Pakistani cities are typical of colonial towns. They originated and grew as a result of being military cantonments, transport hubs and trading posts. The combination of security, transit trade and employment attracted people and wealth to the cities. They became centres of art and culture. Lahore and Multan are examples of the earliest flourishing cities that survive to this day. Inside the walled city of Lahore one would still find beautiful legacies from the Mughal period.
During the British times, port cities like Karachi blossomed. They grew from a trading post to a port city, and modern facilities and infrastructure were built including water supply, roads and street lighting. Unlike Mumbai and Kolkata, Karachi could spread into the desert hinterland. The migrants who came to Karachi in the wake of independence and in the ’60s and who come even now, found housing, employment and a host of services in the informal sector booming in the katchi abadis. The informal sector has been like a fairy godmother to Cinderellas.
The informal sector is the people’s urban economy — outside of the government’s jurisdiction and based on trust. When someone needed a house, they purchased a small plot from a land grabber who subdivided a plot on public land and provided water supply. People found employment in the informal sector mostly as daily wage earners. They informally bought construction material and hired semi-skilled labour to build their houses. They acquired electric connections, purchased fuel, got credit and made use of quacks and sent their children to informal schools.
Abdul Waheed came as a boy with his father from Swat. His father made a living by driving a taxi and provided him a madressah education. They, like many other migrants, lived on the edge of the city and built homes and facilities on self-help basis. Abdul Waheed, together with many youngsters like him, formed a community organisation and opened a school for the children of the neighbourhood. They motivated the people to modernise and adapt to urban living. He connected the migrant community to urban institutions and helped the people become an integral part of the urban economy. The informal sector provided opportunities to Abdul Waheed and many other social entrepreneurs to build and grow.
The fungibility and flexibility in the informal sector prevent urban areas from dying and help the urban economy sustain itself by tapping new resources in the region and internationally. Subcontracting is a form of urban informal employment that helped the crippling urban industries to transfer labour and other production costs like energy, land rent and security to the informal sector and therefore maximise profits. In doing so, it attracted direct foreign investment to many of its industries including textile, apparel, automobile and construction.
Today, large cities in Pakistan, like those elsewhere, are growing and transforming into urban regions. They are spreading and encompassing small towns and settlements around them. The recent spread of urban areas is due to construction of metalled roads, especially bypasses and ring roads. Transport connections help strengthen economic linkages and labour, trading, production and processing in the outlying areas become linked to the central business district of the large cities.
The growth of Lahore is a classic example. The Lahore region now effectively extends from Sheikhupura to Kasur and overlaps the emerging Gujranwala and Faisalabad urban regions. Through a transport and communication network, Lahore’s central business district is connected to smaller markets in the region. The growth of urban regions is natural because markets tend to spill over and extend.
Land is a major determinant of urban spatial and economic growth. Pakistani cities, because of large public land holdings in the centre and feudal land holdings in the periphery, make spatial and economic growth inefficient. The land owners generally do not come together in a planned manner to develop land efficiently and for larger public benefit. Through force and withholding development, they increase the land prices and therefore housing, commercial and production spaces are created without adequate facilities and infrastructure provisions. Subsequently, it becomes impossible for the city to be governed and the economy to be regulated.
However, the informal sector does not grow by itself. Like a leech, it sucks the resources of the formal sector economy. It is a parasite that does not leave alone even the crippled economy of large cities like Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta. The informal sector, by nurturing various types of mafias and mobilising public sympathy towards informal means, corrupts the overall economy. Since the ’80s, the informal sector has helped criminal elements who exploit the people, especially the poor and the new migrants. They profit from the absence and weakness of government services and regulating institutions.
Through corruption and force, we have seen them capture public offices and institutions and become the middleman, controlling land and service delivery. Gradually, they alienated and fragmented society and created inequalities and a sense of deprivation. By gaining the sympathy of the people and destabilising society through violence, they have been able to cripple the governance structure and capture public resources. They are ruthless and violently dispose of competition and opposition and use coercive methods to extort money and capture land and properties.
Today, Pakistani cities are fragmented and consist of ghettos. Incompatible land-use, traffic congestion, overburdened services and high-density housing are common. At the same time residents are faced with crime and delinquencies, pollution, under-employment and spiralling prices. The people who benefited from the informal sector today are its victims. Abdul Waheed was shot dead as he sat outside his school playing with his daughter. The school that he and his colleagues built over the last two decades stands threatened of closure and takeover by extremists and criminal elements.
People’s informal economy now stands hijacked and the fairy godmother has turned into the proverbial stepmother, turning the dreams of princesses into cinders. Security, trade and employment that attract people are now conspicuous by their absence. The migrants cannot go back; they now fight for survival in cities that they built with their sweat and blood.