The Allure of the Transnational: Notes on Some Aspects of the Political Economy of Water in India

Peer Reviewed


Over the past decade, environmental and social justice activists have increasingly focused their attentions and energies on the privatization of water resources around the globe. Many of the debates and oppositional struggles surrounding this issue have focused on what has been termed the "corporate theft" of water resources. Opposition to transnational corporations like Suez, Vivendi, The Coca-Cola Company, among others, has focused on a range of issues from privatization and price gouging to bottling groundwater and environmental contamination. In this article, I focus on one small struggle for water rights in Plachimada, Kerala, India. I use the Plachimada example to argue that corporate control of resources in India must be located and analyzed within a framework that is not restricted to neoliberal globalization and transnational corporations. I suggest that the struggle of communities like Plachimada should be analyzed as part of the unfolding agrarian crisis in India. Corporate and government strategies to privatize water, along with other goods and services, have especially had a devastating effect on peasants and farmers in rural India and provide new avenues for the reconfigurations of intra- and interclass conflicts between and across the rural–urban divide in neoliberal India. As academics and activists, we face the important task of combining "old" and "new" conceptual or theoretical and political concerns as we confront the exigencies and emergencies wrought by neoliberal globalization.

"Water is our Birthright." November 2007 via A. Aiyer.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles that examine the effects of neoliberalism on rural populations and contexts. See, for example, Shao Jing’s “Fluid Labor and Blood Money: The Economy of HIV/AIDS in Rural Central China” (2006), Aradhana Sharma’s “Crossbreeding Institutions, Breeding Struggle: Women’s Empowerment, Neoliberal Governmentality, and State (Re)Formation in India” (2006), and Yan Hairong’s “Neoliberal Governmentality and Neohumanism: Organizing Suzhi/Value Flow through Labor Recruitment Networks” (2003).

About the Author

Ananthakrishnan Aiyer is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan-Flint.

Links from the Essay

Center for Science and Environment

High Court of Kerala

Kerala State Pollution Control Board

The Coca-Cola Company

Communist Party of India-Marxist

The Statesman

The World Bank

Media Links

Community Protests Coca-Cola Plant in India

Criminal Charges Against Coca-Cola Likely in India

The Adivasi of India—A History of Discrimination, Conflict, and Resistance

Polaris Institute

Organization Links

Killer Coke

Blue Planet Project

People’s Union for Civil Liberties

India Resource Center

India Together

Adivasi Munnetra Sangam Gudalur

Grassroots Recycling Network Coke Campaign

Pesticide Action Network



Related Scholarly Works

Ghosh, Kaushik (2006) "Between Global Flows and Local Dams: Indigenousness, Locality, and the Transnational Sphere in Jharkhand, India." Cultural Anthropology 21(4): 501–534.

Gill, Lesley (2005) "Labor and Human Rights: “The Real Thing” in Colombia." Transforming Anthropology 13(2): 110–115.

Gill, Lesley (2006) "Fighting for Justice, Dying for Hope: On the Protest Line in Colombia." North American Dialogue 9(2): 9–13.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. Aiyer writes that, “there are issues peculiar to local, regional, and national dynamics in India that need to be analyzed in a manner quite distinct from the literature on transnationalism and globalization”; does this essay succeed in shifting the discussion away from a “globalized framework”?

2. What is Aiyer’s rationale for privileging the agrarian crises over issues of transnational corporate take-over?

3. What Indian institutions played a role in the Coca-Cola controversy, and what do the reactions and interactions of various government branches say about state politics?

4. Who are the Adivasi and where do they figure into the struggle against the Coca-Cola Company?

5. Who is served by the bottled water industry in India? Who isn’t served? How does this relate to existing struggles over groundwater and the way the Coca-Cola pesticide controversy was publicized?

6. What does Aiyer mean by “the India of the 88%”? How is this category historically situated and what class struggles are emerging from here?

In-Class Activity or Homework Assignment

Mapping Exercise—In small groups, pairs, or individually, have students make a list of 1) actors, institutions, or groups; 2) events; 3) historical and emerging issues; 4) other relevant factors. Students will then draw on these lists to create a map of the situation discussed in the essay. The map should show and explain connections between actors, events, issues and other relevant factors.

Editorial Overview

In the November 2007 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Ananthakrishnan Aiyer analyzes the struggle for water in Plachimada, in the Indian state of Kerala, where The Coca-Cola Company bottling plant has both drained and contaminated groundwater on which the local farming community depends. Aiyer’s essay “The Allure of the Transnational: Notes on Some Aspects of the Political Economy of Water in India,” argues that media and government interest in these conflicts over water rights privileges transnational dynamics, and obscures the complexity of preexisting local resource struggles in Plachimada, Kerala. More than another example of neoliberalism and the impact of transnational corporations, Aiyer argues that the Plachimada conflict needs to be situated within India’s ongoing agrarian crisis, inter-government politics, and shifting demographics. These social factors, Aiyer shows, preceded the arrival of The Coca-Cola Company, and upon the departure of The Coca-Cola Company, Plachimada inhabitants “will return back to their original struggle—land, water rights, and self-governance. Their targets this time will be the local landowning classes and the state of Kerala.” 

Instead of focusing on the plight of Plachimada farmers and landowners, the Indian media and government rallied opposition against The Coca-Cola Company around reports that soft drinks had been contaminated with pesticides, Aiyer describes. Publicized as product toxicity affecting middle-class consumers rather than as an issue of water rights for the Plachimada community, the essay demonstrates how critical analysis succumbs to the “allure of the transnational.” Aiyer’s essay calls for ethnographic attention to preexisting and emerging social challenges in understanding current resource struggles. This essay will be of interest to readers concerned with resource politics, local and transnational complexities, India, governance, neoliberalism, and agrarian crisis.

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