Infrastructures with a pinch of salt
For my PhD (2018, UCL), I studied Chennai’s water supply and household access infrastructures to trace the distinct technological cultures and social structures that shaped water flows in the city. This study followed the growing popularity of reverse osmosis desalination to make potable the city’s deteriorating groundwater resources and more ambitiously, the sea at its doorstep. It was then placed in comparative analysis with techno-political processes governing water supply in London. In both cities, I conducted ethnographic research on water engineering as everyday practice mediating broader political dimensions of infrastructure.
As part of the Rethinking Urban Nature project at the University of Cambridge, I started researching the political movements emerging around issues of environmental and social justice in the estuarine, wetland geographies of Chennai. I was interested in the relationship the city’s residents, naturalists and activists had with waterways outside of what was ostensibly engineered ie., urban water beyond the pipelines and canals.
While there was certainly the story of property, commercial development and urbanisation at large destroying water bodies like lakes, marshes and estuaries, there was also a parallel narrative of social and environmental movements emerging around the city’s natural ecologies, particularly water systems. I locate the origin and sustainability of this mobilisation around environmental issues and its increasing mainstreaming in urban politics in the way it innovatively draws on a range of socio-political influences including anti-caste movements, agrarian distress, classical Tamil literature as well as Marxist-Socialist traditions to make its cause one of subaltern assertion. Following from this, I argue that the water bodies of Chennai, engineered or otherwise, are being constituted as ‘vernacular natures’ around which a materially rooted environmental politics can emerge.
My current post-doctoral project continues this engagement with a particular focus on the sea coast, where the tension between imagined and lived urban natures is pronounced in the lives and labour of fishers. Centering their experience at this fluid confluence of land and sea, I explore urban alterity as it manifests in its coastal geography. I develop a conceptualisation of the ‘urban sea’, from where I ultimately aim to write the city.