What do such disparate cities as New Delhi, Jakarta, Mexico City, and Phoenix all have in common? In short, each city relies on a fantastic technology that few people know anything about but has transformed the shape and life of cities and their hinterlands: the tubewell. Water pump technologies for drawing up groundwater, tubewells are used in places where municipal water supply is non-existent, unreliable, or often polluted. A minor technology with a global reach, the tubewell is to the city what the elevator was to the skyscraper in the booming American metropolis of the early twentieth century. In this course we look at how tubewells and other decentralized infrastructures have radically transformed urban and agricultural spaces across the globe since the nineteenth century to the present. We watch how people exult before these infrastructures; we witness how governments and philanthropies as well as farmers and townspeople appropriate them for radically different ends. And we consider why.

The course will proceed chronologically from the nineteenth century to the present. While global in scope, we will focus most of our attention on South and Southeast Asia. In particular, we will focus on the evolution of pump technologies and how they have changed life in cities and their hinterlands. If as historian Swati Chattopadhyay argues, “Urban forms have a direct correlation with infrastructural norms,” then what can the shift to decentralized water infrastructure tell us about the form and life of cities?

Along with the weekly readings, students will watch a number of films where decentralized and centralized systems play an important, if occasionally clandestine, role in shaping spaces and experiences in cities and farms.