Rising Lahore and reviving Pakistan

The plan to build Pakistan’s economic future should factor in the role that Lahore can play in this economic revival.


Shahid Javed Burki July 21, 2013
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice-president at the World Bank

Lahore has had several periods of glory in its long history of more than 2,000 years. If it was not the capital of the political system of the day, it was the centre of the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. During the Afghan and Mughal dynasties that ruled from Delhi, Lahore was the second most important city of the empire that was in place at that time. But it lost that position when another invader entered India, this time from Europe and from the sea. It spent a great deal of time, energy and resources in developing three port cities in India — Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. The rulers thus made India what it never was — a maritime power. The rulers who preceded them had entered India from the mountain passes in the north and passed through Lahore on their way to Delhi. Eventually, the British realised that the vast empire they were in the process of building, demanded a different seat of power. This was brought home to them by the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857. However, even when the British formally incorporated India into their large empire and moved the capital inland to Delhi, the port cities retained their importance. For the British, Lahore became one of the regional centres, not the most important city after Delhi, the capital.

What history tells us is that the fortunes of a large city are determined by the structure of the political system of which it is a part. As will be discussed in this series of articles, Lahore suffered enormously from the wrenching delivered by Partition of British India. During the Pakistan period, Lahore was thrust into the background by the three groups that governed the country in quick succession. For a decade and a half, political power was in the hands of the refugees who had come from the urban areas of the Muslim minority provinces of British India. They settled in Karachi for the simple reason that it was chosen to be the country’s capital. They had fought for the creation of an independent Muslim state to have access to political power. That seat of power was now Karachi. The refugees — later to be called the muhajirs — took command of both the political and bureaucratic systems of the new country. However, their hold over power could not go unchallenged in a country in which they constituted a small minority. This group was replaced by the military that governed with some interruptions for 50 years from 1958 to 2008. It chose to move the capital from Karachi to a new site in the neighbourhood of Rawalpindi, the location of its headquarter. Given the military’s preference for centralised command and control, it put the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi at the centre of the system of governance. In the period since 2008, the reins of government were in the hands of a political party that was interested in promoting the development of the country’s south. The 2013 elections have fundamentally altered that calculus. But it was not this regional orientation that led the governing group to be sidelined in the elections. It was the great disappointment with the way it governed that removed it so decisively from power.

It was the changing shape of the country’s political landscape that thrust Lahore into the background. While Karachi was being developed as the country’s capital that was where a good part of investment, both by the government and the private sector, went.

Geography matters in economics, particularly the role cities must play in development. If ignored, geography will take its revenge. This is happening in several parts of the Muslim world where cities provide the physical environment, which makes it possible for the disaffected people to coalesce. The May elections have brought the same political party to power in Islamabad, as well as Lahore. It can develop growth strategies for the country and for the province that will complement each other. Rather than stand in the way of Lahore as it begins to work for the realisation of the enormous growth potential of the city and of the province of which it is the capital, Islamabad can — and undoubtedly will — play a supporting role. It will aid rather than deter the city’s advancement and the role it can play in reviving Pakistan — not only its economy, but also the state of its society. Lahore, liberated from the harness of regional politics it was forced to wear, can place itself at the centre of the much-needed efforts to revive Pakistan.

This brief review of history leads to a number of important questions for Pakistan. In its current depressed state, could a city provide the dynamism that the country sorely needs? Could a resurgent Lahore perform that role? Could the political transformation brought about in the country by the elections of 2013, place the capital of Punjab at the centre of Pakistan’s economic revival? The answers to all three questions are ‘yes’. If these are indeed the answers, those who will plan to build Pakistan’s economic future, should seriously factor in the role that Lahore can play in the country’s economic revival. This, then, is the analytical framework I will use for this series of articles.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd,  2013.

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COMMENTS (25)

Omaidus | 7 years ago | Reply

Economic activity can only revive and flourish in in Lahore if trade with India liberalized. Huge amount of trade which comes through Karachi would then be shifted to Lahore. Pakistan should also make Lahore corridor for India-Afghanistan transit trade and also for India to central Asia trade. Otherwise dreaming of any economic revival is allowed to all.

Maria | 7 years ago | Reply

@Pashtunyar: My mother's family is from Charsadda. Imagine for one second if people in KPK and other provinces started to have the same passion and pride to make their own cities the best they can be. It's easy to complain about others but hard to work to make a better Pekhawar or a better Karachi. For you it seems easier to complain but you still can't ignore the obvious. Shahbaz Sharif has done a great job of improving Lahore and all of the Punjab despite all the difficulty and discrimination he faced from the Federal government and centre the last 5 years.

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