The Aesthetics of Hydraulic Citizenship in Dhaka
Whether consciously or not, the residents of Dhaka are well aware of the relationship between their amenities and the politics of space and privilege. These known “truths” are heard constantly in day-to-day conversation: “It’s Mirpur, gas pressure is low this time of day.”, “Road work shouldn’t take more than a few hours in Gulshan.”, “They’re digging up the road again (in Mohakhali)?!”. However, the objective of this paper is to move further from these generic statements about the general problems the residents of the different areas of Dhaka city face, into gaining a bit more nuanced understanding of the assemblages of politics, power, technology, and belonging that shape the citizenship of the people of Dhaka.
Everyone needs water. If one does not have a formal connection to it, one will create an illegal one. Connected to water are sewage and drainage- the dirty water has to go somewhere. From this need for water, the concept of hydraulic citizenship is born. Hydraulic Citizenship, as defined by Nikhil Anand (Anand 545), is the way one may forge their “belonging to the city based on the social and material claims one makes to the city’s water infrastructure.” This form of citizenship is not limited to the social, but also the physical, as not only are their politics tied to gaining hydraulic citizenship, but these politics are intertwined with non-human aspects- the technology, the pipes, the pumps; as well as water itself, which can not be fully contained by human constructs. All these come together to form what Anand describes as hydraulic citizenship, the way people in a city negotiate their claims on the amenities so many politicians promise.
I would like to demonstrate this concept by looking at examples from three different neighbourhoods of Dhaka- Gulshan 2, Shekerket and Taj Mahal Road. The first one, Gulshan 2, is one of the wealthiest areas in Dhaka, housing the likes of politicians, businessmen, and foreign diplomats. Therefore, the expectations for the drainage system in Gulshan are high. Pristine drains and cover manholes, little to no (visible) ongoing maintenance work- this is what one would expect from this area. Gulshan, upholding its image, delivered just that.
On the commercial end, the manholes were well-maintained and covered. There are at least four different types of drains on my street alone: storm drains on the sides of the sidewalks, regular manholes, slotted manholes, and a main access hatch at the end of the street. On streets that see heavy foot traffic on a daily basis, the manholes are a bit more worn out, their dating faded and some are covered with tar from a recent-enough road renovation, but nonetheless, they are functional. Towards the very end of the road, there is an abandoned water tank owned by WASA (Water Supply and Sewerage Authority), the main body administering water supply, drainage and sanitation system in Bangladesh. This tank, as a passion project of Gulshan resident and architect/artist Saljar Rahman, has been painted to look like an alien spaceship, with three curious aliens peering over the Kamal Ataturk side of the Gulshan 2 circle (Hasan). This is the busy, bustling, loud side of Gulshan
On the other side, once one crosses Kamal Ataturk Avenue, is the more residential side. This side of Gulshan 2 is quieter, and there is less foot traffic. Some streets see more cars, while others barely do. The streets are pristine here, even cleaner than on the commercial side. The manholes- well, one could almost use one as a dinner plate. Some manholes were being renovated on this side, to update them to the newest DNCC (Dhaka North City Corporation) design, and change the old concrete slabs with metal pulls previously installed in the space. No matter the differences between these two sides, one thing is nearly certain, the residents of this area rarely, if ever, face issues in their water flow or drainage.
As in Anand’s Mumbai, some residents of Dhaka must negotiate their own hydraulic citizenship depending on where they live and the level of privilege they possess. From the discussion above, it should be noted that most of the residents of Gulshan 2 do not need to go into these negotiations. The pressure emanating from the powerful figures living in the area is enough for WASA to provide a safe and clean water and drainage system. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all other areas of Dhaka.
Having looked into the hydraulic citizenship of the residents of other areas of Dhaka, such as Banani, Gulshan 1, Niketon, Farmgate, Dhanmondi, and Mohammadpur, one can see that although Banani, Gulshan 1, and Niketan fare similarly to Gulshan 2, the scenario is quite different, especially in places such as Mohammadpur or Farmgate. Two cases in Mohammadpur especially interested me, those two being Shekerket and Taj Mahal Road. Shekertek’s case is the polar opposite of Gulshan 2, with severe water insecurity in some buildings and a general lack of sanitation and safe water for most others. Descriptions of the area showed open manholes and sewer waste on the road, as well as disconnected drainage pipes from the buildings to the main pipes- all this is especially true for the informal settlements in the area. Taj Mahal Road interested me mainly because of its dedicated lanes for sewage collection known as Methor Passage, which is a passage for the people from communities engaging in clearing sewage.
Although both of these neighbourhoods face different challenges, one thing remains in common for both: community action has been brought in as an attempt by the residents to help clear up, clean, and maintain their own living spaces. This, to me, is a strong indicator of the hydraulic citizenships residents create in this area and the negotiations that come with it, a local attempt to “deal” with the exclusionary policies of bureaucracy under WASA. In both cases, housing unions were formed to put pressure on WASA to either fix or clean the issues in their respective areas. Where WASA was lacking, in areas such as Shekertek, the housing union was able to pay workers directly out of their own pocket to clean the sewage from the street.
Circling back to the WASA water tank mentioned earlier, I noticed it one day on my way home, long after it had already been painted and the aliens had already been watching us for a few years. As it turned out, the project came from the mind and work of a Gulshan resident, an artist, who wanted to beautify an eyesore in his area, left abandoned by WASA. The project was sponsored by bKash, a mobile financial service in Bangladesh, collaborating with the artist’s own Studio Bangi to create the work, and later on getting WASA’s blessing (Hasan). This was an action taken by a member of the resident community, but the focus was not on function or safety, but rather on beauty. This is in contrast to Shekertek and Taj Mahal Road, where community action focuses mainly on cleanliness and function while serving the dual purpose of removing eyesores, they do not push for the enhanced beautification of the area through art or other beautification means such as gardens or sculptures, as seen around the Gulshan, Banani, and Niketan Lakes- all of which are wealthier areas in Dhaka.
Thus, this leads me to consider another aspect of hydraulic citizenship, where citizens, to establish their belonging through negotiating basic necessities such as cleanliness and safety, must focus solely on these functional aspects. Where a citizen is secure in their hydraulic citizenship, they may find the time to want to beautify their surroundings, not just remove eyesores, but rather enhance them and create unique features in the skyline of their residence. Further, the community actions that residents of other areas take are often financed by themselves, whereas a project such as the water tank was sponsored.
The hydraulic citizenship of living in Dhaka city is a dichotomous beast, where in one area the residents rarely, if ever, have to worry about the very basic matters of living, such as sewage and access to water, while others have to run constant negotiations to gain even a fraction of that standard of cleanliness despite living in a formal living space. To quote Anand: “Pressure’s absence reveals much about how it is made” (Anand 546). Beautification and expensive mega-projects seem to be taking precedence over ensuring safe water and effective drainage systems for all Dhaka residents- who continue to suffer while paying higher and higher amounts for their amenities (Kamol; The Daily Star). Yet, WASA has declared that they will be bringing all of Dhaka under a 100% permanent sewage system by 2030 (Star Digital Report). The effects of this declaration from last year are yet to be seen, but one hopes that when WASA says all of Dhaka, no resident is left fighting to establish their hydraulic citizenship against exclusionary policymaking- but that is an idealistic hope.
Anand, Nikhil. “PRESSURE: The PoliTechnics of Water Supply in Mumbai.” Cultural Anthropology, vol. 26, no. 4, 2011, pp. 542-564. 10.1111/j.1548-1360.2011.01111.
The Daily Star. “Another hike?” The Daily Star, 12 August 2022,
https://www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/utilities/news/another-hike-3092991. Hasan, Rashidul. “Eyesore turns eye-soothing | Print Version.” Daily Sun, 16 July 2019, https://www.daily-sun.com/post/407673/Eyesore-turns-eyesoothing.
Kamol, Ershad. “Dhaka WASA mega projects bring little benefit.” New Age, 8 August 2020, https://www.newagebd.net/article/113024/dhaka-wasa-mega-projects-bring-little-benefit. Star Digital Report. “WASA to bring Dhaka under 100% permanent sewerage network by 2030.” The Daily Star, 30 August 2022,
Tribune Desk. “Dhaka now 4th most populous city globally.” Dhaka Tribune, 4 December 2022, https://www.dhakatribune.com/world/2022/12/04/dhaka-4th-most-populous-city-globally