Accepted paper:

The revival of Tālāb: Mughal oases, urban catchments, and water dystopia in New Delhi


Georgina Drew (University of Adelaide)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the social values placed on precolonial water management structures in South Delhi and it juxtaposes their idealisation with public disdain over the wasteful and centrally managed post-colonial infrastructures that lead to inequitable water access in India's capital city.

Paper long abstract:

South Delhi was once a landscape renowned for numerous watery oases mandated by a succession of precolonial rulers. These water catchment structures ranged from wide artificial reservoirs known as tālāb to intricately ornate and aesthetically pleasing step-wells, called baoli. Such oases served as sources of nourishment and as centers of recreation and leisure. They aggregated to create a hydrosocial oasis in what was otherwise an arid region. In this paper, I explore the legacy of these water structures as well as the efforts to uphold them as models for a new (or renewed) type of sustainable urban infrastructure in contemporary New Delhi. The methodology for the discussion draws from site visits, expert interviews, and the analysis of water policy documents composed by governmental and non-governmental organizations. In looking to these sources of information, I explore how frugal and communally maintained precolonial water management practices are juxtaposed with wasteful and centrally managed post-colonial water management infrastructures. This discussion includes the idealization of past practices, which contrast with outcries over an emerging urban water dystopia. At issue, I argue, is not merely the material challenge of infrastructural revival; instead, what emerges is the challenge of transforming ideologies around contemporary water management and use. The ongoing legacy of post-enlightenment modernity looms large in the analysis, as do questions of pre- and postcolonial resource ethics. But at the heart of the conversations in circulation is a desire to return to prominence the watery oases that could help usher in a renewed hydrosocial balance.

panel P14
Hydroscapes and hydrosocial states: culture and the political ecology of water governance