TQ Salon | Electrifying Development

Sep 2014

Conversation: Infrastructure and Politics

This is the third essay in this conversation. The first and second are here and here.


In this TQ Salon conversation, we asked a scholars and activists to engage in a discussion about infrastructures in Pakistan. Infrastructures organize space, goods and resources, and as such, form the background for the conditions of modernity. We query the regimes of knowledge and power that come into being through material infrastructures. What forms of politics do the architectures and aesthetics of infrastructures open and foreclose? How do infrastructures circulate power? What kinds of urban or rule social space do they shape? How do the infrastructures imagine the public good?

*                               *                                 *

Rashid and Naqvi’s articles discuss the historical and contemporary relationship between models of infrastructural provision and state power in Pakistan. Both argue that the neoliberal logics of infrastructure provision, in place for roughly the past 30 years, are increasingly challenged by the return of developmental logics, especially in the provision of electricity. But is a return to developmental logics that were in place a half-century ago sufficient to secure progressive outcomes today? How can contemporary struggles around infrastructure help us learn from the past instead of repeating its mistakes? To answer these questions, we must place the era of Pakistani state developmentalism in the geopolitical and ideological context of the early Cold War and the decolonization of Asia and Africa.

The developmental capacities and orientation of Pakistan, along with the 36 other Asian and African states that gained nominal sovereignty in 1945-1960, should be understood in the context of the Cold War. Pakistani state elites looked in desperation to the U.S. for military support, diplomatic recognition and emergency aid after the bloody emergence of the state in 1947. Along with receiving aid, these elites were also extremely influenced by intellectual trends in the U.S., especially modernization theory.

In a nutshell, modernization theory posited that the world was composed of national societies, some of whom are “ahead” on the road of progress or development, and others who are “behind”. In this theory, all national societies are headed towards the same destination: modernity. In economic terms, modernity could be seen in the high-performing equilibrium of mass-consumption and mass-production the U.S. claimed to have achieved. According to modernization theory, with proper planning by proactive states, a series of thresholds or “stages” would be periodically crossed, bringing national societies closer and closer to the final destination of “modernity”. One such threshold was mass electrification. Development through electrification was primarily a discourse of modernizing nationalism based on ideological assumptions about development, underdevelopment, and the state’s role in history. This has left a mixed legacy for progressive developmentalist today.

Electrification as state-led modernization

One powerful development model—electrification via integrated river development—spread from the U.S. to the world through the example of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The TVA was established in 1933 and became famous for its technocratic and multi-pronged approach to the development of the Tennessee River for hydropower, irrigation, navigation, flood control, and recreation. David Lilienthal, the charismatic head of the TVA, argued that the agency would, literally and metaphorically, bring light to the “backward” masses of the Tennessee valley. If only their lives were electrified, Lilienthal implied, even these rustic hillbillies who lived in the historically underdeveloped Appalachian region of the U.S., could become modern. Could not the teeming Asian and African masses, toiling unnecessarily in darkness, also be electrified out of backwardness? Lilienthal was not alone in thinking this.

The TVA captured the imagination of state elites around the world, from Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana to Jawaharlal Nehru in India. The project seemed to offer a model to decolonizing African and Asian elites to jet-propel their nations into modernity. The idea of electrification-as-modernization also powerfully shaped river development projects in Pakistan in the decades following independence. Lilienthal was instrumental in placing the notion of integrated river development at the center of the early stages of the contentious Indus negotiations between Pakistan and India in the 1950s. His notion of integrated river valley development, however, did not form the basis of the eventual settlement of the dispute. But, Lilienthal’s dream of ushering in modernity through electrification via integration river development continued to resonate with Pakistani state elites.

The ideology of state-led modernization, especially through high-profile development projects like mass electrification, captured the imaginations of Pakistani and other Third-World elites during the early years of the Cold War. But, unlike other decolonizing Asian and African elites, Pakistani state elites were unambiguous and unashamed about their desire to enter a patron/client relationship with the U.S. The military aspect of this relationship has justly received much attention. But the cultural influence of U.S. intellectuals on Pakistani state elites also had very significant effects. In 1954, economists from the U.S. arrived in Pakistan as a part of the Harvard Advisory Group to help the government draft five-year development plans.

The government paid little attention to the first five-year plan, but the second one was welcomed. The second five-year plan contained many of the same themes as the first, but this time the modernizing military regime of Ayub Khan, who had seized power in 1958, viewed it as an important report. Ayub Khan oversaw the most explicitly committed developmentalist regime in Pakistan’s history. Ayub’s notions of development, no doubt influenced by the prescience of U.S. social scientists and economists, were resolutely modernizing. The rhetoric of his speeches in the first several years after his coup emphasized the role of advanced science, proficient engineers, and cutting-edge technology in speeding up Pakistan’s national march to modernity.

The promise of state-led modernization strongly shaped the outlook of Pakistan’s premier infrastructure developmental agency, the (West Pakistan) Water and Power Development Authority, or WAPDA. Indus, the public relations organ of WAPDA, published a special issue in 1961 devoted to the construction of Warsak Dam on the Kabul River, located in what is today Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. An article titled “Thrills of Warsak”, by one N.H. Hamshey, captures the modernist fantasy of the confident engineer transforming frontier landscape and frontier people in to modern technologically capable citizens, who understand that guns are for celebrating, not fighting:

“Senior engineers recall the time when the tribesmen used to come to work armed. Gradually they forgot all feuds and started getting a kick out of constructive work. The rifle only decorated their homes. They became equally proud of their drilling gear, their bull-dozers and of the various types of complicated machinery they handled. They brought out their rifles only to fire salutes to the Ramazan and Eed moons or on occasions of national celebrations like Pakistan Day. A wonderful peacetime use of the rifle indeed!

In the half century since the heyday of the developmental state in Pakistan, intellectual and political trends have moved on from modernization theory. The many problematic historical and geographical assumptions of modernization theory have been criticized by generations of intellectuals, particularly from Latin America and later by radical scholars located within the U.S. and Europe.

The most damning allegations are that modernization takes as a matter of faith that all societies have a destination everyone knows in advance, and that regional “backwardness” is a residue of history, rather than a product of hierarchical and exploitative relations between regions in the present. Hamshey’s modernist assumptions prevent him from understanding people from the Kabul valley as anything other than residues of a “tribal” past. A less ideologically un-blinkered view would situate the region in the historical and ongoing geographical production of a “frontier” as part of a geo-strategic strategy of deliberate underdevelopment and disenfranchisement by first British, and then Pakistani state elites.

Assumptions such as these undergirded the excesses of development projects carried out in the name of modernization theory: arrogant state developmental elites who assumed that any action they took in the name of ‘development’ was justified because they were merely hastening what was inevitable. The human and environmental costs of this type of development across the Third World are by now well known. Political scientist James C. Scott’s classic Seeing Like a State provides an excellent if somewhat breezy introduction to the stories of displacement, dispossession, and degradation carried out in the name of modernization in the 20th century.

To critique the modernizing developmental scheme is not to reject the goal of development or the power of the state to enhance welfare. The point is not that we don’t need or shouldn’t want electrification – that would be inane. The point is, rather, that acts of political creativity and imagination are required to excavate the political potential of electrification from its historical roots in developmental modernization.

Electrification as popular struggle

The promise to electrify is today a staple of election campaigns, development rhetoric and mass mobilization. People regularly take to the streets to protest the government’s failure to deliver what is understood as a basic right. Students demand the unreliable supply of electricity be taken in to account in the grading of their final exams. Common targets of these protests are the offices of the power utilities, the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) and the Karachi Electric Supply Company (KESC) – buildings are burned, windows smashed, and civil servants thrashed. Industry groups, especially the All Pakistan Textile Mills Association (APTMA) blame their international lack of competitiveness on the unreliable power supply.

Clearly, electrification is already perceived by many actors in Pakistan, including politicians, capitalists, and workers, as a fundamental right. But, progressives must recognize that the social meaning of electrification has changed. From a tool in the hands of state planners to transform social relations, the language of electrification has become a way to demand justice and express dissent and opposition.

The creative struggle for progressives in Pakistan is to transcend the dusty Cold War model of electrification as modernization without losing the hope and will to build a better future for all. Development in the contemporary era should not be conceived of as a series of stages the state must shepherd society through, but as a multi-scaled struggle to assert more and more entitlements. The legitimacy of these entitlements has to be deeply entrenched in state and society. It is necessary but not sufficient to convince state elites of an alternative, more democratic and inclusive, model of development.

One lesson we can take away from the Cold War developmental state in Pakistan is that the convictions of state elites (or, at least, our state elites) provide fragile scaffolding for the type of state and nation we are trying to build. The struggle for electrification, like all progressive struggles to improve the life and status of the bulk of the people in the country, must be fought simultaneously in multiple arenas. This includes discussions with family members, friends and strangers, teachers and professors. It includes debates that take place in neighborhoods and workplaces, in kitchens and living rooms, in buses and trains, in lecture halls, newspapers, novels, talk-shows, dramas and other media of popular culture. It involves bringing discussions of justice, equality, and status into mosques and other places of worship.

But these struggles cannot be merely “cultural” or “ideological”. The history of world protest in the past several decades teaches us that cultural struggle is ineffective when disengaged from politics and economics, and must be coordinated as part of electoral and militant workers’ rights campaigns. These struggles of course already break out spontaneously or are organized by courageous progressive parties and individuals: everyday in every corner of the country. As a political strategy this multi-pronged approach suggests a slower and less glamorous struggle than the conversion of state elites or a millennial seizure of power. But it is a model of political transformation that will ultimately prove more stable and, more importantly, defendable from the relentless attacks of conservative ideologists and political reactionaries.

Majed Akhter is Assistant Professor of Geography at Indiana University – Bloomington. 

Tags: , , , ,

9 Responses to TQ Salon | Electrifying Development

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *