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'Mafias' in the waterscape: Urban informality and everyday public authority in Bangalore

Malini Ranganathan
Global Environmental Politics Program, School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC, USA; malini@american.edu

ABSTRACT: This article investigates the phenomenon of Bangaloreʼs urban 'water mafias', operators who extract and deliver groundwater to scores of informal residential areas in Indian cities. The term 'mafia' here is treated as a semantic area of situated meanings and cultural interpretations that needs to be historicised and prised open in order to better understand how the urban waterscape is produced and inhabited. It situates the provenance and workings of mafias within wider debates on urban informality, state formation, and urban infrastructure and space. Rather than seeing mafias as filling a gap where government water supply has failed, as mainstream narratives suggest, the paper argues that mafias must be seen as formative of the post-colonial state. It further suggests that the specific form of public authority exercised by water mafias explains the production of informality in Bangaloreʼs waterscape. Based on ethnographic research in 2007-2009, the paper characterises the everyday authority wielded by mafias along three main registers: (i) the ability of mafias to make and break discursive and material boundaries between the formal and informal, public and private, and state and society, (ii) the varied nature of mafiasʼ political practices, ranging from exploitation to electoral lobbying to social protection to the provision of welfare, and iii) mafiasʼ complicity in both water and land regimes in a neo-liberalised urban political economy.

KEYWORDS: Post-colonial cities, informal sovereigns, state formation, municipal water politics, urban periphery, India