Paying for Pipes, Claiming Citizenship: Political Agency and Water Reforms at the Urban Periphery


This article interrogates the nature of political agency deployed at sites of market‐oriented water reforms. It presents a case study from Bangalore, India of a water project mandating significant ‘beneficiary’ cash contributions from lower‐middle‐class dwellers for the capital cost of extending piped water to the city’s peripheries. Drawing on quantitative and ethnographic data, it illustrates why property owners who lack formal water access and land tenure — groups referred to in this article as the ‘peripheralized middle class’ — consent to paying for pipes rather than resist all together despite the high cost involved. It argues that far from reflecting an internalization of a ‘willingness to pay’ or ‘stakeholder’ ethos celebrated by development practitioners today, payment for water provides an insurgent means to bargain for greater symbolic recognition, respectability and material benefits from the state. In particular, payment for pipes enables peripheral dwellers to strengthen their claims to secure land tenure in an era of exclusionary and punitive spatial policies. Payment thus comprises a terrain of contested meaning making and political struggle, at the heart of which lie the stakes of urban citizenship. In documenting the process by which property related interests and tenure claims are advanced under a scenario of reforms, this article contributes to Gramscian political‐ecological conversations on subaltern political agency and the lived character of hegemony in urban environments.