Research

Overview

I rely on ethnographic interviews, oral histories, participant observation, and archival research to investigate three thematic clusters:

(1) Water and Land Politics in the Postcolonial City
Since the turn of the millennium, the city of Bangalore (officially Bengaluru) has experimented with a series of neoliberal, market-oriented reforms to overhaul its urban services. The city’s water, in particular, long considered a service that must be subsidized by the state, has been targeted under interventions that seek to commercialize and privatize delivery. Supported by international development actors and administered by state-level experts, these policy changes have focused on the city’s outskirts, where rapid growth since India’s liberalization has exacerbated differentiated patterns of land tenure and water access. Analysis of why certain policies are ascendant today, how programs of reform are conceived of and by whom, and to what ends they proceed in this landscape is essential to an understanding of metropolitan change in the global South more generally.

My research establishes that in the eyes of lower-income, informal residents—groups I call the “peripheralized middle-class”—negotiations around water payment provides a means to legitimize their land tenure, secure property rights, and gain political standing vis-à-vis the state. While most scholarship on the political economy of water reforms tends to focus on resistance to market-driven privatization, my work studies how consent and hegemony are ultimately secured through messy politics involving the insecurely propertied and state. It further insists that water politics cannot be divorced from spatial and class politics.

Extending this work, I conducted archival research on landed property regimes in India’s colonial and post-independence period. Tracing classically liberal regimes of private property ownership to the British East India Company in the late 1700s, I found that colonial planners—motivated both by the fear of the diseased “native” and the desire for property taxation revenue—had carved up segregated housing for Bangalore’s economic and cultural elite, a process still known today as urban “improvement.” Crucially, this process has left Dalits (India’s so-called untouchable castes), Muslims, and other laboring classes to negotiate informal housing and services with the lower bureaucracy. It has also assembled the conditions for flood and climate change risk, an outcome that I am mapping using archival and GIS methods. I am currently at work on a book project focused on the making of property, ecology, and “others” in colonial and contemporary Bengaluru/Bangalore, India, and argues for an environmental ethics centered on anti-caste humanism.

My work confirms and expands on arguments that show that informality is a form of flexible state power rather than a specific outcome. For instance, I show that water mafias serve as “informal sovereigns”—brokers characteristic of postcolonial and postsocialist polities who blur the borders and between state and society and between public and private in order to garner electoral votes, facilitate illicit land sales, and provide municipal services. Separating out formal and informal “sectors”, as is the norm in water policy rhetoric, makes little sense when held against actual democratic practice.

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In this cluster I am also concerned about flood risk. There are two kinds of water, the cliché goes: too little and too much. Cities around the world are flooding more frequently as a result of land use changes, infrastructural challenges, and extreme weather events. Bangalore is no exception. My fieldwork here reveals that the very same groups deprived of water access and secure land tenure are exposed to flood disasters—and also get blamed for them—compelling me to study the causes and implications of unequal flood risk. I show that Bangalore’s wetlands and lakes or its “keres” have become prime sites for accumulation and development–fueling heightened flood risk over the last decade. It is not simply that wetlands provide a source of cheap, available land, but specifically that they afford a highly tangible circuit for capital flow and fixity, suggesting that scholars need to think carefully about capitalism’s material geographies.

(2) Corruption Narratives and Land Politics in the Global City
A second cluster extends my theorizing on informality to urban “land grabs”—the morally contentious, large-scale acquisition of land (often held by the state or in common) for commercial purposes. From protests in Istanbul in 2013 against the anti-democratic redevelopment of Gezi Park into a luxury mall, to accusations that the Modi government’s 2015 land acquisition bill fast-tracks corporate land acquisitions in India, there is no end to the malaise surrounding land-based “corruption” in global cities.

A second research cluster examines “corruption” as a political narrative through which slum dwellers and the lower middle-class challenge neoliberal land appropriations by the elite. Across cities of the North and South, the elite flout or manipulate planning regulations and property law with impunity and encroach on wetlands and forests, while poorer groups are evicted and punished for their actions. Sapana Doshi (Associate Professor at UC Merced) and I argue that “corruption” serves as an ethical discourse for deciphering this dissonance. We show how marginalized residents and activists deploy a repertoire of strategies, from theatrical performance to right-to-information petitions, to expose what they understand as corruption. Departing from economistic models deployed by international development actors, we show how valuable interpretivist and ethnographic methods are for parsing diverse and shifting meanings attached to corruption.

Building on the humanistic strengths of this work, we teamed up with literary scholar David Pike (Professor, American University) to successfully apply for a grant from the ACLS (funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation). Weaving our ethnography together with the fictional worlds of novels and films, we are co-writing a book titled Corruption Plots: Stories, Ethics and Publics in the Millennial City. In it, we analyze ethnographic and literary story-telling to argue that “corruption” is deployed by differentially situated groups to call attention to a widening wealth gap and the erosion of the public sphere. What is especially fascinating to us is how corruption is used to name partnerships and collusions between the state and private actors that are officially deemed “legal.”

This project is a complement to my previous research critiquing the donor-driven anti-corruption agenda and, specifically, the alleged role of digital technology in improving the responsiveness and accountability of government. In these prior publications, I show that technologies designed to digitize citizen complaints (“e-grievance redressal”), a popular “good governance” tool, systematically bias against collective in-person complaints lodged by lower class and lower-caste women.

(3) Antiracism and Environmental Justice in the American City
Finally, I am interested in race, place, and environmental justice in the US. Some of my thinking across the North-South divide stems from a scholarly article I co-wrote calling for “transnational learning” between California’s Central Valley and Bangalore’s urban fringes. Following the call in the critical social sciences for thinking “from” the South (and not just “about” the South), we find that informality is very much present in Central California’s poorer, Latino urban fringes, but is rarely grasped as such. On this basis, we contend that rethinking how minority farm laborers in poorer urban fringes engage the state for basic services through insights from political practices in the South decolonizes academic inquiry and reveals novel possibilities for policy change.

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In a research grant funded by AU’s Metropolitan Policy Center, Eve Bratman (Assistant Professor, Franklin and Marshall College) and I studied: (a) what makes certain groups in DC vulnerable to environmental change and climate disasters and (b) how organizing around housing and displacement by minorities can be leveraged for building “resilience” to climate change in the fullest sense of the word. Preliminary findings establish that the environmental injustices (proximity to toxic wastes, illegal dumping, public transport idling) suffered by African Americans in the District—owing to a legacy of institutionalized discrimination and racial segregation—are deeply consequential for climate vulnerability. For instance, there is a long history of environmental injustice in the Kenilworth/Parkside/Eastland Gardens area of Ward 7. Residents report toxic wastes in the soil near the community rec center due to an old (now shut down) waste incinerator, placed there in the post-war period when it was already clear that the area was predominantly African American. The area also has a history of flooding, including sewage overflow in the now-closed elementary school (Thomas Elementary). A third problem is illegal dumping as seen by the plea in this photo.

Our research on the place-based and historically rooted vulnerabilities in Ward 7 in DC’s northeast Anacostia region will provide needed texture to macro assessments of DC’s climate risk. To learn more, please visit the project website and an interview I conducted in 2019 for NPR. For a recent interview on the project see: