Decolonizing Infrastructure in India and the US: A Conversation with Malini Ranganathan

Several pipes run underneath a bridge and over a river in the Washington, DC, area.

Recently, many scholars in the humanistic social sciences have begun to focus on the more-than-human agency of nonhuman natures, things, objects, and materials. Within this posthuman turn, objects are not simply inert backdrops for the ordering of social life but are actively involved in creating new sociopolitical orders. Infrastructure has emerged as a useful analytical tool to critique unequal power relations between people, economic systems, and the state, and to challenge conventional frameworks of urban-rural, North-South, and human-nonhuman. Moreover, thinking about infrastructure can add a much needed postcolonial and decolonial impetus to academic scholarship.

A headshot portrait of Malini Ranganathan.

Malini Ranganathan. Photo courtesy of Malini Ranganathan.

An assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University, Dr. Malini Ranganathan takes a critical look at questions of social and environmental justice through an intersectional and antiracist lens. Malini uses urban water infrastructure as a lens to study processes of neoliberal marketization, speculative urbanism, informality, and the (re)production of caste, class, and gendered othering in Bangalore, southern India. Her recent work has also focused on the issue of urban resilience and abolitionist climate justice in Washington, DC.

On March 15, 2019, I sat down with Malini on the occasion of her visit to the University of Wisconsin–Madison Geography Department to give the 2019 Treacy Lecture. We discuss decolonization as theory and practice, analytical frameworks for our current ecological crisis, her research in urban India and Washington, DC, and the potential for North-South collaborations and solidarity movements within academia and beyond.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Siddharth Menon: Your doctoral dissertation focused on the city of Bangalore, where you used water as a lens to study the modernization of the Indian economy since the 1990s, as well as speculative urbanism, informality, and systems of differentiation like caste and class dynamics. What makes water such a good lens to look at these kinds of metanarratives and structures? Why water, and why situate the research in Bangalore?

Malini Ranganathan: Water is a resource that is indispensable to life. It thus becomes a resource to fight for and about which to ask very fundamental ethical questions. In a context in which poor informal groups, such as those living in slums or on the outskirts of major cities in India, had been historically shut out of state-provided water, the fact that market-oriented logics were introduced into the water sector, particularly from the early 2000s onwards, really brought forth and elicited grassroots responses, quite vehement responses, both in terms of resistance and negotiation. Because water raises such important ethical questions, it allows a window into citizen-state relations, especially in postcolonial polities where historically marginalized groups have been left out of state-provided networks.

Bangalore, in the state of Karnataka, had been a forerunner in market-oriented reforms. Karnataka’s political economy, especially because it had very reform-oriented chief ministers in the 2000s, was a preferred destination for international debtors. International lenders liked that it was reform-minded, the software powerhouse of India, and tech oriented. They liked the fact that Karnataka had shown an interest in World Bank relationships and borrowing from the World Bank. And, so, in the early 2000s, a slew of international organizations, international financial institutions, the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development, the Asian Development Bank, and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, all descended on Bangalore to create out of it the best practice for urban governance reforms and market-oriented logics.

Water allows a window into citizen-state relations.

These organizations used the water sector as exemplary of infrastructure that needed reform, because it was said to be overrun by corrupt bureaucrats and an inefficient public sector, and it had a lot of “leakage,” which is the technocratic term for water being consumed illegally or by informal groups like slum dwellers. So, you had this technical language of market rationality and efficiency infusing the water sector. That was very interesting to me, as someone interested in environmental issues, but also the politics of market-oriented reforms and the role of development organizations. Even in my prior work on rural development, I had seen the impact that international development loans had on countries throughout the Global South, but especially in India. Bangalore also has a thriving civil society—various citizen and civic movements engaging with these reforms and the government—and I thought it would be a great place to ask the empirical questions that I was interested in asking.

A small crowd of people observes as one person speaks to another person.

Residents on the outskirts of Bangalore making claims on the state and speaking with representatives. Photo by Malini Ranganathan, 2007.

SM: From that early work focusing on the Global South, and particularly India, your more recent work has shifted to looking at—and I know these frameworks are problematic—the Global North. Your recent article with Eve Bratman focuses on shifting our framework from urban resilience to abolitionist climate justice, and looking at Washington, DC, as a case study for that. What’s at stake with that shift? And why the shift to working in a Global North context like DC?

MR: This an interesting question for all of us to try to grapple with. What does it mean when folks are trying to work across the so-called South-North divide? What are the openings provided by that? What are some of the challenges? For me, I am a professor based in Washington, DC, at the School of International Service, that trains students to do foreign policy, international development, peace and conflict resolution, and to think about these global questions. And it was of concern to me that students were very comfortable thinking about “underdevelopment” or “poverty” or “disenfranchisement” elsewhere around the world, but when it came to thinking about those questions in their own backyard—when it came to histories of racial segregation in the United States, processes of dispossessing minorities, and the US state and its implications in global empire— they were much less comfortable talking about those questions. So, it became a pedagogical challenge, and necessity, to really bring in the US not as an exceptional case of liberty and democracy and equality, but as another case to study in terms of vexing questions of inequality and development.

A map of the Anacostia river, with a detailed section showing part of Washington, DC.

The Anacostia Watershed, one of the sites of Ranganathan’s climate justice research. Map by Erin Matson, 2018. Click to enlarge.

DC is a paradigmatic city of racial and environmental inequality. If you look at a map of DC, some people have referred to it as an apartheid city because there’s literally a line separating the city by race and by class. You have in the northeast and southeast parts of DC populations that are over 90 percent African American, where the poverty rate is much, much higher than in the rest of the city, where basic amenities and infrastructures are deteriorating and sorely lacking, where there are multifold challenges in terms of health, environment, and social equity outcomes.

I was interested in looking more deeply at the production of those inequalities, what led to this stark apartheid geography, and then specifically looking at what this has meant in terms of environmental outcomes. And it so happened that at the time I started thinking about this, the District of Columbia government started publishing a series of climate resilience plans, thinking about, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, how are we going to make American cities more resilient, more able to cope with future extreme weather events wrought by climate change? These plans selectively put the lens on particular vulnerabilities while also neglecting longstanding inequalities wrought by racial capitalism, racial segregation, and environmental racism.

I wanted to challenge and critique these frameworks of resilience. One of the ways that Eve Bratman and I found was, what does the vocabulary of climate justice bring into the fold that resilience has neglected? We asked two questions: what are current conditions of climate change vulnerability and precarity in some of these neighborhoods in DC that are supposedly prone to extreme weather events or climate vulnerability? And, second, how are residents currently combating and coping with these vulnerabilities and precarities?

And one of the things we argue is that mainstream resilience thinking—this kind of top-down expert-driven resilience thinking— is focused on technical solutions and future-gazing, in the sense that it’s focusing on how we “climate proof” DC, especially these vulnerable neighborhoods, from future extreme weather. It’s not focused on some of the historical causes of harm. So, we sought to do a historical analysis, and this is key for building theory and for a deepening a sense of how to actually achieve justice.

SM: Exactly on that point, like you rightly mentioned, there are places like the Global South in the Global North and places like the North in the South. So, in terms of doing research in both these analytical categories, what are the potential opportunities and the challenges of theoretically drawing from both of these contexts and also in terms of building solidarity movements between disenfranchised, disempowered, oppressed, marginalized people across both contexts?

MR: Thank you for that question. I think there’s more and more interest, particularly among younger scholars, for breaking down these long-held ontological and epistemological boundaries and categories, as you call them, between North and South. And you see a trend in the academy of folks doing this. I feel like I’m also part of this trend, and in many ways have learned from and benefited from the early scholars who have done this, and I’m also helping to chart a path for others to do it as well.

Speaking very concretely about the DC case, my colleague Eve Bratman wrote an article in Third World Quarterly, “Development’s Paradox: is Washington DC a Third World city?” in which she outlined really startling indicators in especially northeast and southeast DC on, for instance, things like the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and how much higher it was in these areas than other parts of DC; in fact, they were approximating Haiti and other places that we normally associate with the Global South.

I want to challenge and critique these frameworks of resilience. What does the vocabulary of climate justice bring into the fold that resilience has neglected?

In my own work on water, I found that there are geographies within the US that are often out of sight out of mind that have conditions of peripheral urbanization with inadequate access to water and sanitation. They still rely on privies for sanitation. You see that in the US deep South, on the US-Mexico border, in California’s Central Valley. So, empirically, the realities are there. And then the question analytically is, well, then what do we learn from social science research on the Global South that can help us better understand these geographies in the US? And then, conversely, what can we learn about the production of elite spaces in the Global North that is helpful in terms of global capital and understanding the production of elite spaces in the Global South? I think that theory building for understanding global geographies is a compelling way to do things. It’s exciting and it’s also difficult.

Featured image: Water infrastructure in Washington, DC. Photo by Alexandr Trubetskoy, 2011.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Dr. Malini Ranganathan is Assistant Professor in the School of International Service at American University, where she broadly researches urban environmental justice in India and the US. A critical urban geographer by training, she examines the politics of water, flood risk, and property-making in Bangalore/Bengaluru, India, focusing on colonial and postcolonial projects around infrastructure and space and how these shape and are shaped by social difference. Dr. Ranganathan also investigates urban environmental and housing inequality in America and is researching prospects for antiracist climate justice in Washington, DC. Website. Twitter. Contact.

Siddharth Menon is a Ph.D. student in Geography at University of Wisconsin–Madison. His research interests lie at the intersection of economic and cultural geography, political ecology, and STS. For his Ph.D. dissertation, Siddharth is working on an ethnography of concrete as building construction technology in Kerala, southern India to highlight the possibilities and challenges of building with concrete in the Anthropocene. Website. Twitter. Contact.