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October 26, 2020

Uneven state spatiality


October 26, 2020

There are once again questions being raised regarding the respect and rights given to federating units. It is worthwhile to visit how analysis of physical space and its development/ underdevelopment shows the unevenness in Pakistan both at the inter-provincial and intra-provincial levels.

I am working on a review of an excellent book ‘New Perspectives on Pakistan’s Political Economy’ (2019) edited by Matthew McCartney and Akbar Zaidi for a different audience. One chapter of the book that stood out amongst others is on uneven state-spatiality by Danish Khan. We are going to refer to this illuminating chapter in the article today.

Khan’s chapter in the book uses Lefebvre’s thesis on “state-spatiality” and the Marxian framework of circuit of capital to comment on the “uneven state spatiality” in the postcolonial state of Pakistan. Khan seems to favour a “processual” and “spatial” understanding of the nature of state. Lefebvre envisions the state-space along the three dimensions of physical, social and mental space. Physical space is territorial, social space is institutional and mental space takes into account cultural and ideological aspects.

Defining class is not a static process; rather, it is quite dynamic. The capitalist state and society is characterized by both class and non-class processes. The state is pulled and pushed in different ways and state policies are determined by the relative strength of classes and groups. Khan cites Brenner to state, “…state spatiality is actively produced and transformed through socio-political struggles in diverse institutional sites and at a range of geographical scales”. In Pakistan, the unevenness in state-spatiality is also reproduced due to the colonial legacy.

The chapter states that the Alavian analysis of state revolves around the social space – institutional matrix – and the critique of Alavi is also in the same sphere of social space and to some degree also incorporates the mental space (cultural and ideological aspects). Discussion on physical space and its unevenness has largely not been taken into account in social science analysis and it is worthwhile to focus on the physical space.

Punjab’s physical state-space is far more developed than other provinces. Punjab’s road network stretches across 107,805 km compared to 29,655 km of Balochistan. Consequently, Punjab has more than six times road density vis-a-vis Balochistan. In a similar vein, railways, canals and airports are more developed in Punjab as compared to the rest of the country.

The first decision to reflect this power of physical space was to shift the capital from Karachi to Islamabad in proximity with the other power centres. According to the multi-dimensional poverty index (MPI), there are huge spatial patterns of uneven development in Pakistan. MPI is not based on consumption or income patterns only; it takes into account 15 different variables by including access to health care, education, electricity, sanitation etc. So it is a “good proxy” to assess the development or lack of it.

According to Khan, in terms of inter-provincial variation, “Punjab is the least poor province with an MPI score of 0.152 and Balochistan is the poorest province with the MPI score of 0.394. Across all provinces, rural areas are poorer vis-a-vis urban areas. One of the stark facts revealed by the MPI is that some of the best performing districts of Balochistan are comparable with the worst performing districts of Punjab”.

Other than Karachi, Punjab is the hub of most of the manufacturing jobs in the country. The colonial development of railways, canals and roads in Punjab has a path-dependent way of generating more development in the province in the post-colonial phase.

This uneven development also characterizes intra-provincial comparisons: districts in northern and central Punjab have better provision of roads, schools, and electricity than districts in southern Punjab. They are also more urbanized than districts in southern Punjab. Uneven socio-economic development in various regions is dialectically linked with the “development of state-spaces” in Pakistan.

This notion of uneven state-spatiality best encapsulates the postcolonial state of Pakistan. It has led to the deeply entrenched sense of deprivation amongst the minority ethnic and religious groups. The alienation in Balochistan over its marginalized share in the federation has also led to the weakest mental space in the province in terms of seeping of ideological hegemony. Uneven development is carrying over from colonial times is the variegated and fractured outcome of state-spatiality.

Critiques of the Alavian overdeveloped state discuss the massive informalization in the country to drive the point regarding the weakness of state-centric discourse. Approximately 73 percent of the labour force is employed in the non-agricultural informal sector as it has grown huge in the last some decades. Yet, Khan is of the opinion that this informalization needs to be interpreted “in the wake of changes in the global regime of accumulation and uneven state-spatiality rather than ‘weakness’ of the state”. Informalization needs to be viewed in the context of neoliberal economic order and its impact on the postcolonial economies like Pakistan.

Capital accumulation in the local regimes is mediated and constrained by the capital accumulation of global regimes. The informal sector also functions through patronage networks. Petty commodity producers and workers depend on their access to the state to navigate their way and survive in the informal economy.

In terms of the institutions versus class debate, they are both in a “dialectical relationship with each other” and should not be solely focused. The Marxian circuit of capital best captures this dialectical relationship. Though Khan’s juxtaposition of the circuit of capital framework is rather weak and its link with the class/institutions debate is not too well-established, yet it is an enlightening chapter in so many other ways.

The writer is an Islamabad-based social scientist.

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