TQ Salon | Beyond Infrastructural Neutrality

Conversation: Infrastructure and Politics

Photo credit: Samir Cabbarov

Photo credit: Samir Cabbarov

This conversation inaugurates TQ Salon, a series of conversations around issues pertinent to Pakistan, South Asia and beyond. Each conversation is organized around a theme with three to four essays by scholars and activists. We will be publishing the essays on Infrastructure & Politics weekly.

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?

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Glancing through the headlines in the past few months, one cannot fail to note the Pakistani state is coveting infrastructural investment from Bahrain and China, amongst others, for its crucial deep-sea Gwadar port in the troubled province of Balochistan. The numbers being floated are over $20 billion. What is ominous in the headlines is that the word, “infrastructure,” is considered synonymous with “development.”

Two critical questions—What type of infrastructure? What type of development?—are never asked by either reporters or commentators. In this article, I shall attempt to open up these terms—“infrastructure” and “development”—to historical nuance, by showing how different periods of history present disparate understandings of what type of infrastructure is best for development.

In the reports about the Gwadar port, the Pakistani state, which footed the bill to build the port, is inviting private companies based in other countries to invest in the port. By contrast, the Karachi Port Trust (KPT), established 125 years ago, remained a state-owned enterprise for the bulk of its operation. That, too, now is changing. As the chairman of the KPT latest statement says, “Since the last two decades, Karachi Port has consistently maneuvered to become a land lord port whereby the Board of Trustees will be responsible for the infrastructure while all other activities will be leased out or privatized.” As a result, KPT has leased out nine berths to the private sector and is working with real estate firms to build a 77-storey tower on its land. I would suggest this is an emerging logic, in which in the state invests in infrastructural development to open up a particular space for private actors to generate surplus.

We can trace roughly three periods of distinct logics of infrastructural development pursued by the Pakistani state. These are: colonial paternalism (1850s-1940s), state-led developmentalism (1940s-1970s) and neoliberal withdrawal (1980s-now). These logics circulate power between the state and its varied publics in particular ways that in turn, open and foreclose specific avenues of resistance. While periodization is a useful tool to explain the broad character of infrastructural development, it does not mean that other logics have either been fully displaced, or are not emergent. In fact, earlier logics have an ability to reappear, sometimes in the discourse of resistance, but often in the discourse of governance.

Before independence

Infrastructural projects such as barrages and railways are closely associated with this period. The raison d’etre of the projects was both to serve the needs of the colonial governance including making the military and food stock mobile and increasing cash crop production. The second aim was to change the very being of the many peoples that inhabited colonial India such that they would begin to re-imagine their relationship to space, distance, travel and government.

The railways came first. Starting in the 1850s, the most straightforward reasons for the trains were both military and economic. The British empire needed to move sepoys to quash rebellions as well as ship cash crops for export to the motherland. Beyond these utilitarian reasons however, the building of the railways was imagined as a project that would open the horizons of the Indian villager who, according to the British, knew of no world outside the confines of her village.

The barrages came next. The massive canal projects in western Punjab, which began in the 1870s, served as a template for the types of social engineering that the colonial state was willing to do. Specifically, the barrage was a symbol of the colonial will to socially engineer three things: the untamable rivers, the unruly land and the ungovernable peoples that occupied Punjab and Sindh. As a consequence of these massive projects, the indigenous inhabitants of western Punjab were displaced while the province’s swamps and forests were destroyed and its rivers bounded and tamed (albeit with limits). New populations became landowners and cultivators, and another lower rung of society was transplanted onto a newly established agricultural landscape. These display the features of colonial paternalism: one, an aim to build consenting subjects; two, state-led infrastructural investment; three, an overall agenda set by colonial imperatives. Most of these features are retained and consolidated by the postcolonial state.

After independence

Following Partition, the Pakistani state invested heavily into what it understood to be modernization projects: dams, electrification and highways. This state-led development was meant to inaugurate independence; yet, in many ways, it continued colonial logics and even particular projects. Take electrification for instance, which began in the colonial period. The Karachi Electric Supply Company (KESC) was created in 1913. During the colonial period, electrification remained limited to spatially, circumscribed for specific uses. After independence however, spreading the electricity infrastructure came to be viewed as critical to the process of development. By 1959, Pakistan had established the heavily centralized Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), which was tasked with laying down a national grid.

In line with the developmental priorities of the state, WAPDA began developing the grid by extending subsidies to some groups, including farmers who wished to use tube wells to cultivate land in southern Punjab, Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Under the developmentalist state, the subsidies were considered a fair cost that the state would bear in order to ‘improve’ the living standard of certain groups and allow for an increase in productivity. (I put improve in quotation marks here because the question of what constitutes improvement is an open one.) Another task of these subsidies was to develop a patronage relationship with the state in order to obtain their consent. Therefore, the subsidies continued colonial mores by continuing a patronage system, albeit with different clients and with the imperative to increase national production. In short, the state viewed infrastructure as a national product that would yield economic growth and, crucially, consent from its new citizenry. This meant that, for segments of the populations (some of which are discussed above), the Pakistani state had conceded to a “right to electricity” of sorts. Electricity provision was not merely imagined as a relationship between the state and the individual consumer, but rather as a public right conceded by the state to the collective. The next phase however, would reverse this in many ways.

Neoliberal withdrawal

The key features of this period include privatization, disinvestment and, contradictorily, infrastructural investment for private actors. Starting with the dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq who grabbed power in a 1977 coup, the infrastructural logic of the state started to change. International financial institutions, like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, began to play a greater role in the state-economy relationship. While the actual loan disbursals remained low in this period since Pakistan was receiving direct aid, the involvement of the IMF and World Bank in structural reform was significant. At the level of infrastructure, the Pakistani state began to retract its investments in public sector enterprises, including the railways and electricity generation amongst others, paving the way for planned privatization in the next decades. Roads replaced railways in tandem with World Bank suggestions, damaging what had been the leading method of goods transport.

The development of the national electricity grid fell by the wayside, and by the 1990s, WAPDA was “unbundled” and prepared for privatization as part of a broader process in which the state withdrew from its commitment to developing infrastructure through national institutions. Instead, Pakistan extended an invitation to foreign investors to invest in the power infrastructure, and the first Private Sector Energy Development Plan (PSEDP) was approved in 1988. Negotiations to build a privatized power station began that same year between the Pakistani state, the World Bank and private companies.  Known as the HUBCO deal, the resulting agreement was announced as the “deal of the decade” due to the generous terms the private sector received from the state including massive subsidies, soft loans and high tariffs.  The HUBCO deal became the basis for the 1994 private power policy, which led to the approval of 21 independent power projects or IPPs according to the Sustainable Development Policy Institute. These projects were offered 80 percent of their capital as loans, which, scholars Kamal A. Munir and Salman Khalid have persuasively argued made WAPDA and the Pakistan Electric Power Company as well as the KESC “contractually liable to repay the debts…whether or not electricity was produced.”

Promising to alleviate the supply shortages and ‘institutional inefficiencies’ of the state-operated power producers and distributer, these private projects, in fact, put an yet unaccounted for debt on the state sector. The consequence was the spiraling of tariffs the production of circular debt and the withdrawal of subsidies from various sectors. This meant that the earlier relationship between the state and the collective on the question of power infrastructure had to be reversed through both structural and direct violence. That is what finally produced a number of power infrastructure related protests.

Short-circuiting neoliberalism

While the KESC was being privatized according to neoliberal imperatives, the older logic of state developmentalism—particularly the “right to electricity”—came to be articulated in the strikes and protests of dismissed workers. These employees called upon the developmentalist state to prioritize employment against the logic of “balancing the books.” After 4,500 out of 18,000 KESC workers were sacked in 2011, union leaders said the private management was “behaving like the East India Company…like a state within a state.” Calls were also made for the reversal of the privatization. Thousands of workers joined protests in the summer of 2011, which became violent and involved sabotaging the supply grid.

The removal of tube well subsidies in Punjab followed a similar line of argument. The price of a unit of electricity was raised from Rs3 to Rs12 in 2008. Protests against these increases started around 2009 and gained momentum in 2013, with violent protests accompanied by legal challenges to the tariff hikes. Given that tube well subsidies were disbursed by WAPDA, a state entity, tube well owners had come to expect investment in their infrastructure from the state and demanded that the state continue. Farmers claimed that agriculture had become untenable for them under the new tariffs and referred to prior promises by the State due to which they installed in the tube wells in the first place.

Technocrats, meanwhile, have developed a discourse of “transparency” to solve the problem of the “failure of national infrastructure.” Proposals include “devolving” the collection of electricity bills to local influentials at the union council level, in a move that mirrors the colonial logic to implement licenses, the terms of which would be implemented by local influentials. Another proposal includes developing a public database of non-paying consumers with the underlying rationale that national infrastructures fail because of the failure of citizens. In other words, this is the neoliberal rhetoric of “personal responsibility” that aims to criminalize consumers-citizens, particularly those who are poor, while keeping the infrastructures and their embedded histories as opaque as possible. In a silence that speaks loudly, there is no similar plan to subject non-paying privatizing companies (Samsung, Al-Baraj, etc) to such scrutiny.

The state, now, increasingly invests in infrastructure to open it up to extraction by foreign capital. For instance, after spending approximately 60 billion Rupees to develop the metro bus public transport system in Lahore, Pakistan handed the bus system over to a Turkish operator which is subsidized by approximately 1 billion Rs a year. Resistance to such policies will need to re-articulate a public right to infrastructure. This article hopes to have offered a brief critique of the three modes of infrastructural development that have operated across the history of the Pakistani state and its precursor. One way is to argue for a return to the developmentalist state, which existing political movements around infrastructure are articulating. Other ways, not discussed here, could be to push beyond the paradigm of the developmentalist state, in arguing against public works, such as dams, barrages and fuel-based power plants. I hope this shall serve as invitation to think – and collectivize resistance.

Hashim bin Rashid is a research-activist currently studying at Columbia University. He is a member of the Awami Workers Party.

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12 Responses to TQ Salon | Beyond Infrastructural Neutrality

  1. […] This is the second essay in this conversation. The is first is here.  […]

  2. […] is the third essay in this conversation. The first and second are here and […]

  3. Mehreen on Sep 2014 at 1:36 AM

    Informative and different take on the subject. Very well written

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