I was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, a city of over sixteen million people. I have always been interested in local politics, and the seemingly endless iterations of power and patronage, or 'wasta', in a megacity. My doctoral dissertation at Georgetown University focuses on the provision of electricity. It examines the evolving power structures in the urban developing world as the states delegate the provision of public goods – through formal or informal mechanisms – to private actors. I find that while some commercial and industrial actors are able to leverage their associations to get regular, outage-free service, many domestic users are much less successful at securing access to electricity.
Since January 2018, I have built on my existing networks in Karachi to conduct research on a key concern in the city - the service delivery of electricity. Electrical power happens to be a good way to understand political power in the city - all of its residents are heavily dependent on it. Electricity consumption drives and is driven by geographies of rich and poor, regularized and unregularized, politically-connected and disenfranchised communities. People feel passionately about it, especially when there are power outages. It is relatively costly, and absolutely essential to urban existence. Almost everyone in Karachi is connected to the grid – mostly through formal meters, although many also used pirated connections, or 'kundas', to power their homes and shops. In the two years of digging into this issue, and over seven months of continuous fieldwork, I have been privileged to gain access to rich archival data, interviews with traders, politicians, activists and citizens, and have implemented a large-N survey.
I have learned that the transition from public service delivery to private service delivery for electricity has a disproportionately large impact on the poor. Since privatization, individuals cannot rely on decades-old networks of patronage to get access to electricity, or negotiate lower bills. The privatized utility company removed many of the brokers and middle-men that had local, specialized knowledge of both the infrastructure and the community. Political actors became less and less involved in promising, ensuring and delivering electricity. The survey results suggests that middle income individuals in low-provision neighborhoods are particularly less likely to turn out to vote, or to take part in civic associations.
Privatization is associated with improved flows of information. But the private company that took over electricity supply to Karachi does not have the ability to differentiate between payers and defaulters at the neighborhood level, much less the household level. So medium-income neighborhoods get lumped with very poor neighborhoods. Individuals who happen to live in low-income neighborhoods but are capable of paying their bills experience the same low quality of service delivery as those who cannot afford to pay. The average survey respondent reported 7 hours of power outages, even though most individuals report paying bills on time. Ultimately, the inability to accurately target or reward consumers creates a perverse hybrid where recovery is demanded individually, in the form of bills, but punishments are dealt collectively, by subjecting entire neighborhoods to outages.
Is Karachi unique in how stratified its service delivery is? And why does access to services such as electricity matter for democratic participation? According to Claudio Holzner’s 2010 book The Poverty of Democracy, countries such as Mexico also face a decline in democratic participation when the costs of taking part in politics increase, and the incentives to do so decrease. Simply put, it is often difficult for middle-income and poor households to take time off work to vote, attend election rallies, or keep up with political issues. When politicians no longer have control over major services such as water, electricity and sanitation, the incentives to take part also diminish.
In Africa, a study by political economists that compares electricity provision in Ghana and Uganda suggests that the extent and quality of service delivery is often dependent on whether electricity was framed as a human right or a commercial good. In Ghana, for example, Kwame Nkrumah led an independence struggle against the British and made the universal provision of electricity a key part of his post-independence rule. In Uganda, electricity was prioritized for industrial and commercial use. In Pakistan, the populist prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto used land reform and electricity subsidies to appeal to his base in Karachi in the 1970s. In Pakistan, as in many other parts of the developing world, these reforms were rolled back decades later – sometimes by the same parties that implemented them. The liberalization of energy distribution is expected to mitigate political distortions to the electricity market. It is expected to circumvent patronage and ensure open access to services, based on how much consumers can afford.
In Karachi, many low-income groups have indeed lost their ability to leverage political power for service delivery. But in the absence of transparent regulatory mechanisms, keeping the lights on continues to be highly contingent on networks of patronage that include commercial and industrial associations, local linesmen, and the private utility firm – most of which are out of reach for the average domestic consumer. This results in a city that is more stratified than ever – surprisingly, it also results in an urban citizenship with relatively low stakes in the democratic process. For countries such as Pakistan that struggle to institutionalize democracy, creating robust regulatory mechanisms for service delivery are critical to the economic and democratic development of its urban citizens.