Of engineers, rationalities, and rule: An ethnography of neoliberal reform in an urban water utility in South India
Political Science, Public Administration.
Urban and Regional Planning.
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
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AbstractThis study is an ethnography of a frontline culture of neoliberalism. It examines the new rationalities through which Chennai's reforming water utility, Metrowater, defines and categorizes people at its everyday public interface. It analyzes how reforms designed to minimize the state are internalized within a state bureaucracy. The study uses the concept of translation to call attention to the distortions and displacements through which global texts of reform are localized and decoded by local actors. The disciplines of reform in Metrowater produced new boundaries and stand-offs, both within the agency and across its service interface. Internally, they constrained the autonomy of frontline engineers and established close vigilance over their activities. Notions of efficiency based on radical commensuration and quantification reduced all value to standardized, measurable indicators. This culture of audit empowered financial managers and accountants over the traditionally powerful engineering departments. The reforms thus, in the name of public accountability, staged a stand-off between two sets of elitist disciplines, those of the old developmentalist and the new commercial bureaucracy, thereby silencing all alternative options within an overarching common sense. Yet the audit culture also engendered a vision of transformation in which engineers presented themselves as actively reforming, streamlined, and meritocratic entrepreneurs. The punitive effects of the reforms were also passed across the service counter, provoking new effects of categorization: engineers displayed a sharpened hostility toward a certain "public" comprised of demanding, unruly and over-politicized masses of slum-dwellers. The ethnography interrogated the totalizing order of the urban grid, here represented by the underground network of water-pipes. It showed that this sovereign grid was punctured by bypass connections and illegal taps which revealed the contentious and compromised order of a ground-level service. The grid embodied a myth of order, produced by silences, half-truths and euphemisms. Euphemisms constituted a discursive mode through which "corrupt" practices such as bribery were folded into the morality and logic of daily practice in the depots. Water, as the classic commons, demonstrated the leakiness of abstract orders, and provided an insightful lens into neoliberal governance by challenging projects of commodification/privatization as well as bureaucratic channels of state sovereignty.
Degree ProgramGraduate College