Theses Doctoral

Fluvial Government: Tracking Petroleum as Liquid Infrastructure in India

Jain, Sarandha

This dissertation studies the oil-mediated relationship between the Indian state and citizens. Focusing on both oil production and consumption, through 24 months of ethnography of oil refineries, ports, research institutes, state offices, a peri-urban working-class-neighborhood near Delhi (called Nathupur), and ‘black markets’, as well as archival research, this project examines oil as an infrastructure for the state and for society. I argue that the Indian state distributes itself into citizens’ lives via petroleum products, which obtain their socio-political agencies while being produced in certain ways, and play out those agencies while being consumed in certain ways.

This ethnography of refineries details out the microprocesses of oil refining and the complex relationship that human and nonhuman actors share. It elaborates on how politics get programmed into petroleum products, designed to discipline consumer-citizens into particular lifestyles, and how varying actors encumber this. Research on oil consumption in Nathupur, with ‘black-marketeers’ and ordinary consumers of petroleum products, probes what I call “distorted discipline”, where governmental plans get mangled by the informal practices of state actors as well as citizens. How does the politics programmed into petroleum products in refineries actually play out once other actors intervene, and snatch control over oil away from the state?

Investigating this tussle between legalized and illegalized groups, I describe how it structures citizens’ lives, and the constellations of power and forms of sociality it gives rise to. This dissertation highlights the constant churning between the state and citizens through ever-evolving devices of government, as well as through escape from them. Specific modes of subjectification, engineered through flows of oil, lie at the heart of this churning, over which state-citizen formations are negotiated.

Keywords: political anthropology, state studies, infrastructure - social aspects/political aspects, state-citizen relations, citizenship, urban studies, informality/illegality

Geographic Areas


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2024-08-19.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Larkin, Brian
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 24, 2022