Politics of neutrality: Urban knowledge practices and everyday formalisation in Karachi’s waterscape

Politics of neutrality: Urban knowledge practices and everyday formalisation in Karachi’s waterscape


Written by:

Usmaan Farooqui

First Published:

09 Oct 2019, 2:16 am


Politics of neutrality: Urban knowledge practices and everyday formalisation in Karachi’s waterscape



City planners struggle to address unplanned urbanisation through policies like land titling, slum demolition and infrastructural extensions. Given the uneven and sometimes arbitrary implementation of these policies, poor city-dwellers often rely on the flexibility of relationships like patronage and kinship to access housing, electricity and water amidst perpetual uncertainty. But, while various “improvement” projects have certainly produced mixed results in cities, it is not only state institutions that work to formalise access to urban services under official rules and institutional procedures. Instead, “everyday formalisation” may be an unexplored process through which ordinary city residents themselves seek to standardise access to public services along these lines from the bottom up.  


Studying how a low-income settlement dealt with the uncertainties of water access in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, I found that ordinary residents favoured a system of water access that was procedurally and officially standardised over one that was flexible. For these actors, the uneven presence of piped water in the settlement could be explained by the corruption and favouritism inherent in the very kinship and patronage relationships expected to facilitate access. In response, they demanded a formal, neutral system that distributed water equally. Indeed, a majority of settlement residents called for an end to the flexibility of kinship and party-based water services in favour of a more standardised system.


Furthermore, such a standardised system was expected to facilitate water in a particular way. Specifically, residents not only expected state officials to enforce the various laws and institutional procedures governing access, they also expected these officials to share their knowledge of the settlement’s shifting pumping times. This latter expectation, I found, emerged from the particular context of the settlement where gathering information about water supplies had become a crucial way to hedge city-wide hydraulic uncertainty. As such, the everyday formalisation of water services in the settlement meant incorporating specific local practices with institutional procedures in order to facilitate neutral access to water.


By focusing on how ordinary urban-dwellers seek to systematise their lives in specific, context-dependent ways, everyday formalisation can offer important theoretical insights. For instance, in the case of this Karachi settlement, everyday formalisation shows that while relationships of patronage and kinship may be valued for their ability to democratise resource access in some contexts, in others they may be perceived to create inequality. In general, however, everyday formalisation not only provides a way to highlight, but also critically evaluate how vulnerable urban populations respond to uneven service access, arbitrarily enforced urban policies, and other sources of urban uncertainty.


Read the paper on Urban Studies – Online First here.