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Nation-building, industrialisation, and spectacle: Political functions of Gujarat’s Narmada pipeline project

Mona Luxion
School of Urban Planning, McGill University, Montréal, Québec, Canada m.luxion@gmail.com

ABSTRACT: Since 2000 the Indian state of Gujarat has been working to construct a state-wide water grid to connect 75% of its approximately 60 million urban and rural residents to drinking water sourced from the controversial Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River. This project represents a massive undertaking – it is billed as the largest drinking water project in the world – and is part of a broader predilection toward large, concrete-heavy supply-side solutions to water insecurity across present-day India. This paper tracks the claims and narratives used to promote the project, the political context in which it has emerged, the purposes it serves and, following Ferguson (1990), the functioning of the discursive-bureaucratic 'machine' of which it is a product.
The dam’s reinvention as the solution to Gujarat’s drinking water shortfall – increasingly for cities and Special Industrial Regions – reflects a concern with attracting and retaining foreign investment through the creation of so-called 'world-class' infrastructure. At the same time, this reinvention has contributed to a project of nation-building, while remaining cloaked in a discourse of technological neutrality. The heavy infrastructure renders visible Gujarat’s commitment to 'development' even when that promise has yet to be realised for many, while the promise of Narmada water gives Gujarat’s leaders political capital with favoured investors and political supporters. In conclusion, I suggest that the success of infrastructure mega-projects as a political tool is not intrinsically tied to their ability to achieve their technical and social objectives. Instead, the 'spectacle' of ambitious infrastructural development projects may well yield political gains that outweigh, for a time, the real-world costs of their inequity and unsustainability.

KEYWORDS: Development, Sardar Sarovar Dam, Narmada pipeline project, anti-politics, Gujarat