The Atomization of Society

By Anjum Altaf

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 the public supply. A hand pump sprouted in the backyard as a last resort and its water sent for regular testing.

Water consumed a big part of our daily conversation. As a social scientist I was intrigued: What was going on? Privatization 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 privatization – as I reflected I realized this was the beginning of the atomization of Pakistan’s urban life.

Privatization and atomization differ in the scale of their operations. A private provider can cater to an entire city; atomization 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 atomized 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 atomized water provision exceeded those of a modern water supply system even when I ignored many expenses – for boiling impure water, imputed value of household labor, redundancy costs of induced perversities like installation of suction pumps, costs to the environment, etc.

Over time I have observed the phenomenon of atomization 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 atomized 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 atomization 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 (like 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 neighborhood 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. Neighborhood committees ensure collective pressure for quick dispute resolution.

This design is not alien to Pakistan where the Orangi 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 subsidized from overall savings.

We are witnessing a perverse ruralization of urban life with affluent households resorting to self-provisioning. It is ironic because most rural localities, in the 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.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on June 11, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

Millennium Development Follies is a companion post that illustrates how we fail to communicate with our own citizens.

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  • kizilbashsohail
    Posted at 08:21h, 12 June Reply

    Excellent article. Very easy to understand. I think the key to creating an informed population would be to make such articles easy to understand, with examples from everyday life which people can relate to.

    Perhaps you should also write about how ordinary people in Pakistan can influence their government effectively.

  • Mehmood Ashraf
    Posted at 13:45h, 12 June Reply

    Excellent piece of work. Let me share something that reflects the theme somehow. USAID, in collaboration with local NGOs in Sambrial, carried out a house to house campaign regarding clean water provision. They convinced the people over there to pay for the clean water which they did not pay previously. As the quality of water improved after communal pressures and awareness of how healthful is clean water, people agreed to pay more for the water than previous prices.

  • Faizan
    Posted at 15:12h, 12 June Reply

    The good thing about the article is that it is very easy to understand. And Mehmood it would be wonderful if you could share some link regarding the above mentioned campaign. Sounds very interesting.

  • Admin
    Posted at 17:29h, 12 June Reply

    Now below Pic is comprehensive pictorial representation of the article

  • R
    Posted at 11:57h, 14 June Reply

    This is a very interesting article, and as someone interested in urban reform, its definitely given me new directions to explore.

    Whilst reading your article though I was wondering that perhaps one major difference within urban localities and villages is the lack of community initiatives to turn this rejection of the public-sector into community-based self-sufficiency. The absence of organization at the communal level in urban areas, means the residents do not pool together resources and collectively decide to service their needs through initiatives which do not need to depend on the public sector e.g. microgeneration. I have seen villagers get together through their local councils and decide to build a pipe themselves, or in cases reject the government’s desire to build one. But urban areas, for basic infrastructure and community decisions continue to depend on the public sector, even if they individually do not use these services.

    Thus, social atomization in cities has also lead to this atomization of service delivery.

    In fact it is interesting to see how far such atomization has spread. For instance, whilst doing research in Badaami Bagh it was fascinating for me to see how naturally evolving spatial demarcations had concentrated particular economic functions and social groups in different areas. The result were isolated urban pockets, like a colony exclusively for Christians abutted by one only for Muslims; a stretch of road with only scrap metal warehouses leading into a market which used this scrap metal to produce steel but where no one but the steel producers could could set up shop. These areas whilst economically dependent on each other hardly had any social interaction.

    Perhaps one step towards changing around atomization is to redesign cities to make them more inclusive and open.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 08:32h, 15 June

      R: Thanks for the perceptive comment. You have actually identified an aspect of great importance. However, from the perspective of economic theory, there are many separate issues that are compressed in your comment.

      Your observations from Badaami Bagh can be unpacked into its constituent phenomena, both positive and negative:

      1. Ghettoization – when communities are segregated by force or do so voluntarily out of fear and the need to protect themselves. For an elaboration refer to the case of Ahmedabad discussed earlier on this blog:
      2. Labor market segmentation – when particular groups of people specialize in specific occupations. There is a self-selectioon process that can explain why, for example, so much of the motel industry in the US is dominated by Patels from Gujarat.
      3. Industrial/Commercial clustering – when particular markets are dominated by one or related activities. There are certain types of economies that lead to such clustering, e.g., Silicon Valley in Calfornia or the footwear cluster in Agra. This can happen at the level of cities or parts of cities, e.g., Landa Bazaar in Lahore. There is now quite a lot on interest in moving away from such a pattern to what is called mixed-land-use development.

      The main point you made was the lack of community identification in cities, what you termed social atomization. My own recommendation is that we should stress the neighborhood as the unit of community in cities and build social cohesion at that level – what used to be the function of Mohallas. For example, we could have neighborhood sports teams competing with each other. Examples in Lahore would be Model Town, Gulberg, Dharampura, Gowalmandi, etc.

      See on this blog:

      Also, browse through the work of Jeb Bruggman who has stressed this community aspect of urban development:

      In the US, downtown areas are divided into Business Improvement Districts for similar reasons – they become small enough units for the traders to take a personal interest in management and welfare. See

  • abdullahkhalids
    Posted at 13:32h, 26 June Reply

    Atomization can be cheaper in certain cases. I show this particularly for electricity generation through solar photovoltaic panels.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 06:20h, 27 June

      Abdullah: Thanks for a very thoughtful response. This is the kind of conversations we need to have. You may be right – there might well come a point when atomized service provision in urban areas might make sense for some services. It will certainly not be so for water and sewerage; I doubt it will be so for gas; but it might happen for electricity. I don’t think we are there yet.

      Levelized costs for 2018 are provided in the following article:

      The important point in your comment at this stage is whether you are really talking about atomized costs (i.e., production and consumption at the household level) or whether you are considering costs of production by alternative sources at the utility level, i.e., via solar and wind farms. Could you clarify?

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