter the paradigm of water‐supply provision to diminish its plural composition and effectively transform tendrils into archipelagos. In this article, developing a conceptual and methodological synthesis between Science and Technology Studies (STS) and political ecology, I study the emergence of public‐private partnerships in India as laboratories in the marketization of water‐supply provision. These partnerships, initiated at local scales, aim to enroll informal water users into standardized modes of water‐supply provision and effectively expand the archipelagos of modernity. I draw upon empirical research of a water‐supply partnership in the city of Bengaluru, describing some of the characteristics of the experimental processes, and argue that they simultaneously forward the marketization of water‐supply services while inadvertently providing opportunities for residents, local associations and activists to form networks of counter‐experimentation. The description of these political acts, this article concludes, provokes re‐examination of the efficacy of an instrumental understanding of water partnerships, but requires closer policy engagement with ‘governance failures’ that are rife in water‐supply provision.