Sanitation and everyday life in Mumbai

We have just published the final publication from our ‘everyday sanitation’ project (it is open access here for the next few days). The project, which involved Renu Desai, Steve Graham and myself, explored the everyday life and politics of urban sanitation in two informal neighbourhoods in Mumbai – Rafinagar and Khotwadi. Our aim was to address a gap in research and policy on how people experience, perceive and politicize sanitation. We set out to understand how those experiences and politics varied across the city, hence the comparison between two (very different) parts of Mumbai.

Given that the publications are now completed, I thought it would be worth providing a summary of the main arguments, findings and publications…

The most recent paper is ‘Sites of entitlement: claim, negotiation and struggle in Mumbai’, and is Toilet block 2 Desaionline early in Environment and Urbanization. In this paper, Renu and I argue that different residents in the two neighbourhoods shape a sense of entitlement through relationally produced moral economies.  ‘Sites of entitlement’ are unevenly produced, contested, often in flux and ambivalent, sometimes made through collective struggle and at other times through quiet individual practice, and always constituted by sociospatial relations. We argue that sites of entitlement are vital for thinking through the possibilities of realizing the universal right to sanitation and water.

The question of how people perceive informal sanitation was also at the heart of two other publications from the project. The first, ‘Informal urban sanitation: everyday life, comparison and poverty’ was published in Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Here, Renu, Steve and I argued that certain key processes anchor the ways in which sanitation emerges in everyday life, and highlight four in particular: self-built incremental infrastructure, an uneven politics of patronage, politicised processes of solidarity and exclusion, and shifting geographies of open defecation.

Well, KhotadiThe second – ‘The politics of open defecation: informality, body and infrastructure in Mumbai’ – was published in Antipode, and in this paper Renu, Steve and I examined the everyday embodied experiences, practices and perceptions forged in relation to the materialities of informality. We explored the micropolitics of provision, access, territoriality and control of sanitation infrastructures; everyday routines and rhythms, both of people and infrastructures; and experiences of disgust and perceptions of dignity. Our aim here was to deepen understandings of the relationship between the body, infrastructure and the sanitary/insanitary city.

Being forced to defecate in open spaces is a form of societal violence, and women and girls suffer the most. I wrote a short piece for Open Democracy on some of these themes. The often deeply gendered violence enacted against informal neighbourhoods was also a focus of our paper in Public Culture, entitled ‘Water Wars in Mumbai’. Here, Steve, Renu and I examined the predatory activities of the state on the water infrastructure of Mumbai’s poor neighbourhoods, focusing in particular on Rafinagar. At times of ‘crisis’, it is the poorest who pay, often accused of ‘stealing’ water from ‘proper citizens’. The withdrawal of water has severe impacts on people’s lives in a neighbourhood that has one of the lowest Human Development Indexes in India’s most unequal city. Clearly, there are profound consequences on sanitation, from people’s ability to stay hydrated, clean and healthy, or to prepare food safely, to the possibility of keeping the house clean or wash dishes and laundry.

Rafinagar pipes TIFFWe published a different version of these arguments around water in an edited volume Steve and I put together entitled Infrastructural Lives. Each chapter examines how infrastructure is lived, perceived and contested on an everyday basis, and thereby begins to address what we saw as a relatively neglected set of issues in research on urban infrastructure. The book emerged from a conference organized through the project at Durham University.

We also produced a series of public reports in English and Hindi that were distributed amongst practitioners, policy makers, civil society activists, and residents. The project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

It was fantastic to work with Renu and Steve on this, and I’m looking forward to future work on some of these themes in Mumbai and elsewhere.

And finally, on a quite different note, there was this – me attempting and just about getting through a different form of ‘dissemination’ at ‘Bright Club’, an academic stand up comedy evening (if you can belive such a thing exists) – both fun to do and terrifying!

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