Urban ponds, environmental imaginaries and (un)commoning: An urban political ecology of the pondscape in a small city in Gujarat, India

Anna Zimmer
Independent researcher, New Delhi, India; anlouve@gmail.com

René Véron
Institute of Geography and Sustainability, University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland; rene.veron@unil.ch

Natasha L. Cornea
School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, United Kingdom; n.l.cornea@bham.ac.uk

ABSTRACT: Urban ponds in India have for a long time been used for multiple purposes and have been accessible to a wide range of social groups; they thus often represent an urban commons. However, recent transformations of urban ponds into infrastructure that serves more limited uses have been accompanied by enclosure and social exclusion. Using an urban political ecology approach that is enriched with the concepts of environmental imaginaries and (un)commoning, this paper examines the ideational foundations and societal mechanisms underpinning the transformation of the pondscape of Navsari, a small city in the state of Gujarat. Based on interviews and field observations, the study found that the small-town elite’s imaginary of the 'modern city' underpinned the shift to the ponds becoming part of Navsari’s drinking water infrastructure; this led to the enclosure of the ponds and thus the ideational and physical separation of residents from these waterbodies and the exclusion of traditional user groups. This socio-ecological transformation of the pondscape, however, was not characterised by simple, linear processes of uncommoning driven by local elites: the dismantling of the urban commons (in the form of waste dumping by multiple actors) largely preceded the creation of infrastructure; enclosures and exclusions remained imperfect and spatially variable; and in some places informal resource-use rules continued or were recreated by local communities. This research points to how important it is for urban political ecology to consider the imaginaries and practices of multiple actors – including those beyond the metropolitan areas – in the construction of a nuanced narrative of dispossession in the neoliberal city.

KEYWORDS: Urban political ecology, urban commons, environmental imaginaries, ponds, Gujarat, India