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Cover of Life Beyond Waste by Waqas H. Butt
Life Beyond Waste
Work and Infrastructure in Urban Pakistan
Waqas H. Butt


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May 2023
250 pages.
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Hardcover ISBN: 9781503634770
Paperback ISBN: 9781503635722
Ebook ISBN: 9781503635739

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Over the last several decades, life in Lahore has been undergoing profound transformations, from rapid and uneven urbanization to expanding state institutions and informal economies. What do these transformations look like if viewed from the lens of waste materials and the lives of those who toil with them? In Lahore, like in many parts of Pakistan and South Asia, waste workers—whether municipal employees or informal laborers—are drawn from low- or noncaste (Dalit) groups and dispose the collective refuse of the city's 11 million inhabitants. Bringing workers into contact with potentially polluting materials reinforces their stigmatization and marginalization, and yet, their work allows life to go on across Lahore and beyond. This historical and ethnographic account examines how waste work has been central to organizing and transforming the city of Lahore—its landscape, infrastructures, and life—across historical moments, from the colonial period to the present.

Building upon conversations about changing configurations of work and labor under capitalism, and utilizing a theoretical framework of reproduction, Waqas H. Butt traces how forms of life in Punjab, organized around caste-based relations, have become embedded in infrastructures across Pakistan, making them crucial to numerous processes unfolding at distinct scales. Life Beyond Waste maintains that processes reproducing life in a city like Lahore must be critically assessed along the lines of caste, class, and religion, which have been constitutive features of urbanization across South Asia.

About the author

Waqas H. Butt is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, Scarborough.

"This book helps us understand the centrality of caste as a category and the processes of pollution/purity linked as they are to the labyrinths through which waste work is organized in Lahore. It is a path-breaking contribution to the fields of urban studies, informal labor practices and the production of social marginality in Pakistan. It will undoubtedly be a model for future research."

—Kamran Asdar Ali, University of Texas, Austin

"Life Beyond Waste is a deeply sensitive ethnography of Lahore's waste workers and traders, offering luminous insights on the entanglements of people, matter, and institutions that constitute the city's "waste infrastructure." The book is also distinctive for its historical analysis of how agrarian class and caste inequalities are reproduced in urban Pakistan. A model for urban anthropology and waste studies!"

—Vinay Gidwani, University of Minnesota

"Butt shows waste infrastructure is about more than where pollution goes and who decides. Combining richly-detailed ethnography with in-depth history on the continuity between colonial governance and recent statecraft, he uncovers the diverse forms of labor that are necessary to reproduce urban life and inequality, whether in Pakistan or in wasted worlds beyond."

—Joshua Reno, Binghamton University

"How is hate channeled through waste work carried out by Christians as non-Muslims? How do powerlessness and anger touch the lives of those who work with waste materials? Butt's interventions on these critical questions bring to life a story of caste, waste work, and urban life that are not only in a state of flux and transformation but also a site of contestation and struggle."

—Nausheen H. Anwar, The Developing Economies