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Waqas Butt's "Life Beyond Waste: Work and Infrastructure in Urban Pakistan" Book Launch

January 19, 2024 | 4:00PM - 6:00PM
Asian Institute, Centre for South Asian Studies

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This event took place in-person at Room 108N, North House, 1 Devonshire Place, Toronto, ON, M5S 3K7
Description courtesy of the Stanford University Press
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.
Waqas H. Butt is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, Scarborough. Butt's research takes a stigmatized form of labor—waste work—as a point of entry to explore two interrelated questions: how have historical events, both past and ongoing, continually reshaped Pakistan’s fraught urban landscape, and, in what ways have the connections among caste, waste, labor, and infrastructures both endured and transformed across South Asia? Based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork in Lahore and the Punjab, his current book project examines the ways in which waste workers, who are drawn predominantly from low or non-caste groups, have become essential components of urban life through the everyday and intimate workings of waste infrastructures. This work brings together a variety of concerns—materiality of waste and value, histories of caste, stigmatized labor, and urbanization, and global circuits of development and capital—to unpack the unexpected socio-political processes by which urban life is currently unfolding across South Asia and globally
Sponsor: Centre for South Asian Studies, Asian Institute
Asian Institute, Centre for South Asian Studies
Asian Institute:


Waqas Butt Headshot
Waqas H. Butt

Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto, Scarborough

Rajyashree Narayanar headshot
Rajyashree Narayanareddy

Associate Professor, Geography and Urban Planning Department, University of Toronto, Scarborough

Christopher Krupa headshot
Christopher Krupa

Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto, Scarborough