Infrastructure’s Inequalities: A Conversation with Nikhil Anand and Nausheen Anwar

People climb on a large metal structure

After World War II, large infrastructural projects in the Global South like dams, canals, roads, electric power stations, and water pipes were associated with ideas of development, progress, and modernity. These projects promised to modernize a supposedly backward population, with a fast-tracked path to status as an idealized developed country. The colonial roots of these promises were aided by the visual spectacle and transformative nature of large infrastructures, used to demonstrate the superiority of western colonizing powers. Decades into this well-trodden postcolonial developmentalist path, the myopic hubris of this infrastructural promise is being gradually exposed.

Nausheen Anwar (Professor, City & Regional Planning, Department of Social Sciences & Liberal Arts, IBA, Karachi, Pakistan) and Nikhil Anand (Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, USA) study infrastructural projects in two postcolonial contexts—Pakistan and India, respectively. On October 18, 2019, I sat down with them to discuss the impact of infrastructures on local environments, the reproduction of social difference along infrastructural lines, the possibility of environmental justice, and their work as both scholars and activists in Karachi and Mumbai.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Siddharth Menon: We’re here to talk about infrastructures. Nikhil, you wrote Hydraulic City, which looked at informal settlements in Mumbai, and how the state comes into play, in terms of water supply and the different claims made by citizens toward the state. Nausheen, you’ve written about industrial infrastructure in the Punjab province of Pakistan, and the promise that holds—or at least that’s the way it’s been portrayed—and the crisis, as you call it, that happens when infrastructures don’t work out or don’t fulfill that promise. Can you tell us about how and why you used infrastructure as a framework, in these respective contexts?

A photograph of Nausheen Anwar seated at a desk

Nausheen Anwar. Photo courtesy of Nausheen Anwar.

Nausheen Anwar: My book Infrastructure Redux is based on my dissertation, which was initially about economic development, looking at clustered regions of industrialization. When I started working on issues of electricity and roads in Punjab, I was coming at it from the vantage point of an economist. But, when I was turning it into a monograph, by that point in time there was a good deal of literature that had begun to emerge from geography and anthropology, from Brian Larkin and many others, that theorized infrastructure in very interesting ways, looking at how these technological artifacts get entangled in social-material realities. Humans themselves are inserted in these flows of matter and energy and water, which engenders a particular kind of politics.

So, I began to think about the whole process of industrialization in Pakistan, tying infrastructure with the story of industrialization, and seeing things like electricity and roads as embedded within systems that bring humans and nonhumans together in very complex, constrained, tension-ridden, highly productive, and generative associations and affects. I became fascinated with exploring the story of infrastructure and its entanglements with the social.

Nikhil Anand: I came to infrastructure in the context of doing fieldwork in Mumbai on my dissertation work, which was on the everyday life of water and water pipes in that city. I didn’t go to Mumbai to study infrastructure. I was more interested in understanding the ways in which water travels through public and private domains and administrative paradigms.

A photograph of Nikhil Anand in a sunny office.

Nikhil Anand. Photo courtesy of Nikhil Anand.

In the course of doing that fieldwork in the late 2000s, a lot of projects and plans were being made at that time in Indian cities to improve urban infrastructure, including urban water delivery services. I became very interested in why infrastructure was being presented as the thing to do in Indian cities everywhere via the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. So, how is doing infrastructure different from doing water delivery? That was one set of provocations that made me think more seriously about infrastructure as a concept or as a mode of analysis.

The other is that there was tremendous interest in the city around upgrading infrastructure via the mobilization of finance. There were infrastructure mutual funds, lots of building development, and talk about the sophistication of their infrastructure. Infrastructure was almost a folk category that spoke to me while I was doing fieldwork.

When I came back after fieldwork, I began to have conversations with my colleagues, such as Hannah Appel, who works on oil infrastructure of Equatorial Guinea. It became evident to me that infrastructures were being mobilized as the activity that states should be doing, especially in these neoliberal moments, across different parts of the world. In that way, it became a matter of great interest to me what that category mobilizes and is able to achieve, not just in the world that we were working in, but also theoretically. We were trying to understand how those rationalities were administered in everyday life, and the kinds of events and breakdowns, as in Nausheen’s provocative rendering, that troubled those projects.

In what way did the administration of infrastructure trouble the plans of the most powerful corporations, but also of the most powerful states? Recall when the BP oil disaster showed the world that the most powerful corporation, and the most powerful state, could do nothing to prevent oil from leaking. Infrastructure became a very generative place for me to think about the powers and the limits of human efforts to structure the world, and administer the world, through these massive and small technical systems.

SM: What makes infrastructure a good framework? What does infrastructure add to frameworks that already exist?

Two people in bare feet walk on water pipes.

Shared water lines in Mumbai. Photo by Nikhil Anand.

Nikhil Anand: Infrastructure gives us a site, a place, a set of locations, at which to study. In the work that I did on Mumbai’s water supply, for example, it was not sufficient to think about urban water without thinking about the ways in which it was first sourced and then distributed from dams and three rivers in Mumbai. To think about urban water distribution meant understanding the ways in which the movement of the water produced political communities, both of denial and access, at various stages along the way as the water moved 60 miles into the city. Thinking about infrastructure provides a set of grounded locations at which to see these processes taking place in everyday life.

Nausheen Anwar: One of the fascinating things about infrastructure is that, as a technological artifact, it temporalizes in ways that open up the future in an open-ended fashion. There is always this uncertainty attached to what infrastructures are about. The question is not what is infrastructure, but when is infrastructure? What does infrastructure mean during a time of a dark and dirty late industrial landscape? What kinds of uncertainties are attached to these new infrastructures emerging in this context?

Many bulldozers carve roads into a hillside.

Infrastructures of the Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company in Karachi, Pakistan. Photo by Nausheen Anwar.

I’m thinking also of the work of anthropologists like Jerome Whitington. I just finished reading his book Anthropogenic Rivers. I found his work on infrastructures and the production of uncertainty—the management of uncertainty—particularly fascinating.

There are many interesting ways of talking, thinking and theorizing infrastructure in different contexts, whether it is about electrical energy systems, coal mining projects, or water as in Nikhil’s wonderful work. Infrastructure enables scholars from different disciplines to look at the qualities of these technological artifacts, specifically in terms of how infrastructure temporalizes. This temporal dimension is an important aspect of how we think about infrastructures across geography, anthropology, and even urban planning.

SM: Can the postcolonial, marginalized, oppressed subject be put on the same plane as a non-living, nonhuman? Is it possible to reconcile postcolonial scholarship with new materialism? Because, clearly, the stakes are different. And the political stakes are different in terms of where we draw the line, where our politics lie. It’s exciting work, but where do we draw that line?

Nausheen Anwar: It’s important to keep in mind how certain populations have always been devalued. So much of this process of devaluation is attached to racialized histories of capitalism. For me, keeping those kinds of issues in mind is particularly significant in conversations about how we can go about reconciling, bringing together, this very potent and productive space of the interaction between human and nonhuman elements in the postcolonial context. In these conversations, the racialized histories of capitalism are deeply pertinent.

Featured image: Several people use electrical infrastructures as a climbing pole. Photo by Nausheen Anwar.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Nikhil Anand is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Focused on the assemblages of cites, environments and infrastructure, he is the author of Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai (Duke 2017), and the co-editor of The Promise of Infrastructure (Duke 2018). He is currently working on a new book project, The Urban Sea. Twitter. Contact.

Nausheen H. Anwar is Director of Karachi Urban Lab and Professor of City & Regional Planning, Department of Social Sciences & Liberal Arts (SSLA), Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Karachi. She received her Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP), Columbia University. She also holds a M.I.A. from the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Columbia University. Her work focuses on the politics of urban planning and infrastructural development. Twitter. Contact.

Siddharth Menon is a Ph.D. student in Geography at University of Wisconsin–Madison with interests in urban geography, critical development studies, political ecology, and science and technology studies (STS). His current research critically analyzes the geographies of cement/concrete construction in a rapidly urbanizing South Asia and the uneven impacts of the same on people, economies, environments. His last contribution to Edge Effects was an interview with Malini Ranganathan, “Decolonizing Infrastructure in India and the US” (June 2019). Twitter. Contact.