2019 Pirzada Awardee



University of Chicago, 2019

Dissertation Title: Ecologies of Water Governance in Pakistan: The Colony, the Corporation and the Contemporary

Advisor: Prof. William T.S. Mazzarella

Dissertation Abstract: 

Pakistan has one of the world’s largest irrigation networks and an agriculture-dependent economy. Groundwater extraction has made the Indus Basin the world’s second most “overstressed aquifer.” Bottled water corporations, reliant on extracting groundwater, are currently demanding more tax concessions in court, claiming that instead of doing business they provide a “public service” given the state’s failure to provide clean water. In 2018, Pakistan declared a national water scarcity crisis. This was not Pakistan’s first water ‘crisis:’ from the 1950s’ “crisis of waterlogging and salinity,” to India-Pakistan hostility over shared rivers stoking U.S. Cold War era-fears and intervention, water has long provided the material from, against and with which the promise of modernity is crafted.

Ecologies of Water Governance in Pakistan: The Colony, the Corporation and the Contemporary examines the performativity of ‘state failure,’ arguing that the public-private distinction is produced in the ethical labor bureaucrats expend in not doing ‘corruption;’ in court intervention; and in regimes of corporate profitability. The dissertation has three temporal anchors: British colonial rule; the 1960s, Pakistan’s “Decade of Development;” and the present moment. It is based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork and archival research in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

In addressing the conflict and confluence of public and private values in water governance, the dissertation illuminates tensions that will proliferate in a world increasingly forced to grapple with water excess/shortage as one of the first manifestations of climate change. The scenario in Pakistan foretells a shared future for the world, as climate change necessitates profound reconsideration of dominant paradigms of water and land governance, agricultural economics and national development.

The dissertation traces the flow of irrigation water from the Irrigation Department’s allocation schedules, through public canals, to farmers’ fields; into il/legal water channels; via seepage into the aquifer; and when disputed, to courts. Thus, it draws an arc from rural ‘theft economies’ to purportedly ‘ethical economies’ such as Nestlé’s. It builds on ethnographic research conducted in the Punjab Irrigation bureaucracy’s offices, agricultural fields, panchayat gatherings, and courts; archival research at the British Library, the National Documentation Center, and Punjab Archives; and shorter research stints in the Czech Republic, Tajikistan, Sweden and the U.S.

The analysis is organized around three axes along which the public–private distinction is produced: labor, adjudication, and valuation. Labor: The analysis here delves into Irrigation bureaucrats’ quotidian work and shows (i) that charisma and bureaucratic authority are co-produced (ii) corruption enables ethical labor among bureaucrats (iii) and that water disputes, beyond manifesting unequal class relations, also provide openings to challenge them. Tracing distinct regional, national and gendered genealogies of corruption, the intervention, ultimately, is to move away from tropes of patronage politics to a “politics of provision” analytic.

Adjudication traces the enabling conditions for the declaration of a water crisis to a history of environmental jurisprudence; water storage as a modality of national security; and Pakistan’s geopolitical subjectivity as lower riparian vis-à-vis India. I argue that this archive of national affect comes to life in recurrent panic over water ‘wasted’ to the Arabian Sea, old infrastructure and ‘corruption,’ and the bureaucrat-turned ‘Indian agent.’

Valuation connects present-day claims to ‘public service’ by bottled water corporations to British colonial-era conceptions of the public value of water. Building on colonial-era archival material, I argue that the two constituent variables in the hydraulic engineering concept of the ‘duty of water’ – water and land – were articulated by a third hidden component, native labor. At stake in the dual problem for colonial administration, making water and the ‘slothful Indian laborer’ work, I show, was the distinction between public and commercial interests in water.

The dissertation concludes by discussing how rapidly agricultural land is becoming real estate in areas that were my field sites. The decision to end a dissertation about water with land illuminates discontinuity in a category such as water; it enables viewing water as discontinuously imbricated with land, labor, use and time.