ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Ustaads, Shagirds, and the Drudgery and Virtuosity of Breakdowns and Repair

Keeping Karachi in Motion

Maintenance and repair work constitute an important part of a thriving urban life, in this case, in Karachi, Pakistan. The connection between breakdowns, and repair and maintenance practices is looked at along with evaluating the promises around development and modernity. This is done by understanding the work dynamics of the ustaads and shagirds who form the backbone of all kinds of repair work.

The auhor would like to thank their research assistant Waheed Ur Rehman for their valuable assistance during fieldwork. The author is particularly grateful to Anant Maringanti and to the anonymous referees for their useful suggestions.

In urban Pakistan, infrastructures are often presented as failing or breaking down. In Karachi—a city of 25 million1 and Pakistan’s largest metropolis—power breakdowns, acute water shortages, broken roads, overflowing sewage, crumbling drains and burst water pipes frequently bring the city to a grinding halt. During the monsoon season, this breakdown is particularly apparent as torrential rains capsize drains and water inundates roads and lanes across the city. As the crisis mounts, typically it is the Pakistan Army that is called in to organise rescue operations in areas severely affected. However, such portrayals, like those of other infrastructures such as waste (Butt 2017) and electricity, are “somewhat deceptive” (Anwar 2015: 10). Roads and electricity feeders do get repaired, and waste does get collected. Yet, the breakdowns are continually an object of critique about state administrators, politicians, and labour. Noteworthy in these moments of breakdown are not the success or failure of infrastructures, but how they continually exemplify promises around development and ­modernity. As certain scholars have underscored (Harvey and Knox 2015; Stoler 2008), those promises are what imbue the banal activities of infrastructures with such strong affect around breakdowns.

My concern here is not to see breakdown as a pathological condition (see Nikhil Anand in this issue), but as an inevitable part of infrastructures’ (un)making, especially in the context of the Southern city where the relationship between breakdown and infrastructures is tenuous (McFarlane 2008; Graham and Thrift 2007). More importantly, I am interested in understanding breakdown’s connection with repair and maintenance practices that are generally relegated to the background. As Baviskar and Gidwani (2019) note, the visibility of these tedious affairs of collecting waste, and repairing potholes, is, after all, necessary work that is conducted by the invisible labour of the city. In Karachi, in the aftermath of infrastructural breakdowns, different kinds of earth-moving technologies—bulldozers, excavators, loaders, dumpers—water pumping vehicles and maintenance and repair teams are visibly active, pumping out water from flooded areas, repairing roads, electricity lines and removing debris. For the municipal workers who operate the machines and try to fix the holes in the roads and pump out the water, these repair operations are hardly straightforward. Amidst decaying budgets, precariously low wages, and a widespread shortage of machines and materials, the workers must labour round the clock to repurpose the infrastructures into functional ones.

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Updated On : 26th Dec, 2020
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