Urbanisation in Pakistan and its consequences

Published: November 21, 2012
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The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc.

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc.

Driving into Islamabad during rush hours a couple of days ago, I realised yet again how crowded the capital city had become and very different from how it was even a decade ago. Over the years, Islamabad, which was considered to lie “half an hour’s drive outside Pakistan”, has now become part of it. It would be unreal to think that Islamabad would remain frozen in time with a smaller population, less congestion and other idyllic conditions. With increasing violence in the country, especially in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the Tribal Areas, people have shifted to other parts of the country including the capital city. Furthermore, one shouldn’t forget the fact that Pakistan has one of the highest population growth rates in the world. This means greater pressure on all urban centres including Islamabad.

This is not just a lament about Islamabad but on the lack of urban planning in Pakistan in general. In fact, the story of Islamabad is about the mess that we find all over the country. Some commentators say that Pakistan’s urban growth rate is one of the fastest in South Asia and should hence be considered a symbol of progress and modernity. However, I recently found out that technically, Pakistan has no urban centre. This is because the definition of what constituted an urban centre was scrapped after the 1998 census. Demographers now believe that a new definition, which is yet to be agreed upon, may help in the next census but not help in future comparison as the definition would have changed since 1998. Seemingly, there is a committee of demographers that has met huddled together to thrash out a definition. The debate must be opened up as it directly pertains to the future of people living in the existing or future urban centres.

Apparently, the definition used in 1998 was very basic. A place with 5,000 or more people was to be categorised as an urban centre. Perhaps, the philosophy behind this was that once such a category was slapped on a place, the development of essential social and economic infrastructure would follow. But it is obvious that such a thing did not happen at all in many cases. Because of a lack of planning, even existing infrastructure began to collapse under growing population pressure. For instance, in Islamabad, the two main hospitals cannot cater to the city’s burgeoning numbers. Another example relates to the absence of parking in the city. Walking through the F-8 Markaz is a nightmare because a cellular company, which has set up its head office there, has not provided parking and so the vehicles of its employees clog the entire area and even make it a security hazard for pedestrians.

One could certainly go on and on about specific problems but there are some issues worth our attention as far as urbanisation is concerned.

First, thrilled by the idea of urbanisation as an imagined indicator of progress we have stopped thinking about our dire need to stop population growth. Even the existing youth bulge, which is considered a potential source of strength, could become a bane if not properly trained and educated.

Second, there is no planning for urbanisation — most of the cities have developed randomly with no proper planning for the kind of infrastructure growth that would make a centre of population feel like an urban centre. There is an absence of health and educational facilities especially in the intermediate and small cities, which then means a correspondingly significant propensity for people living there to migrate to the large urban centres.

Third, most large and intermediate cities seem to be undergoing vertical or horizontal growth, eating into the rural areas or agricultural land that lies in their hinterland. According to one estimate, over 60,000 acres of agricultural land have been eaten up by urban sprawl. There are some for whom the reduction of rural space is not an issue and they cite it as an example of progress, which it is certainly not, mainly because growth of what looks like urban centres without a parallel shift in economic patterns does not necessarily indicate progress.

Fourth, the increase in urbanisation is not necessarily accompanied by a conversion of mercantile capital to industrial capital. In fact, the horizontal expansion of cities is a case of an increase in mercantile capital and this is indicated in the booming real estate industry. Cities are not developed around economic activity like industries but have grown out of and around bazaars and a bazaar culture which in itself means mercantilism. The only other viable economic activity seems to be real estate that has attracted owners of agricultural land around cities to convert their land into housing schemes or to sell it for this purpose. This is not even viable capital since in the absence of sustainable economic activity, people tend to waste the accumulated capital very rapidly by spending it in consumerism. More important, such housing schemes have not managed to solve the shortage of houses. Pakistan has a shortage of about five million houses and the housing schemes that one sees are meant for the middle or upper-middle classes and do not cater to those from the lower or lower-middle classes.

Fifth, there is nothing that can serve as a melting pot as far as the increasing class divide is concerned. Normally, it is a public transport system which tends to bring people together. Karachi used to have a well-functioning tram system for public transport but it was scrapped years ago and was not replaced with anything else. Lahore has just started a metrobus project that will connect some parts of the city. However, there is an utter lack of planning for a public transport system that would also be fairly safe for all. Such a system would help in melting down the huge class divide that exists in every Pakistani city.

Finally, urban planning must also address the problem that would eventually occur due to the various kinds of natural divisions that include class, ethnic, sectarian and other differentiations. Right now, Karachi seems to be the only cosmopolitan city suffering from violence due to these internal divisions, which have been compounded by the burden of an increasing population. However, most of the other major cities, mostly in Punjab, have at least two visible dividing layers: ethnic and class. As these other cities expand so will their problems, including those that result in violence. Hence, now is the time to think deeply about urbanisation and its consequences.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 22nd, 2012.

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Reader Comments (18)

  • Hammad
    Nov 21, 2012 - 11:45PM

    Increase in urban sprawl and population growth is also directly related to the fluctuations in food prices as the government makes more and more faulty estimates of agricultural production and has to eventually import grain.

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  • just_someone
    Nov 21, 2012 - 11:57PM

    Very nice article, I really like your work Ayesha.
    You are absolutely right, our people find any reason to think we, as a nation, are progressing but it is obvious we are regressing. Cities are a mess. There is no sanitation in any city except Islamabad. The basic infrastructure of water lines and power lines is absent or, if present, is woefully inadequate to fulfill the requirements of the citizenry. Roads are a disaster with potholes all over and also inadequate to provide smooth travel. One thing you didnt mention is the public transport system is worse than terrible. I used the public transportation in Karachi in highschool and I shudder to recall the times I hung on to a window because the buses were too crowded and because if I waited for a bus to be empty, I would be late by 3 hours or so to school.
    I could go on and on but I think the message is clear. We really need to plan and provide for our urban centers or else, rather than just chaos, there will be huge social problems that will result, something that is already happening in Karachi.

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  • Falcon
    Nov 22, 2012 - 12:06AM

    A scholarly piece of work. As for your observation on investment in real estate sector, I think till the time financial markets and investment culture mature in Pakistan, real estate and gold will continue to serve as alternate safe investments.

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  • Sajida
    Nov 22, 2012 - 1:23AM

    Lay this failure at the feet of the Civil Service -where it belongs. This is what happens when you do not have a proper local government system.
    By the way, this is a South Asian problem as all former members of Britain’s former Indian colony cling to a forgotten memory.

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  • sabi
    Nov 22, 2012 - 1:52AM

    If karachi,Lahore have to survive as civilised city then both the cities should spend half of their development expenditures hundred of kilometers away on backward places where people have no jobs and have to migrate to these cities.For example karachi has a very big population of Pathans and baluchs and hazara wals.Karachi admnistration should develop these areas and create job oppurtunities at thier doorstep.This will stop not only further migration but remigration will start.This will be a win win situation for Karachi or any other mega city if this initiative is taken.

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  • Shahzad
    Nov 22, 2012 - 7:01AM

    In our system of governance major finances are needed by city governments to spend on infrastructure for city development. This can only be done by developing financial models whereby the development is made through raising debt and very judicious use of tax payer money and the debt is then retired through future consumer charges, and other sources of revenue created through infrastructure development. In the Mushraf government the SECP working with provincial governments developed a concept of real estate investment trusts where public funds could be employed and the city government property be used as a security to the providers of these funds. I don’t know if the present government has followed this through.

    It is a pity that our national and provincial legislatures when a democratic government is in place seem to do away with local bodies and when a military government comes local bodies flourish. I wish our democrats learn to work with local bodies and then only will democracy be strengthened, and citizens will have delivery of services in a better way.

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  • NAkhtar
    Nov 22, 2012 - 7:36AM

    Good and thought provoking piece…
    Madam, in fact, it is because of imbalnace in life, look at the policy makers only in Islamabad, after reading your article it seems they have failed in providing good infrastructure to the people of Islamabad, isn’t a bad governance. CDA,SECURITYAGENCIES,PRESIDENCY AND PARLIAMENTARIAN ARE living in capital but they are different species, so they dam care what you have realised or common citizens suffer.
    You said, 60,000 acres agriculture have been eaten, unfortunately now people ( maphias) is eating mountains also, people are dveolping plaza,houses in the name of farms house,
    it is all negligence of CDA.
    The reulers must pay attention towards small cities, town,why people are deprived of basic facilities.so it is all failure of our governnets in more than 6 decades still people are seeking just facilities to live in PAKISTAN?

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  • Nov 22, 2012 - 10:00AM

    The author ignores many benefits of rural to urban migration for migrants’ lives, including reduction in abject poverty, empowerment of women, increased access to healthcare and education and other services. Historically, cities have been driving forces in economic and social development. As centers of industry and commerce, cities have long been centers of wealth and power. They also account for a disproportionate share of national income. The World Bank estimates that in the developing world, as much as 80 percent of future economic growth will occur in towns and cities. Nor are the benefits of urbanization solely economic. Urbanization is associated with higher incomes, improved health, higher literacy, and improved quality of life. Other benefits of urban life are less tangible but no less real: access to information, diversity, creativity, and innovation.

    http://www.riazhaq.com/2009/09/south-asian-slums-offer-hope.html

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  • Nov 22, 2012 - 10:27AM

    There are also many benefits of rural to urban migration for migrants’ lives, including reduction in abject poverty, empowerment of women, increased access to healthcare and education and other services. Historically, cities have been driving forces in economic and social development. As centers of industry and commerce, cities have long been centers of wealth and power. They also account for a disproportionate share of national income. The World Bank estimates that in the developing world, as much as 80 percent of future economic growth will occur in towns and cities. Nor are the benefits of urbanization solely economic. Urbanization is associated with higher incomes, improved health, higher literacy, and improved quality of life. Other benefits of urban life are less tangible but no less real: access to information, diversity, creativity, and innovation.

    http://www.riazhaq.com/2009/09/south-asian-slums-offer-hope.html

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  • Nadir
    Nov 22, 2012 - 6:16PM

    we must thank Malik Riaz and his partner DHA for nation building.

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  • t khan
    Nov 22, 2012 - 6:32PM

    @Riaz Haq:
    For all that to happen there is a need for planning that is missing. That is the point made by the author. I have lived in western cities and have seen the complex planning processes that must have gone into ensuring even small little things. I don’t think our governance machinery has even a fraction of that capability or finances. I am foreseeing multiple distopias emerging in Pakistan rather than sustainable cities. The rich will eventually end up in fortified cocoons of comfort while the poor……. bahria towns set against vast slums!

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  • Anonymous
    Nov 22, 2012 - 6:46PM

    @Riaz Haq:
    Sir
    It seems that you missed the point.our cities are not cities but mega villages. I don’t know whether you have seen or not, a village growth. It is like a layer of onion.that means no planning for future.
    If cities are planned they will offer all the things you are talking about.
    I work in a smaller organization in west. The parking and green space is bigger than office space. Their new expansion of a billion dollar was monitored by city at every stage. They could not occupy the space till city gave them permission after inspection by city engineers
    Planning is, what is lacking. Real state is easy money and all rules are bent for that including burning and destroying revenue records if need arises.
    It is all greed motivated without thinking what will happen to our grand children in future.

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  • Kashif Zia
    Nov 22, 2012 - 8:32PM

    A very nice article.

    One of the reasons of urbanization in Pakistan is lack of industrialization. Large industrial units, if not located in and around a city, attracts educated people from cities into high quality islands where basic needs like education, health, security and environment exist in much better quality. Even profitable agricultural industries can be useful to shed the load from urban areas. The basic problem is that there are not many “decent” employment opportunities in Pakistan, and everybody runs towards the large cities to earn “something”. Bottom line, we need an economic revolution which would ultimately resolve the hazards in large cities, either by diverting the people away, or by management and planning.

    Thanks Ayesha.

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  • Nov 22, 2012 - 9:37PM

    @anon: “If cities are planned they will offer all the things you are talking about.”

    Instead of talking in abstract, let’s take a concrete example. Orangi Town in Karachi has a huge population of migrants from KP. Orangi has schools, hospitals, jobs, roads, basic sanitation and many other services that barely exist in places where the migrants came from. Orangi Town has made it possible for many poor migrants and their children to move up into the growing middle class in Pakistan.

    http://www.riazhaq.com/2009/09/orangi-is-not-dharavi.html

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  • Abdullah
    Nov 22, 2012 - 10:00PM

    @sabi:
    Baloch are the native population of Karachi,Why do Karachi Administration should spend elsewhere when Karachi itself need some serious spending in infrastructure.Karachi is open to everybody since 1947,than we should start spending in India to start emigration again.Karachi is only city which guarantee work for anybody good enough to do it.After 9/11 population of Pustoon have grown becuase of unrest in Fata & Paktoonkwa it will decline with time.

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  • Anonymus
    Nov 23, 2012 - 4:41AM

    @Riaz Haq:
    Concrete example is layari
    How many Baluch are attorneys,PhDs and medical doctors? If you have numbers you can compare with any other Baluch area. Baluch are still same as they were prepartition despite living for centuries in same urban center.
    It is again planning, when planners think that how our grandchildren will live here? It cannot happen when karta dharta people plan things for greed.

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  • Nov 24, 2012 - 5:43AM

    @Anon: “Concrete example is layari”

    Lyari has schools, colleges, hospital…even a medical college. There are many many Baloch doctors, attorneys and engineers. I went to an Engineering College with some of them.

    There have been two Baloch Presidents of Pakistan (Laghari and Zardari) and one Prime Minister (Jamali).

    Here’s how Indian journalist Pakaj Mishra talked about Lyari in a recent piece: “Even in Lyari, Karachi’s diseased old heart, where young gangsters with Kalashnikovs lurked in the alleys, billboards vended quick proficiency in information technology and the English language”.

    http://www.riazhaq.com/2012/07/indians-share-eye-opening-stories-of.html

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  • Sidrah
    Dec 15, 2012 - 2:10PM

    @Riaz Haq
    Zardari or Jamali are hardly from Lyari. And there are tat walay school-college in every village of Pakistan but that doesn’t mean they are any good. And also just because there were baloch in your college does not mean they were from Lyari.

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