The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. Previously: I, II, III.
Nausheen H Anwar received her PhD from Columbia University. She is currently Assistant Professor of Urban Studies in the Social Sciences & Liberal Arts Department (SSLA)at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Karachi. Her book, Infrastructure Redux: Crisis, Progress in Industrial Pakistan & Beyond was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015.
[Interview conducted by Patwari, via email, July 29th-August 24th, 2015]
1. In Karachi, issues such as electricity outages and water scarcity are never far from one’s mind. One way to make sense of these is the failed/failing state narrative, or that the state is missing. In your terrific book, Infrastructure Redux: Crisis, Progress in Industrial Pakistan & Beyond, you argue that the state is not missing in this infrastructural crisis, or at least that this is not an adequate framework for understanding Pakistan’s infrastructural woes. Would you elaborate?
At a basic level, my work calls for a reorientation of the ‘state failure’ argument. This line of argumentation has been invoked with particular regularity in Pakistan and that too with damaging consequences in terms of seeing the political-economy as something that has descended into a permanent state of ‘chaos’. Not only is this an over-simplification, but it also elides the complex and contradictory terrain on which the state-led project of infrastructure development has unfolded in historical and contemporary contexts. While there is no doubt that Pakistan’s electricity problems have worsened in the last decade and the state is no longer able to provide uninterrupted electricity, yet it would be a truism to read this problematic as a straightforward illustration of state failure in the overall planning and provision of infrastructure. I have endeavored to situate the infrastructure crisis within a bigger story of the ways in which infrastructure itself has been historically transformed; as a developmental concept, a policy tool and as a technology of rule, and above all to capture the state-infrastructure nexus in relational terms. While incessant electricity breakdowns point to state disconnect, the development of other types of infrastructures such as roads, motorways, highways, ports, signal the state’s ongoing involvement. In the specific context of my research in industrializing urban Punjab, I encountered contradictory narratives about the state’s role in infrastructure planning and provision. These narratives do not mesh with easy explanations of a failed Pakistani state. I contend that rather than seeing the state as absent or missing in the planning and provision of infrastructure, it is far more constructive to examine the ways in which its presence has been reconfigured, for instance through firm-led infrastructural initiatives, privatization and deregulation and processes of globalization. These contradictory narratives enable us to interrogate the relational context in which state-firm relations are assembled on ground, and how such processes hinge on dynamics of state patronage. For instance, in Chapter 2 on Sialkot, I discuss how road building discourses have played a key role in bringing together the state, firms and infrastructures, and I contrast this with the electricity case study in Chapter 3 on Faisalabad. So in a sense the messy terrain of building state-firm relations and the accompanying symbolic aspects of infrastructures also force us to pose important questions about the marginalizing and liberating powers of such technologies.