Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Life in the Wastelands: Work, Infrastructures, and Value in Urban Pakistan

  • Author(s): Butt, Waqas Hameed
  • Advisor(s): Hankins, Joseph D
  • Parish, Steven M
  • et al.
No data is associated with this publication.

By provisioning materials things such as water, power, information, and waste disposal, infrastructures have been instrumental in materializing the promise of modernity and development on a global scale (Larkin 2013; Anand 2017; von Schnitzler 2016; Mitchell 2002; Prakash 1999; Khan 2006; Anwar 2014). Waste infrastructures are the socio-technical assemblages through which Lahore’s modernity and development have been imagined across historical moments. The city’s daily waste generation is disposed of by either sanitation workers who are almost entirely Christian or waste workers from the informal sector that are drawn from lower status groups such as khānah badosh (nomad or "gypsy" groups), changar, and others. My dissertation argues that, despite being an elementary aspect of urban life, this form of caste labor – waste work – comes to be viewed, along with those who perform it, as non-valuable. In exploring these paradoxical logics, I develop the theory of “essential waste” to argue that waste, something often viewed as mere excess, is foundational to Lahore’s reproduction in multiple ways.

Based on fieldwork with a variety of actors and archival research, I explore the work, institutions, and infrastructures by which waste, in a variety of forms, is disposed of and/or circulated. Drawing on anthropological theories that prioritize how actions represent forms of value within a dispensation of social and political life (Turner 1979; Munn 1986; Graeber 2001; Pedersen 2013), disposal and circulation of these materials are crucial to how value in different forms is materialized out of what is deemed to be non-value. I thus examine how the notion of essential waste plays itself out across the state, which materializes value out of waste through infrastructures of disposability, and the informal economy, which marketizes these materials through infrastructures of circulation. Moreover, as subaltern groups have situated themselves within these infrastructures, this dissertation sheds light on the relationship that these groups have to political power in contemporary Pakistan. This dissertation argues that waste comes to be transformed into different forms of value, which then reproduce the city and its population in highly uneven, though deeply enmeshed ways.

Main Content

This item is under embargo until July 6, 2020.