Plumbing the Depths in Lahore

Waste water inspections open up questions about bureaucratic processes and interactions.

In the summer of 2015, the top tiers of the Punjab political and civil administration met in Lahore, the province’s capital city. Those present expressed grave concern over the exchequer deficit in some departments. The next day, the Irrigation department constituted a committee to survey drains in Lahore, in an effort to balance their budget by ensuring industrial units pay their correct share for discharging waste into the sewage system. Azfar sahib, a revenue official, and Engineer Azeem—both from the X Irrigation Division—were to head the committee, accompanied by officials from the Drains Section, whose routine work involves assessing and collecting water charges from the city’s industrial units. The survey took four weeks to complete. Calculations showed that the annual recovery should be Rs. 1 crore, 70 lacs ($170,000), instead of the Rs. 40 lacs in the record, and the updated number of industrial units was 527, up from 267. The survey was proclaimed a departmental success; but it also revealed the possibilities and pitfalls of bureaucratic processes and the pedestrian provocations of the everyday.

The third day of inspections

The inspection team comprised Azfar sahib, Engineer Azeem, and myself. We were joined by two officials from the Drains section: a newly inducted engineer, Maheen, and Saleem sahib, a senior engineer. We were tasked with updating and verifying the number and location of industrial units discharging waste into the city’s drains, measuring the dimensions of outlet openings and the volume of discharge into the drains, and calculating the charges the units should be paying.

Measuring the depth of discharge in the factory drain. Maira Hayat

After a morning spent visiting paper, bleaching, and dyeing factories that all discharge waste into the same drain, we arrive at the gates of a textile factory. Two uniformed security guards stick their heads out of a tiny shack flanking the locked gate and ask us why we are there. We are asked to wait at the gate while the guards confer with their superiors inside. Half an hour under the blistering sun later we are cleared for entry, but not before Azfar sahib threatens to inscribe “refused to cooperate” on the report form.

Three security guards escort us to the drain and later off the premises. A thick, dark purple stinking liquid flows through the outlet. Saleem sahib dips his calibrated stem into the drain at three different points to mark the level of the discharge and get a uniform reading. To calculate velocity, he drops a pebble into the drain at “point A” and asks me to stand and mark the point. Maheen takes my phone and turns on the stopwatch when the pebble is dropped into the drain. Azfar sahib positions himself at “point B” and shouts “stop” when the pebble passes him. We then note the time it takes for it to cover the distance between points A and B for the velocity. Engineer Azeem measures the distance between the points using a measuring tape. We repeat the process three times for three different points A and B. Azfar sahib measures the circumference of the outlet opening; I measure it again for verification purposes. Engineer Azeem then multiplies the area of the outlet opening with the velocity and asks Azfar sahib to insert our calculations into the “volume of discharge” box on the form. The volume multiplied by per unit drainage charges provides the total amount to be recovered from Najam Textiles.

Just as we finish and are walking out of the gate, Saleem sahib suddenly says, “The object we used this time, that pebble, it was heavier than the twig we have been using all along. The pebble sank a little, remember? That has affected our measurements. Our calculations say the velocity is ‘4,’ whereas actually it will be closer to ‘6.’”

A velocity calculation of 6 would indicate a greater volume of discharge and therefore a greater amount in charges due to the authorities. Azfar sahib quickly disagrees and points out that we were careful to choose a pebble that looked and weighed the same as the twig (which had been lost somewhere between inspections).

Engineer Azeem, “We can go back and measure again until everyone is satisfied.”

Saleem sahib, “No that’s not needed, but it’s closer to 6. 4 is too low.”

Maheen, “6 is too high. It’s just not possible for it to be so high.”

Saleem sahib, “You are forgetting we changed to a pebble from the twig.”

Maheen, “I remember very well. 6 is unreasonable”

Saleem sahib, “You heard the liquid making that woosh woosh sound! That showed it was flowing quite fast!”

Engineer Azeem sahib, “Let’s settle on 4.5?”

Maheen, “But we all just measured it and it was 4. Now why is it suddenly a problem?”

Azfar sahib, “Yes I agree, we measured, we don’t need to change anything.”

Saleem sahib, “Believe me this was faster than any of the drains we’ve seen since morning.”

Engineer Azeem, “Let’s stop arguing on the road in front of everyone, we have a long list to go down. Let’s just enter 5 and leave.”

Maheen, “4.5”

Saleem sahib, “5.5”

By the end, Azfar sahib seems quite spent from all his mediating, and every member of the team glowers. As we proceed to the next factory, I fall into step with Maheen and ask her what the argument was all about.

“You saw, right?” she says, “The pebble was an excuse. Sir knows that that factory owner is an Ahmadi so he wanted to be difficult.”

Bureaucratic questions and provocations

The Ahmadiyya are a severely persecuted minority community in Pakistan. Through a constitutional amendment in the 1970s, they were declared non-Muslim. “But I couldn’t call Sir out in those very terms,” Maheen explained. She is Saleem sahib’s junior and antagonizing him could harm her career prospects and professional reputation. So, she colluded in a seeming pretense that what was really at stake was the measuring device, rather than a possible case of religious prejudice. A few days later, I suggested to Maheen that perhaps Saleem sahib’s claim was just a response to being made to wait so long at the gate. Maheen both agreed and disagreed, “He must have been angry that people disrespect government officers, but he knows that factory owner is an Ahmadi and doesn’t think well of them.” She had a point: gaining entry to every factory had required a mix of courteously informing, waiting, and threatening. So this particular factory was not unique in making the team’s work difficult. Saleem sahib may not have set out that morning to punish the Ahmadi factory owner but the switch from the twig to the pebble might have provided an opportunity for giving voice to personal grievances or prejudice and opened up the possibility for ill-treatment. I soon gave up trying to excavate the “real” reason behind his sudden change of heart and the ensuing altercation.

Measuring the depth of discharge in the factory drain. Maira Hayat

A host of practical, material, and bureaucratic elements converged in the incident: being made to wait at every factory gate thus; the heat and how it made this work so difficult; the fact that the office had not made any provisions for transportation so the team was paying for a rented car and complaining about it; the burden of this additional work on top of their regular office duties; the personal beliefs, grievances, and proclivities that each official carried with them; and a long national history of persecution. Perhaps the switch in measuring implement gave Saleem sahib the opportunity to act on his prejudice and to try and charge the Ahmadi factory owner a higher rate, all in the context of a longer history of oppression. This broader, deeper sociopolitical history and context suddenly seemed to have come to matter. Rather than see this as corrupt low-level bureaucrats doing what they usually do, we learn more by noting how the bureaucratic provides a space for the politics of the im/proper. Crossover between the public and private—whether as informality, corruption, or dysfunction—is not undertheorized, especially in the Global South (Bayat 1997, Chatterjee 2004, Gupta 1995). Can we also query whether people test to see how far they can push these boundaries, to see how un/comfortably they inhabit their official roles? (Goffman 1956). A fuller portrait of the bureaucratic emerges when we pay attention to entanglements of the contingencies of bureaucratic processes and tasks; the necessity of longer national histories; the demands water makes and the opportunities it throws up in its flow, discharge, and taxation; and the pedestrian provocations of the everyday.

The idea of objects as provocations—that the pebble was made to matter in a certain way—could help here, for a provocation directs attention to more than the object/s—the wider contexts—and asks why something may be provocative (see Das 2017). Did the pebble enable Salim sahib to attempt injustice under the guise of the survey? Recent attention to the role of bureaucratic artifacts has enriched the study of bureaucracies (Feldman 2008, Hull 2012, Mathur 2015, Vismann 2008).

Our understanding of bureaucracies could be refined further by paying attention to the processes and provocations through which bureaucrats navigate, and the histories and biases that determine the travels and travails of objects. A quest to locate the stable contours of “the bureaucratic” will likely end in frustration. What I take from this episode is the insight that broader and deeper understandings of bureaucratic processes can illuminate interactions between persons, objects, and histories.

Note: All names used in this article are pseudonyms.

Maira Hayat is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Chicago. She is currently writing her dissertation, titled “Ecologies of Water Governance in Pakistan: The Colony, the Corporation and the Contemporary.”

Cite as: Hayat, Maira. 2018. “Plumbing the Depths in Lahore.” Anthropology News website, March 15, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.800

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