XQs IV: A Conversation with Nausheen H Anwar


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.


Anwar_PicNausheen 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.

Infrastructure Redux

2. What is your book’s main argument?

The focus of this book is on industrial infrastructures of production and circulation: ports, roads, electricity. It looks at how these material technologies undergird visions of progress and mediate relations between the state and capitalist firms. The book explores the impact of disintegrating infrastructures on different sized firms in diverse export-oriented industries in urban Punjab, and analyzes the conditions through which infrastructures’ disruptions and facilitations bring to fore struggles to reshape modern industrial life in Pakistan. The main argument is that in the present conjuncture of an infrastructure crisis the apparent absence of the state in the planning and provision of industrial infrastructure is somewhat misleading. It’s not that the state is missing but rather its presence is reconfigured through a variety of firm-led infrastructural initiatives. Moreover, the strategies of capitalist firms operate within a moral economy in which a pervasive narrative of national moral decline and uncertainty explains the disintegration of a specific type of public infrastructure: electricity. An important point is that the contradictory narratives of state absence and presence emerge from the uneven terrain of infrastructural expansion and contraction, and infrastructure’s mediation of state–firm relations amidst a highly uncertain political-economic landscape. The basic context of these competing narratives of crisis and progress can be understood in terms of the patron–client model that has historically defined relations of power between the Pakistani state and industrialists. The main argument is bolstered by case study data generated through surveys and ethnographic methods in export-oriented industrial and industrializing districts of Sialkot and Faisalabad in Punjab, Pakistan.

3.  Critiques of the term ‘Neoliberalism’ are now emerging. In her recent essay, Sara Ahmed, for instance, has taken issue with its sweeping application. In your book you take issue with the term as well. Can you explain what you see as the main problem with it?
My main problem with the term is that it has been taken as an explanation for everything: from the establishment of market relations to the spread of administrative control, and yet remains a highly obscure concept. Often it is the simplistic picture of neoliberalism that is taken for granted, particularly the replacement of governmental authority by free market rules. In the Pakistani context of an infrastructural transition, privatization measures, infrastructure ‘unbundling’, road building projects, firms’ strategic responses to infrastructure innovations anchored in patron–client frames—these dynamics do not really tell us what neoliberalism is about. The cases of the roads, ports and electricity infrastructures do not conform to the image of an ‘absent’ or ‘withered away’ state that is often seen as a hallmark of neoliberalism. In Pakistan, private capital and competition has been introduced through reforms in the electricity generation industry, but with very ambiguous effects alongside greater state interventions through the prism of regulation. I could have argued that this process represents a localized version of neoliberalism, but I believe this approach has limited analytical value. Certain scholars like James Ferguson consider the possibility of abandoning altogether the term neoliberalism. Others, for instance, Stephen Collier in his book Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Modernity, Biopolitics (2011), underscore that a revised understanding of neoliberalism and its attendant transformations are needed. While it is clear that pinning down neoliberalism is an important task, as social scientists we need to consider carefully the use of the term.

4. I loved the chapter on developmentalism. Can you tell us what the similarities and differences are in the colonial and postcolonial development in Pakistan? Where does PL-480 fit the story of development in Pakistan?

After Pakistan’s independence in 1947, with the expansion of the field of development economics and the extensive use of foreign financing and expertise from the Ford Foundation and the World Bank to finance infrastructure projects, foreign advisors like Gustav Papanek, Richard Gilbert and economists like Mahbub ul Haq, Habibur Rahman and others who worked in the Planning Commission, had articulated ideas that abided by developmental logic, as the book illustrates in Chapter 1. They had pushed conceptions of material progress rooted in capitalist accumulation and a centralized institutional means for surmounting the challenge of a ‘backward’ Pakistan. Their writings particularly signaled the intensely metonymic relationship between infrastructure and the state, a relationship that instead of dissolving after colonialism’s end had come to represent the very promise of independent rule and progress in the mid-20th century. The PL-480 story is related to the role of foreign advisors like the American economist Richard Gilbert who headed the highly influential Harvard Advisory Group (HAG) for almost eight years during the Ayub Khan era. Gilbert had made deep inroads in the Planning Commission and believed the HAG was required for a much longer period. Gilbert succeeded in getting PL-480 for Pakistan to support the Public Works Programme. Alongside this achievement, Gilbert had also sold Ayub Khan the idea that in making the Planning Commission stronger, Pakistan would be able to secure more foreign aid. For his achievements, Ayub Khan awarded Gilbert the Sitar-i-Pakistan at the 1965 Independence Day ceremony.

What is Interesting is that Pakistan’s post-independence phase of economic reconstruction also corresponded with colonial practices in terms of an increasingly centralized state structure through which development as infrastructure materialized. Even though investment plans originated at the provincial levels where local agencies identified projects that were reviewed by provincial ministries, the planning agencies at the center retained considerable influence. Noteworthy are the Pakistani government’s expressions of ‘backwardness’ and the prioritization of the economy’s development and this has resonance with the way the colonial masters had also deployed the idea of progress, by making technological transformations and scientific knowledge central to the process. Both colonial and the early managers of the Pakistani state cast the idea of progress in elitist and paternalistic terms and in a structural frame that was overwhelmingly bureaucratic, centralized and military backed. Daniel Haines in his book Building the Empire, Building the Nation (2013), examines the state-led expansion and renovation of the huge irrigation system in the province of Sindh and the ceremonies surrounding the construction of barrages in the 20th century. He argues that despite changing political contexts, the ceremonies displayed similarities in their deployment of the idea of ‘progress’. Still, I have underscored in the book that there is a fundamental difference in the way the colonial masters and the independent government tied infrastructure technology with development. In the post-independence frame, the rhetoric of progress turned distinctly toward industrialization, the acceleration of gross national product (GNP) growth as well as the socioeconomic transformation of Pakistani society. These shifts reflected the independent government’s urgent concerns to turn Pakistan into an economically viable and, to the extent possible, autonomous territorial unit. The trade war that had erupted in 1949 with India and had brought to an end Pakistan’s practice of exporting electricity from its neighbor further heightened a sense of urgency.

5. What was Arthur Lewis’ model of Functional Inequality, especially as it relates to the rural/urban workers?

In the immediate aftermath of independence, both foreign experts’ and the state’s expressions of economic ‘backwardness’ meant that industrialization was prioritized in order for Pakistan to catch up with the world. Moreover, it was presumed that industrialization and material infrastructures would bind together the nation’s far-flung regions: East and West Pakistan. As Pakistan’s industrial growth rate shot up in the early decades, this development unfolded at the expense of the agricultural sector. The bias toward agriculture and the emphasis on rapid industrialization constituted a strategy that resonated with the ideas of the development economist W. Arthur Lewis, particularly his emphasis on a ‘modified classical model’ of economic development that called upon the state to intervene directly in regulating industries, investing in business and using its powers of fiscal, monetary and commercial management to facilitate rapid economic growth. By adopting Lewis’ model, the state’s concerted efforts to promote rapid industrialization depended on squeezing maximum profits by paying nonagricultural workers a subsistence wage, and it was primarily poor migrants from rural areas who played a vital role in this neoclassical schema. Foreign and Pakistani economists had agreed on this approach of keeping the rural population at a subsistence level and paying workers near-subsistence wages. The idea was that this would stimulate faster accumulation of profits that would then be reinvested in the capitalist sector. Of particular importance here is the way economists’ formulations of Lewis’ core assumptions of economic growth and premised on the principal role of the capitalist sector assumed away the critical need for implementing land reforms in Pakistan. Hence, even foreign experts like Gustav Papanek emphasized that this was necessary ‘in order to create industry and industrialists’. This also reflected General Ayub Khan’s strategy to advantage profits at the expense of labor, and amendments in labor laws, as I discuss in Chapter 4, aimed to curtail labor’s right to strike.

6. Speaking of that chapter, can you elaborate on how it ties with the argument of the book?

Since the book also addresses the structural transformations underway in Pakistan’s key industries such as textile-garments, and the promise of material progress is tied closely to the advancement of such industries, the story would be incomplete without bringing labor into the larger picture. A point I make is that material progress is tied not only to infrastructures’ mediatic qualities and relational aspects but also to the immobility and exclusion of labor. The broader argument of material progress/crisis cannot be showcased without considering how labor has also been impacted by the infrastructural transitions as well as the industry’s deeper structural transformations and turn to globalization. Chapter 4 is grounded in descriptive data drawn from a qualitative survey of 47 export-oriented factories and illustrates the uneven impact of globally driven private regulation and its interplay with local labor laws in the localized conjuncture of the textile-garment industry in Faisalabad. The discussion is situated in the context of Pakistan’s post-independence history and political-economy of labor struggles under different civilian and military regimes. An important issue that I explore in this chapter is the ostensible absence of the state’s role in labor regulation. This is a truism premised on the extensive deployment of private regulation of labor standards, for instance codes of conduct adopted by global brands and retailers. Private regulation is understood as a technology that has replaced state regulation of labor. With suspended state-led labor inspections, there is greater anxiety of labor violations. My main argument is that even though in Pakistan enforcement of labor laws is predicated on specific political-economic and institutional contexts, we cannot assume the absence of state regulation and its axiomatic replacement by private regulation. Again, I eschew the ‘state failure’ line of argumentation.

7. How do roads and electricity symbolize different things? Here, I’m also interested in your discussion of nostalgia for the failed dream of development, and infrastructural fetishism and how you tie it to entrepreneurial subjectivities.

In this book, my objective has been not only to examine the rise and subsequent waning of the policy paradigm development as infrastructure, but also to explore how, in the present conjuncture of an infrastructure crisis, state–firm relational engagements reinvigorate the promise of progress. By relational I suggest that the symbolic logic of material infrastructure operates differently for different industrial groups and for the state, but remains indissoluble from the built environment and the circuits of economic exchange. Hence, in the book I conceptualize infrastructure not only as physical form but also as a site of aspirations and desire. In this line of thinking, infrastructures are understood as sociotechnical systems with mediating capacities. Not only are material technologies mediating networks of urban systems, as Graham and Marvin discuss in their book Splintering Urbanism, but they also alter perceptions of time, space and the economy, and generate new kinds of discourses, subjectivities and mobilities that serve political-economic ambitions and visions of material progress. Airports, power generators and roads are objects of fantasy and imagination and building and using these tells us as much about the symbolic as about economic production. Thinking about infrastructure in these terms enables us to understand how interactions between humans and nonhuman subjects are inherently unstable and always being remade. When I was observing an airport construction project conceived and led by industrialists in Sialkot, I was struck by how their interactions and practices entailed a constant need to renew connections with state officials and military leaders. Since infrastructure elicits powerful temporal imaginaries of connectivity and progress, I discuss in the book that the disruptions, exclusions and anxieties have generated across the Pakistani industrial landscape an infrastructure fetishism. But this form of fetishism departs from a Marxian materialist sense, as I have underscored in the book. So in the context of the persistent crisis, the roads, electricity and ports that have been in a state of decay—many industrialists have appropriated these in ways that have enabled them to invest these technologies with their own desires and dreams, and their extensive involvement in the reconstruction and privatization of these infrastructures also links them with the state. The book emphasizes the importance of this linkage because it creates the basis for reimagining the state as a pragmatic force that paves the way for a competitive, global economic order.

Towards the end of Chapter 1, I turn to the matter of ‘development nostalgia’ and in reference to the waning of the policy paradigm development as infrastructure, particularly as expressed in the writings of prominent Pakistani economists. By the end of the Ayub Khan era, with the onset of the dismemberment of a ‘United’ Pakistan, the political-economic tensions that had crystallized around the dominant development model and the marginalization of East Pakistan, wrought on a new era of considerable upheaval and uncertainty. This new period of uncertainty that was marked by nationalization, saw both development economists and the Planning Commission lose their prior footings. This change resulted in not only a loss of policy coordination and project review, but also growing inconsistency in infrastructure investments. In discussing nostalgia, I underscore how this moment signals disjuncture and evokes the unachieved expectations of neoclassical modernization and the unfulfilled promise of modernity.

8. Can you recommend five recent works that complement your own?

  1. Daniel Haines’ Building the Empire, Building the Nation: Development, Legitimacy and Hydro-Politics in Sind, 1919-1969
  1. Stephen Graham & Simon Marvin’s Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition
  1. Stephen Collier’s Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Social Modernity, Biopolitics
  1. Brian Larkin’s Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure and Urban Culture in Nigeria
  1. Ashley Carse’s Beyond the Ditch: Politics, Ecology, and Infrastructure at the Panama Canal

9. What is your assessment of “Pakistan Studies” and social science education in Pakistan? Also, would you say something about the relevance of your terrific work? What fields and conversations you see it joining and commenting upon, i.e. to South Asian Studies, Urban Studies?

Pakistan Studies has become the establishment’s sanitized version of what constitutes history. Since 1971 or after the East Pakistan crisis and especially after General Zia ul Haq’s coup in 1977, Pakistan Studies has been made to assuredly and systematically misrepresent events that have happened throughout Pakistan’s history. Where would I like Pakistan Studies to go? Well, I would like to see it jettisoned and replaced with courses that indulge in eclectic historical readings and where state-sanctioned dogma is a distant memory. Is this possible today in Pakistan? I am optimistic given the growing interest in reviving the social sciences and liberal arts tradition across numerous universities in Pakistan. This is certainly happening in the institution where I have worked since 2011 in Karachi. As for the relevance of my work, at the very least I hope the book makes a mark in terms of having pushed readers to think beyond the state failure narrative. This is important because so much prominent scholarship on Pakistan has leveraged this analytically narrow line of argumentation. Regarding connections with Urban Studies, the linkages are certainly there, for instance thinking about industrial-infrastructural futures is in essence also a reflection on urban futures. And in the South Asian Studies context, the emphasis on labor and postcolonial industrialization as well as the state’s role in infrastructure development has resonance with other political-economic settings in the region.

10. Your book went through significant changes from the dissertation. Can you talk a little bit about the production of the book itself, from formulating dissertation research question to the turning the completed dissertation into the book?

Like most dissertations, my dissertation also went through a significant makeover not only in terms of cutting certain sections that were dull, but more so in terms of moving away from a positivist framing. The dissertation did not have a historical section and the importance of having a chapter that was focused on history surfaced much later as I reflected on infrastructure’s transformation as a concept and its discursive connection with policy making agendas in postcolonial Pakistan. The core research questions were semi-structured and also relied on an open-ended approach that enabled me to come up with new ideas, on multiple working hypotheses that both informed and were adapted to the information flowing in from the field. Much later, as I reviewed over and over again my research findings, the relational aspect of the data on infrastructure provision became more and more apparent to me. In this, the role of the Pakistani state specifically in terms of its relationship with industrialists, how they saw each other and the strategies both actors deployed and the contrasting perceptions on different types of material infrastructures – electricity, roads, ports – all these issues I realized much later were embedded in the mediatic and relational aspects. This certainly helped to wrap up the main argument for the book.

Thank you very much Dr. Anwar!