School of Social and Political Science

Figures of Surplus: Waste, Informality, and Caste in Urban Pakistan

25 March 2021
15:30 - 17:30


Online via Zoom


Waqas Butt, University of Toronto Scarborough. Figures of Surplus: Waste, Informality, and Caste in Urban Pakistan

Waste work across South Asia is structured by caste, especially as low or non-caste groups (Dalits) have historically been dominant in this stigmatizing form of labor. This is true in contemporary Pakistan, where uneven urbanization has been driven by a consumption-based economy and shifting spatial relations along the lines of caste, class, and religion. Unsurprisingly, during this time, markets for waste materials and work have expanded rapidly, while creating renewed space for kabāṛīan (junkyard owners) and bīopārīan (middlemen or brokers) to enter this line of trade. This talk tracts through spaces—jhuggīān (huts), junkyards, warehouses, furnaces, manufacturing plants—where waste materials are worked with and exchanged, being procured and transformed into resources to be used in remaking commodities. Recent discussions of informality within South Asia have highlighted the contradictory situation faced by labor: excluded from formalized sectors of capitalist economies, relations of work and exchange have emerged to generate surpluses that are simultaneously directed at need and accumulation. By tracing the relations of work and exchange surrounding waste materials, this talk argues that informality undergird more formalized sectors of capitalist economies, uneven urbanization across much of Pakistan, and the reproduction of historical inequalities and interdependencies, in which caste-based forms of difference remain essential. 

Waqas H. Butt is an anthropologist at University of Toronto Scarborough whose work focuses on the intersections of caste, labor, infrastructures, and waste in urban Pakistan. 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 (Dalit) groups, have become essential components of urban life through the everyday and intimate workings of waste infrastructures. His research has been funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the American Institute of Pakistan Studies, and the University of California, San Diego. His work has appeared in academic journals such as CITY, American Ethnologist, ILWCH, among others, as well asnewspapers and magazines in Pakistan. 


This is one of the Centre for South Asian Studies' regular interdisciplinary seminars, which address varying South Asian topics.

If you want to attend this or any of our Zoom events please email the Centre for South Asian Studies' co-directors, Dr Hugo Gorringe or Dr Talat Ahmed.

Key speakers

  • Speaker: Waqas Butt (University of Toronto Scarborough)