Power-outage, the everyday rhythm of life in Ramadan and the state in Pakistan

Nadeem Malik

University of Melbourne

Andrew Dawson

University of Melbourne

Kregg Hetherington (2014) argues that infrastructure is difficult to disentangle from modernization. Colonial authorities first utilized infrastructure to promote processes of 'civilization'. In the postcolonial period, too, infrastructure came to represent the promise of an independent state. In both historical moments, the transformation of space has been linked to a change in the mindsets of people, as civilization and modernity became inscribed first on territories and then in the subjectivities of the masses.

In Pakistan, different types of infrastructure– including that of the electricity network –were broadly conceived as essential for encouraging the development of a modernized society. Provision of electricity was not only considered necessary for industrial development and economic growth. It was also regarded as a pre-condition for the development of the mind and the establishment of a civilized social order in that it represented a means by which people could become connected to networks of information and knowledge through which they might broaden their perspectives. The promise of modernizing society in Pakistan by connecting citizens to the electricity grid became a nightmare, however, as a result of the enduring energy crisis that led to daily power outages of between 16 and 22 hours over the summer months in particular.

The understanding of power as a form of infrastructure is centered on connections to temporality as much as to relationships of spatiality. Using Koselleck's (2004) concept of future-oriented modern temporality, we will demonstrate the means by which infrastructure represents modern temporality in its promise of an open future, despite it being a future that does not always eventuate. Overall, the article addresses three broad questions: 1) How do religion, climate, and power outages intersect with one another and in what ways do they impact on the everyday rhythm of people's lives? 2) What are people's perceptions of temporality during power outages?3) How does the study of the impacts of a failing infrastructure on the everyday lives of certain demographics contribute to understanding the character of the Pakistani state?

Everyday impacts of power outages

The problem of prolonged power outages throughout Pakistan provides a constructive lens through which to examine the many ways in which infrastructure as a representation of modern temporality is indicative of the promise of an open future; despite it being a future that does not always eventuate. Frequent and lengthy power outages lead ordinary Pakistanis to experience a pre-modern temporality in which the certainties of the modern lifestyle become unstable once again and many of the state's citizens are left to survive the elements without adequate cooling, refrigeration, and reliable health services. Such a state of affairs does not contribute to the strengthening of a modern way of thinking amongst the masses. Instead, it serves to reinforce the appeal of orthodox religion and countervails the primary objectives of modernization.

The provision of electricity has, therefore, resurfaced as a primary concern for the Pakistani government. Indeed, the most significant challenge for the current party does not involve the taming of the many militant groups that mount near daily attacks across the country but, instead, as Pakistan's Minister for Water and Power claimed in a 2013 press statement:

'Our No. 1 challenge is energy; it's a bigger challenge than even terrorism. While Taliban attacks have claimed the lives of tens of thousands and destroyed the livelihoods of many more, Pakistan's notorious power outages that last up to 22 hours a day directly affect over 180 million people. Their personal lives, their work lives, the lives of their children; everything is affected.' (Time 2013)

The impacts of frequent power outages on the everyday lives of Pakistani citizens are significant. Most notably, when the holy month of Ramadan falls during the summer period – as it did in 2015 – the recurrent power outages leave people to the unforgiving mercy of the elements in a country that experiences extreme temperatures and oppressive heat waves. According to government and hospital reports in 2015, more than 1,300 people died in the city of Karachi alone during the month of Ramadan, and a further 65,000 people suffered heatstroke throughout the course of the summer heat wave (Khan 2015). The excessive number of casualties and reported health concerns was a direct result of the combination of the Islamic religious requirements of fasting between the hours of dawn and sunset in the searing heat and humidity of the summer coupled with the difficulties imposed by protracted power outages.

The director of the national weather office, the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), told VICE News that recent weather conditions in the city of Karachi had been 'extraordinarily hot', like nothing ever seen before (Khan 2015). He further commented that:

'Along the coastline, the sea wind normally blows for ten months, which keeps Karachi weather more moderate, but in the last decade or so, the sea wind stopped in June – the month of Ramadan. This is dangerous and alarming and is because of global warming. In the past ten years, the winter season has reduced from 115 days to 80 and the hot weather season has extended from 150 days to 180. Such are the major changes in the ecosystem implying that the nation may face more heat waves like Karachi in future.' (Khan 2015)

On a visit to Karachi during the month of Ramadan in 2015, I (Nadeem Malik) came to know my sister's driver, Ahmed Rasool, and his family, and to learn of their mixed fortunes. Ahmed's 58-year-old father, Ali Muhammad, had passed away unexpectedly during my visit; just one of the 1,300 deaths recorded that year during the month of Ramadan alone when a lengthy power outage exacerbated the effects of a 45 degree Celsius heat wave. Ali had been observing the religious injunction for abstention from food and water during daylight hours in the inhospitable summer conditions when he became severely dehydrated and lost consciousness. Taken to an already gravely overcrowded hospital, he and his family waited for assistance alongside scores of other heatstroke patients, but to no avail. Ali was pronounced dead some 30 to 40 minutes after his arrival.

Two days before the death of his father, a weary Ahmed invited me to accompany him home at the end of a long workday. For Ahmed, it was simply another evening following a long stretch of uncomfortable days in the scorching heat and high humidity of that particular summer and, with no power, he could expect little relief at home from the unpleasant weather. Nonetheless, he still hoped for a restful night's sleep under a cooling fan from which he could wake refreshed and prepared for another work day. On arrival, I followed Ahmed upstairs to the terrace of his home. It was 11pm and his family – a wife, father, and two children –had been seated in the outside area since 7pmin a vain attempt to escape the heat of the day with only the one small hand-held fan to share amongst them.

The strain of another day without power was evident on Ahmed's wife Sofia's face. She fretted openly about the damage to the store of perishable food items in the kitchen after eight hours without electricity to run the family's refrigerator, and she expressed her irritation at missing her favorite television programs – one of her principal sources of entertainment. As the blackout approached its tenth hour that day, Sofia emitted a long, deep, audible breath that expressed her sadness and prayed for the relief that would come with the end of another outage. She lamented the fact that her natal city of Karachi was no longer the city of lights that she recalled from her childhood; that place of peace and safety had been destroyed, first by bomb blasts and then by the surge of street crimes that seemed to surface during each power outage.

Ahmed, too, spoke of his immediate concerns for his children who were still awake at such a late hour, working to complete their school assignments by the beam of a single emergency light. Against the sound of their noisy quarrels, Ahmed expressed his worry about the hours of missed sleep they might have to catch up on and the potential impact of weariness on their schooling the following day. Noting the time, Ahmed stubbed out his cigarette and returned inside in search of his father's medication. As he groped in the darkness, with only the pale light from his mobile phone to guide him, his shin hit a side table and he cried out in pain, cursing his life and the utility company that was responsible for this endless misery.

Over just a few short days in the city of Karachi, the significant impacts of power outages on the health and wellbeing of its citizens became apparent. As Ahmed and his family's experiences suggest, stress levels often intensify during lengthy periods without electricity, which in turn leads to an increase in adverse health symptoms and diseases. Amongst the list of concerns are the injuries suffered by the elderly who may fall or hurt themselves walking into objects in the dark. Children, too, suffer the effects of food poisoning and other gastrointestinal diseases; a result of consuming foodstuffs that have become inedible in the absence of suitable refrigeration. In addition, hospitals that are under-equipped or ill prepared to operate under blackout conditions struggle to manage the inevitable influx of patients and their family members. Indeed, my sister's GP, Dr Akram, commented that he was often unable to examine patients thoroughly during blackouts as the power from the small generator fluctuated constantly and he was reluctant to use some of the diagnostic equipment for fear of damaging it in the poor light conditions.

The account of Ahmed's misfortunes during the summer of 2015 is not limited to his family alone, or even to the experiences of a few others in the city of Karachi. Instead, it is the story of thousands of others across Pakistan who curse their fate and their livelihoods in a country with such an unreliable power supply, particularly during the intense heat of summer and in the physically demanding weeks of Ramadan.

The frequent power outages in Pakistan contribute to a particular image of the state in which it is represented as absent from the everyday lives of its citizens. In his frustration at such difficult living conditions, Ahmed himself commented that those who committed to fasting during the summer months in the absence of a reliable power source were left to the mercy of nature; they were forced to rely on God to resolve their problems because the state did not exist in Pakistan.

The ethnographic account of Ahmed and his family's experiences of the power outages in the city of Karachi provide important insights into the notion of infrastructure as temporality. Infrastructure as temporality may be explained through the use of Koselleck's concept of modern temporalities. Koselleck's work has best historicized temporality, or the manner by which past, present, and future are coordinated, by demonstrating how an orientation to an open future is a specifically modern phenomenon, marked as it is by a clear divergence between past and future, and between experience and expectation. He maintained that temporality in pre-modernity could not foster a diachronically extended form of future-orientedness, given that this period envisioned the future less at the expense of the past and more so in terms of the past. The experience of the present moment conceived in terms of modern temporality, however, is constructed in light of future aspirations and possibilities. Indeed, Koselleck argues that even the past becomes the 'future past' in the modern era in the sense that every past moment in modernity has its emphasis on future possibilities.

The 'future past' of power infrastructure in Pakistan represented future aspirations regarding the provision of electricity to every citizen; yet these were aspirations that could never be fulfilled. In Pakistan, the military has dominated political and economic interests since the late 1950s, envisioning the country as a security state with a need for strong infrastructure for warfare. In consequence, resource allocation for warfare infrastructure competes with that need for reliable public infrastructure, such as that of electricity for citizens.

As a result, ordinary citizens experience a different temporality to that of the ruling elite. Military generals, civilian bureaucrats, and other wealthy citizens who can afford to purchase generators continue to enjoy the luxuries of modern times without the trouble of interruptions to their power supplies. Those less affluent members of the population, by contrast, perceive themselves as sitting in a time machine that takes them back into the darkness of the pre-modern era where they live at the mercy of nature. While living in modern cities, certain demographics of people are surrounded by pre-modern time. This widespread experience of a pre-modern temporality emphasizes the problem of infrastructure in the global south as a phenomenon laden with promises of future comfort, but, as is so often the case, they are promises intended to be broken (Simone 2016).

People experience what Koselleck (2004) has referred to as eschatological temporality through the broken promises of a failed and failing power infrastructure. Eschatological temporality in contemporary Muslim societies such as Pakistan can be defined as the imminent-but-future End of the World as a means of stabilization, and is experienced as the search for equilibrium between the threats of the End on the one hand and the hope of a better future in the afterlife on the other. Thus, an increasing number of people choose to fast during Ramadan in the heat of the summer months only to die with the hope of a better life, if not in this world, then certainly in the next. At best, they remain in wait for a messiah who may someday resolve their problems.

In short, the broken promises of infrastructure can, at times, strengthen religious orthodoxy when intersected with the effects of climate change, religion, and the perception of the absence of the state; it results in a temporality 'set loose' from the intention of modernizing the nation through infrastructural development. Infrastructure as a form of modern temporality does not appear to strengthen a modern way of thinking in countries like Pakistan. Instead, it has served to increase the miseries of the general population and led to a rise in religious orthodoxy among certain demographics.


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