Thinking and Teaching Corruption, Caste, and the State with Namita Dharia

Hard hats at a construction site in Gurugram, India. Photo by Namita Vijay Dharia.

This post builds on the research article “Embodied Urbanisms: Corruption and the Ecologies of Eating and Excreting in India's Real Estate Economies” by Namita Vijay Dharia, which was published in the November 2021 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Namita Vijay Dharia’s “Embodied Urbanisms” explores the metabolic nature of corruption discourse in the context of rapid real estate development in Gurugram, India. This post highlights its contributions both to the study of contemporary India and to current conversations in cultural anthropology. The first part offers a ‘menu’ of teaching options, presenting three themes within the anthropology of India for which Dharia’s article might be used as an assigned reading. The second part of the post features an author interview with Dharia about infrastructure, inequality, and the intersections of anthropology and architecture.

Pedagogical Pairings for the Anthropology of India

“Embodied Urbanisms” draws together several bodies of work around key themes in the sociology and anthropology of India, including issues of caste, corruption, and the state. For each of these themes, this post offers a ‘pedagogical pairing’—another key text (or two) to serve as corroboration or counterpoint to Dharia's—and a set of questions for in-class discussion or students’ written reflections. These pairings could be used in an advanced undergraduate or introductory graduate-level course.

Corruption Discourses

Pair with: Gupta, Akhil. 1995. “Blurred Boundaries: The Discourse of Corruption, the Culture of Politics, and the Imagined State.” American Ethnologist 22, no. 2: 375–402.

  • Give some examples of discourses about corruption in India from both articles. Why is it important to study how people talk about corruption in everyday life? What can we learn from these discourses, according to the authors?
  • How does Dharia’s piece expand the meaning of “corruption” as you understand it from Gupta’s analysis? What is the significance of this intervention?
  • Compare and contrast Gupta’s and Dharia’s approaches to embodiment and eating. How does the consuming body serve as manifestation and/or metaphor of corruption?
  • What configurations of state, market, and civil society are posited or critiqued through corruption discourses, according to Gupta and Dharia?  

States and Infrastructures

Pair with: Anand, Nikhil. 2011. “Pressure: The PoliTechnics of Water Supply in Mumbai.” Cultural Anthropology 26, no. 4: 542–64.

  • What uncertainties and contestations surrounding public versus private provisioning of basic urban services emerge through a focus on the water and sewage infrastructures discussed by Anand and Dharia?
  • Drawing from Dharia’s and Anand’s analysis, develop a definition of “infrastructural labor.” In these accounts, what social actors engage in infrastructural labor, and what does that labor entail?
  • How do the material properties and physical movements of water and sewage shape different communities’ claims to what Anand calls “substantive citizens[hip]” (p. 550)?

The Urbanity of Caste

Pair with: Frøystad, Kathinka. 2003. “Master-Servant Relations and the Domestic Reproduction of Caste in Northern India.” Ethnos 68, no. 1: 73–94.

  • Drawing on examples from Dharia, Frøystad, and/or Lee, how might you respond to someone who argues that caste is only a rural phenomenon in contemporary India?
  • How do caste relations map onto distinct urban spaces? Compare and contrast the spatialization of caste in the contexts described by Dharia, Frøystad, and Lee.
  • How does class intersect with caste in the discourses of Dharia's and Frøystad's interlocutors? How are capital, value, and consumption implicated in this intersection?
Work in progress: Gurugram, India. Photo by Namita Vijay Dharia.

Author Interview

Isabel M. Salovaara: One of your interventions in this piece is to bring together discourses around “eating and excreting”—excess consumption and uncontained sewage—to reveal a unifying critique of “corruption” in India’s real estate economy. Without doing too great a disservice to this argument, I wonder if you might tease apart some of the differences between these modes of critique. In particular, how does the critique of the overflowing sewer (echoing fears of ‘pollution’ by non-dominant groups) differ from the critique of the expanding pet (expressing disdain for dominant-caste greed)? Is there something particular to the “middle” social positioning of some of your interlocutors (as neither elite nor destitute, neither Brahmin nor Dalit) that enables them to marshal both sets of critiques?

Namita Vijay Dharia: Thank you, Isabel, for these great questions and for engaging with my article. Yes, this is an ambitious paper that tries to draw together discourses that are often kept separate—eating and excreting—each of which could have been an article on its own. Two separate articles on eating and sewage in Gurgaon (now Gurugram) would have likely dealt with different things. Overflowing sewers and the politics of contamination fall into the realm of urban development politics and the politics of otherization and discrimination. The concepts of excess, contamination, and mixing with respect to the study of sewage analyze dominant-caste (adopting Yengde’s use of the term dominant-caste [2019, chapter 1]) anxieties and help us think along the waste-value spectrum. Eating in the context of the communities I worked with, articulated political corruption and an excess of wealth; it indexed extractive consumptive practices and inequity tied to changing ruro-urban economies.

As you know, eating and excreting, in the Indian context, are often segregated due to pollution norms. This separation is also mirrored in academia. In anthropology, eating falls under the anthropology of food and foodways and excreting within the purview of waste studies. Both discourses, in the Indian context, engage with caste and engage with value and in Gurgaon’s case are tied to the political economies of land. It was these resonances and the materialites they indexed that pushed me to draw them together; that and the fact that a more holistic metabolic cycle reading might allow us to unite body politics and infrastructural studies in intellectually productive ways.

Metabolic urbanism was a concept that I have always been interested in, as it entangles humans, infrastructures, animals, and environmental elements together in intimate ways, but studies of metabolism tended to focus much more on agriculture. Even when brought into the urban context they tended to focus either on infrastructure (Swyngedouw 2006) or bodies (Solomon 2016) not focusing on the connections between infrastructure and bodies. Scholars like Mel Chen (2012) and Michelle Murphy (2017) really helped me think through how the environment reshapes us. I was really interested in how a transforming ruro-urban landscape interdigitates with body politics through understandings of metabolism; hence, uniting the critiques made sense.

In my case, the folks I interviewed led me to connect dominant-caste greed to eating and waste management to non-dominant caste groups. While one served as a critique of affluence and expressed an inherent anxiety around being affluent, the other served as a mechanism to reinforce caste mobility. While there is much to say in terms of each critique, I find that putting that dual uneasiness together really articulates a range of issues relating to land politics, financialization, and social transformation through development.

I agree with you that non-dominant caste communities who are neither dominant-caste nor Dalit, also sometimes reinforce caste hierarchies, and other scholars have pointed this out as well. At the same time many members of these communities articulate being discriminated against by dominant-caste communities. There also exists very real prejudice towards and sensationalization of Haryanavi locals, such as Jats amongst elite Indians.[1] For me, it was precisely because Ahirs and Jats can marshal both sets of critiques—at once express anxiety and power around their own changing positionality—that allowed me to see the connections between urbanism, eating, and excreting in interconnected ways.

IMS: Infrastructure and its absence are central to the ethnographic context you describe. How do you see your work as speaking to emergent conversations in the anthropology of infrastructure? How do the frameworks of urban infrastructures and urban ecologies work together for you?

NVD: My work is very much in conversation with the anthropology of infrastructures as well as political ecology; part of this writing also emerges from the desire to create greater conversations between them. My career as scholar of architecture and infrastructure has always emplaced me in political economic and infrastructural studies, but the literature in urban political ecology and political ecology more broadly, has always been a site of nourishment and creative energy.

I believe this article is part of a new direction in the anthropology of infrastructure that thinks through the role of embodiment and body politics in infrastructures and engages with the intimacy of infrastructures. Urban infrastructures have intimate connections to physiologies and psychologies, be it in the illuminations they provide through electricity that disrupt sleep patterns (my next project), the hygiene aspects of sewage, or the effects of the mobility and motions of road infrastructures. A large part of my work is influenced by the aesthetics and politics of infrastructure, and I have often longed for greater connections with political ecology for them. While some authors have done this quite well especially in terms of water and waste politics, I felt there was much more the field could do. One of the crucial lenses that inspired me in the later is the feminist and queer lens (e.g., Chen 2012, Tsing 2012, Haraway 2016, Parreñas 2018) that created a focus on affect, intimacy, body politics, and race. I was especially influenced by studies of toxics, human-nonhuman relations, new materialisms, and metabolic studies. These lenses call for more intimate ways of thinking through the relationship between infrastructure and people and also muddles the distinction and boundaries between them. I love the dissolution of the idea of a contained body and studying the fluidity between us and our built environments.

“...this article is part of a new direction in the anthropology of infrastructure that thinks through the role of embodiment and body politics in infrastructures and engages with the intimacy of infrastructures. Urban infrastructures have intimate connections to physiologies and psychologies, be it in the illuminations they provide through electricity that disrupt sleep patterns...the hygiene aspects of sewage, or the effects of the mobility and motions of road infrastructures.”

IMS: You invoke Dalit rights activist and scholar Suraj Yengde in your concluding suggestion that contests over real estate speculation in Gurgaon (now Gurugram) express “sensoriality as power.” Yet some of these sensorial struggles—the search for anand or inner balance, as one of your interlocutors put it—seem to draw their strength from caste hierarchy and Brahminical ideals. How do you reconcile the role of casteism and patriarchy in critiquing the excesses of neoliberal capital? Where might critical scholars search for other, perhaps more insurgent forms of “balance” between the excesses of speculative capital and the sensorial powers that challenge it?

NVD: Rather than reconciliation, I would use complicitly, as both casteism and patriarchy work hand in hand. Kancha Illiah Shepherd calls for dominant-caste feminists to ally with Dalit activism by examining their own roles within systems of oppression (2019:77). In a paper in process, I speak more closely about patriarchy and dominant-caste caste politics role in contemporary urban development. Property, religious discrimination (both through casteism as well as religion, i.e. Islam, Christianity) and patriarchy interplay in the production of urban development politics in India, especially through Hindu Law, networks of acquisition and financing, and through conceptions of dynasty and family.

You are right that sensorial politics can be emancipatory or discriminatory and violent, sometimes both. It really depends on who uses them and how they mobilize them, what communities these politics stay within, and who appropriates them, and to what end? And some practices only are successful if they remain within specific communities. The answers are never simple nor straightforward. What is important to me is understanding the power of sensorial actions and critiques. Urban development is often understood as unimportant to body politics and devoid of caste politics.

In terms of different ways of finding balance, political ecology looks towards Indigenous scholars and community leaders who speak about different relationships with land and different forms of connection (e.g. Kimmerer 2015), I think the same holds true in India. I do not even know if I would call them insurgent forms of balance, unacknowledged, silenced, and erased by dominant forms would perhaps be more apt.

IMS: You mention in the piece your prior training and experience as an architect. Could you share a bit about how those experiences, and your interest in interdisciplinary approaches that bring anthropology into conversation with urban planning, inform this article and your broader research agenda? What synergies between these disciplines seem most promising to you?

NVD: Like the above questions, this is also subject to a longer conversation, given that the two disciplines are very curious about each other. My training as an architect makes me think in scale, and forces connection between body-building-environment, as architects are always designing and imagining architecture in nested scales. At the same time, my architectural education inculcated an understanding of aesthetic, material, and infrastructural registers and their effects on us (albeit in prejudiced ways). For me, architecture has much to learn from anthropology, be it the ways in which anthropology challenges fundamental social and political concepts that architects or designers take for granted, as well as the ways in which anthropology pushes us to see things differently. Anthropology also teaches us to talk to people in meaningful ways that architecture has to learn. Simultaneously, both the disciplines are undergoing and must undergo fundamental restructuring as they are both part and parcel of the tools of colonialism, and this is something I think a lot about: deconstructing the studio, challenging the role of the architect and anthropologist as the central producer of design/ knowledge, and undoing the idea and epistemologies of the disciplines themselves. I have been uncomfortable with calls to decolonize design by unproblematically adopting ethnography, because they do not engage with the past or contemporary discussion of ethnography as a colonial system itself and the ethics of ethnography either. At the same time, anthropology when engaging with architecture or design often replicates a lot of design’s blind spots such as focusing on elite designers, or not challenging the epistemologies of design. There is much to learn from each other as well as much to undo and change within both.

Note

[1] The film NH-8, for example, shows an urban couple facing extreme violence from locals as they travel along the arterial highway National Highway Eight (NH-8, now NH-48) in Haryana.

References

Anand, Nikhil. 2011. “Pressure: The PoliTechnics of Water Supply in Mumbai.” Cultural Anthropology 26, no. 4: 542–64.

Chen, Mel Y. 2012. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Frøystad, Kathinka. 2003. “Master-Servant Relations and the Domestic Reproduction of Caste in Northern India.” Ethnos 68, no. 1: 73–94.

Gupta, Akhil. 1995. “Blurred Boundaries: The Discourse of Corruption, the Culture of Politics, and the Imagined State.” American Ethnologist 22, no. 2: 375–402.

Haraway, Donna J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. 2015. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, Minn.: Milkweed Editions.

Lee, Joel. 2017. “Odor and Order: How Caste Is Inscribed in Space and Sensoria.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 37, no. 3: 470–90.

Murphy, Michelle. 2017. “Alterlife and Decolonial Chemical Relations.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 4: 494–503.

Parreñas, Juno Salazar. 2018. Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Shepherd, Kancha Ilaiah. 2019. Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy. New Delhi: Sage.

Solomon, Harris. 2016. Metabolic Living: Food, Fat, and the Absorption of Illness in India. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Swyngedouw, Eric. 2006. “Metabolic Urbanization: The Making of Cyborg Cities.” In In the Nature of Cities: Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism, edited by Nik Heynen, Maria Kaika, and Erik Swyngedouw, 21–40. New York: Routledge.

Tsing, Anna L. 2012. “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species: for Donna Haraway.” Environmental Humanities 1, no. 1: 141–54.

Yengde, Suraj. 2019. Caste Matters. New York: Penguin Books.