Of engineers, rationalities, and rule: An ethnography of neoliberal reform in an urban water utility in South India

Persistent Link:
http://hdl.handle.net/10150/280681
Title:
Of engineers, rationalities, and rule: An ethnography of neoliberal reform in an urban water utility in South India
Author:
Coelho, Karen
Issue Date:
2004
Publisher:
The University of Arizona.
Rights:
Copyright © is held by the author. Digital access to this material is made possible by the University Libraries, University of Arizona. Further transmission, reproduction or presentation (such as public display or performance) of protected items is prohibited except with permission of the author.
Abstract:
This study is an ethnography of a frontline culture of neoliberalism. It examines the new rationalities through which Chennai's reforming water utility, Metrowater, defines and categorizes people at its everyday public interface. It analyzes how reforms designed to minimize the state are internalized within a state bureaucracy. The study uses the concept of translation to call attention to the distortions and displacements through which global texts of reform are localized and decoded by local actors. The disciplines of reform in Metrowater produced new boundaries and stand-offs, both within the agency and across its service interface. Internally, they constrained the autonomy of frontline engineers and established close vigilance over their activities. Notions of efficiency based on radical commensuration and quantification reduced all value to standardized, measurable indicators. This culture of audit empowered financial managers and accountants over the traditionally powerful engineering departments. The reforms thus, in the name of public accountability, staged a stand-off between two sets of elitist disciplines, those of the old developmentalist and the new commercial bureaucracy, thereby silencing all alternative options within an overarching common sense. Yet the audit culture also engendered a vision of transformation in which engineers presented themselves as actively reforming, streamlined, and meritocratic entrepreneurs. The punitive effects of the reforms were also passed across the service counter, provoking new effects of categorization: engineers displayed a sharpened hostility toward a certain "public" comprised of demanding, unruly and over-politicized masses of slum-dwellers. The ethnography interrogated the totalizing order of the urban grid, here represented by the underground network of water-pipes. It showed that this sovereign grid was punctured by bypass connections and illegal taps which revealed the contentious and compromised order of a ground-level service. The grid embodied a myth of order, produced by silences, half-truths and euphemisms. Euphemisms constituted a discursive mode through which "corrupt" practices such as bribery were folded into the morality and logic of daily practice in the depots. Water, as the classic commons, demonstrated the leakiness of abstract orders, and provided an insightful lens into neoliberal governance by challenging projects of commodification/privatization as well as bureaucratic channels of state sovereignty.
Type:
text; Dissertation-Reproduction (electronic)
Keywords:
Anthropology, Cultural.; Political Science, Public Administration.; Urban and Regional Planning.
Degree Name:
Ph.D.
Degree Level:
doctoral
Degree Program:
Graduate College; Anthropology
Degree Grantor:
University of Arizona
Advisor:
Nichter, Mark

Full metadata record

DC FieldValue Language
dc.language.isoen_USen_US
dc.titleOf engineers, rationalities, and rule: An ethnography of neoliberal reform in an urban water utility in South Indiaen_US
dc.creatorCoelho, Karenen_US
dc.contributor.authorCoelho, Karenen_US
dc.date.issued2004en_US
dc.publisherThe University of Arizona.en_US
dc.rightsCopyright © is held by the author. Digital access to this material is made possible by the University Libraries, University of Arizona. Further transmission, reproduction or presentation (such as public display or performance) of protected items is prohibited except with permission of the author.en_US
dc.description.abstractThis study is an ethnography of a frontline culture of neoliberalism. It examines the new rationalities through which Chennai's reforming water utility, Metrowater, defines and categorizes people at its everyday public interface. It analyzes how reforms designed to minimize the state are internalized within a state bureaucracy. The study uses the concept of translation to call attention to the distortions and displacements through which global texts of reform are localized and decoded by local actors. The disciplines of reform in Metrowater produced new boundaries and stand-offs, both within the agency and across its service interface. Internally, they constrained the autonomy of frontline engineers and established close vigilance over their activities. Notions of efficiency based on radical commensuration and quantification reduced all value to standardized, measurable indicators. This culture of audit empowered financial managers and accountants over the traditionally powerful engineering departments. The reforms thus, in the name of public accountability, staged a stand-off between two sets of elitist disciplines, those of the old developmentalist and the new commercial bureaucracy, thereby silencing all alternative options within an overarching common sense. Yet the audit culture also engendered a vision of transformation in which engineers presented themselves as actively reforming, streamlined, and meritocratic entrepreneurs. The punitive effects of the reforms were also passed across the service counter, provoking new effects of categorization: engineers displayed a sharpened hostility toward a certain "public" comprised of demanding, unruly and over-politicized masses of slum-dwellers. The ethnography interrogated the totalizing order of the urban grid, here represented by the underground network of water-pipes. It showed that this sovereign grid was punctured by bypass connections and illegal taps which revealed the contentious and compromised order of a ground-level service. The grid embodied a myth of order, produced by silences, half-truths and euphemisms. Euphemisms constituted a discursive mode through which "corrupt" practices such as bribery were folded into the morality and logic of daily practice in the depots. Water, as the classic commons, demonstrated the leakiness of abstract orders, and provided an insightful lens into neoliberal governance by challenging projects of commodification/privatization as well as bureaucratic channels of state sovereignty.en_US
dc.typetexten_US
dc.typeDissertation-Reproduction (electronic)en_US
dc.subjectAnthropology, Cultural.en_US
dc.subjectPolitical Science, Public Administration.en_US
dc.subjectUrban and Regional Planning.en_US
thesis.degree.namePh.D.en_US
thesis.degree.leveldoctoralen_US
thesis.degree.disciplineGraduate Collegeen_US
thesis.degree.disciplineAnthropologyen_US
thesis.degree.grantorUniversity of Arizonaen_US
dc.contributor.advisorNichter, Marken_US
dc.identifier.proquest3158077en_US
dc.identifier.bibrecord.b4790690xen_US
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