Atomisation of society

Published Jun 11, 2013 05:44am

ONE of my insights into Pakistan’s socioeconomic evolution was due inadvertently to my father when, as a student of economics, I encountered his changed post-retirement pattern of time use.

It was the nature of the change that was surprising. I saw him rise early to monitor the water level in the rooftop storage tank, climb down to check the underground one, turn on the electric motor, then switch it off after an appropriate interval. Often, the motor would malfunction and he would arrange to have it fixed. Less frequently, someone would be called to clean the tanks.

Over time the pipes to and from the tanks acquired a byzantine complexity with various valves catering to the vagaries of supply. A hand pump sprouted up in the backyard as a last resort and its water was sent for regular testing.

Water consumed a big part of our daily conversation. As a social scientist I was intrigued: what was going on? Privatisation was a fad at the time and I could sense that the management of household water had become a private responsibility. But this was not really privatisation — as I reflected, I realised this was the beginning of the atomisation of Pakistan’s urban life.

Privatisation and atomisation differ in the scale of their operations. A private provider can cater to an entire city; atomisation occurs when each household turns into its own supplier.

Conceptually, and in terms of efficiency, this is a huge difference. As an economist, I wondered what the real cost of atomised water provisioning was, over and above the tariff that was charged for the intermittent and unreliable public supply.

I published my conclusions in a 1994 paper titled The Economics of Household Response to Inadequate Water Supplies. Not surprisingly, I found that the aggregate costs of atomised water provision exceeded those of a modern water supply system. This held true even when I ignored many expenses such as boiling impure water, the imputed value of household labour and the redundancy costs of induced perversities such as the installation of suction pumps, costs to the environment, etc.

Over time, I have observed the phenomenon of atomisation becoming the defining feature of urban life in Pakistan. First, it was security, with people taking on the responsibility of protecting their assets and their persons. Then it was electricity, with the investments in individual power supplies.

As with water, any objective analysis of service provisioning would show that the real costs per unit of atomised provisioning exceed the tariffs at which modern collective supplies can be viably operated by public or private suppliers. People are actually paying more than the higher tariffs they protest.

It is not that people are irrational. In subsequent work I found that households rejected higher tariffs for promised better supplies because they did not believe in the promises — they had lost faith in the possibility of efficient service delivery.

The atomisation of society is thus the flip side of the failure of the state in Pakistan where the public sector is grossly inefficient as a service provider and hopelessly ineffective as a regulator of private suppliers. Part of the problem is well-known: the use of the public sector for patronage and the unaccountability of regulatory staff.

Equally important, the system design is inappropriate in our context. The role of a monopoly provider is unavoidable for networked services (such as water and electricity) where competition is difficult to introduce. But a monopoly provider is not well suited to deliver services at the retail level where variations in demand and income streams are much larger than in developed countries and the rule of law is weak.

Intelligent solutions are possible, as I saw subsequently in East Asia. Monopoly providers supply bulk metered quantities to neighbourhood blocks, with private concessionaires responsible for subsequent retail operations. The performance of various concessionaires is subject to public disclosure to monitor egregious variations in cost or quality of service; neighbourhood committees ensure collective pressure for quick dispute resolution.

This design is not alien to Pakistan where the Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi has shown for sewerage that the mix of public bulk infrastructure and private tertiary operations offers a viable model.

Work in rural areas has helped me understand better the natural evolution of service provisioning. Take water: when all households are poor the need is served by the common village well; when a few become better-off, the sensible solution is for them to install private boreholes. However, there is a tipping point: when most households can afford private boreholes, upgrading at the individual level is no longer economically optimal. A central piped supply becomes more cost effective with the few households unable to afford the service subsidised from overall savings.

We are witnessing a perverse ruralisation of urban life with affluent households resorting to self-provisioning. This is ironic because most rural localities, in Punjab at least, have passed the tipping point and are ready for central provision, something I documented in a 1993 paper Rethinking Rural Water Supply Policy in the Punjab, Pakistan.

Transforming cities into giant villages is madness. A way back to sanity in the provisioning of urban public services is possible. What are needed are appropriate system design and the selection of competent managers. But neither is possible without strong and informed demand from citizens.

Learning from experience, I tell students that the knowledge we generate as researchers should be directed not to policymakers but to citizens to create an informed lobby for better services. All we need now is to invent a language in which we can communicate with the men and women in the street. Test yourself: translate Millennium Development Goals into a local language and see how far you can carry the conversation.

The writer is dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.


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Comments (3) Closed




BRR
Jun 11, 2013 08:08am

Very well presented - an important economic issue with impact on social welfare and healthcare. The writer has observed and described a phenomenon common to Pakistan as well as India. The growth in urban population overwhelms the ability of planners to address the problem, and private vendors find an opportunity to cash in with adhoc solutions. These problems get exacerbated by unplanned growth, corruption by those who gain from the situation, and by lax governance. These observations must be reported more frequently to the public to teach them of the costs incurred by such perennial problems.

A H Nayyar
Jun 11, 2013 02:30pm

Excellent argument for improving governance. The process of atomization is spontaneous, and can be reversed if the state becomes an efficient provider. But the state can do so only when it has resources at hand; i.e., when it can tax the rich of the society. Since the collected revenues go to benefit all the members of the society, especially the multitude of the poor, the rich gain nothing by paying taxes, and for them atomization is an efficient way of using their own resources. Thus, there cannot be a spontaneous process of the state becoming an efficient provider. It would be good to identify the factors that can force a government to become an effiicent service provider.

siva
Jun 11, 2013 02:11pm
This is exactly what happens in India as well. This is a very important subject to discuss. Water is the foundation of our day-to-day life (not religion, not cinema). However, most articles in any major news media is about politics or cinema or crime. How did this article slip in to being published? I am getting to like Dawn more and more because of its authenticity and reliability of content. Thanks Anjum Altaf, I am glad that someone is talking about the basic necessities of life. I am from chennai india.