Migration and Pakistan’s development

Published: April 30, 2018
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The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

In Pakistan studies, the role of migration in development has been largely ignored. That is surprising since in many respects the country’s experience in this area is unique in the world. In my forthcoming edited volume, Pakistan at 70, I have used the counterfactual approach to highlight the importance of migration in the country’s history. In that work I have asked and attempted to answer a number of ‘What If?’ questions. Before getting to the role of migration in the country’s development, I will set the stage by asking another ‘What If?’ question. For instance, Pakistan would not have gone through so much political uncertainty and turmoil had Liaquat Ali Khan, the country’s first prime minister, not been assassinated after he had been in office for only a bit more than four years. On the other hand, Jawaharlal Nehru, Liaquat Ali Khan’s Indian counterpart, was to govern for 17 uninterrupted years. During this period, he was able to give his country a Constitution and place India on an economic path that left a deep impression on his country.

The counterfactual I am concerned with today is the consequence of the unexpected arrival of eight million Muslim refugees from India in the months immediately after the partition of British India and emergence of India and Pakistan as independent states. Five millions of these were from the part of the province of Punjab that was now with India. They were easily absorbed in west Punjab. About three million of them headed towards Karachi and cities in southern Sindh for the simple reason that the former city was selected to be Pakistan’s first capital. Religion was the only thing these people shared with those amongst whom they settled. In all other respects they were different.

The migrants spoke Urdu while the language of the native population of Karachi and southern part of the province of Sindh was Sindhi. Those who came to Karachi were from the urban parts of India and were thus engaged in urban economic activities. Their politics was also urban. On the other hand, Karachi’s native population had strong ties with the countryside. In that part of the province, large landlords (waderas), each owning tens of thousands of acres, were the total rulers. The peasantry over which they governed was more like slaves. This fact was noticed by the former US president Barack Obama when, as a young man, he visited Sindh in the company of a couple of Pakistani friends he had met during his student days.

Had the capital been located in some other part of Pakistan — say in Punjab’s northern area which is where it eventually went — Karachi would not have developed the way it did. Urdu-speaking refugees from India then would have gone to northern Punjab. The province of Sindh would not have become two parts; Karachi and Hyderabad dominated by the refugees and the culture they brought with them and the wadera-dominated rural areas. Not finding a political home in Sindh, the refugees decided to establish their own political group. This was initially called the Muhajir Qaumi Movement and got to be known by its acronym, the MQM. This party continues to dominate the politics and economics of Karachi while the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) holds sway over rural Sindh. In spite of the many efforts made to bring together these two political movements, they have remained separate with very distinct interests.

This discussion should go beyond the ‘counter-factual’ related to the arrival of Urdu-speaking refugees from India to Karachi. To this migration added the arrival of millions of people from Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces who went to work on hundreds of construction sites. After Karachi being chosen as the capital, the government had to build offices and housing for the thousands of workers it was recruiting. Most of the recruits to the government were from the Urdu-speaking muhajir community. But those who came in to build Karachi belonged to different cultures. As is the case with any large-scale migration, the new arrivals formed their own communities in their own geographic space. This led to the establishment of such Pashtun colonies as Sohrab Goth on the city’s outskirts. The Soviet Unions’ attempted conquest of Afghanistan and the Pashtun resistance to that occupation in the 1980s generated another wave of migration. Some four to five million Afghan refugees crossed the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The efforts to contain them in the refugee colonies built along the border were only partially successful. Millions escaped and took up residence in Pakistan’s large cities. Karachi’s Pashtun colonies proved to be very welcoming with the result that Karachi is now the world’s largest Pashtun city. But this community has not been fully absorbed in Karachi’s economic and political life. There is much tension between the Pashtun and the non-Pashtun. The murder by the police of a young Pashtun who was aspiring to become a male-model has inspired a youth-led movement that is demanding more political rights and economic rights for their community.

The presence of large Pashtun populations in many major cities has raised many issues that will need to be resolved. Among them is the repatriation of the refugees to Afghanistan, a feat that will be hard to accomplish, especially when tens of thousands of these people are well-integrated into the urban economy. A visit to Lahore’s old city is interesting in this context. The Pashtun now control the wholesale dry-fruit market of this area. Pakistan’s security establishment believes that these refugee communities have made it difficult to bring under control urban violence related to extremism. Forcing the Pashtuns to go back home will hurt the country’s already delicate relations with Afghanistan. My conclusion: Pakistan needs to carefully study the role of migration in order to devise public policies that will affect the country’s future, including its relations with the outside world.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 30th, 2018.

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