PESHAWAR is by no means the busiest airport in the world but compared to Hyderabad it is a monster.

I mentioned in an op-ed in this newspaper (Anchoring KP province, June 30, 2013) that the number of flights per week into Peshawar airport was 79 of which 56 were from the Middle East.

I used the information to venture that the KP economy was anchored in the Middle East and that this was not due to the flow of investment into KP but the export of manpower from it.

A reader commented that what I had mentioned for Peshawar was true of every big city in Pakistan. This may well be established and, if so, it would suggest that Pakistan as a whole is a manpower exporting economy — statistics indicate that almost the only positive number in recent years has been remittances from workers overseas.

Still, it is my guess that Peshawar is an outlier amongst cities in Pakistan and that extending the comparison to every city is not warranted. I make my point by referring to the curious case of Hyderabad which in terms of population size is of the same order as Peshawar.

In extending the research to Hyderabad, I was, much to my annoyance, surprised again. I had not expected to find that Hyderabad airport had actually remained inoperative for 10 years till 2008 and just this year has been closed to commercial traffic again.

My memory of earlier years recalls flights to Hyderabad from Lahore and Islamabad via Nawabshah but clearly something had changed. This warrants investigation given that in the normal course one would expect more economic integration, not less, over time.

A number of scenarios could be postulated. First, Hyderabad might really have declined economically over the years and is not anymore a viable destination for air traffic. I would be sceptical of this explanation given that there are still flights into smaller cities like Sukkur.

Second, it could be the case that there is real economic demand for service which is not being met for reasons we are unaware of. If so, it would signal a failure of the political process through which the needs of a community are articulated and met.

Third, it could be that Hyderabad can do without air service because of its proximity to Karachi. I am not convinced of this argument which could be made just as plausibly for Peshawar. One could ask why Islamabad airport does not serve the same purpose for Peshawar.

The answer to the last question should be obvious: Enough passengers wish to fly directly to Peshawar which makes the supply of air service a viable proposition. There is clearly not the same magnitude of passenger demand for Hyderabad.

This brings me back to the study of relative labour flows from and to Pakistan that was mentioned in the op-ed on Peshawar. The district-level study mentioned in that piece summarised its findings as follows: “The general pattern seems to suggest that the less developed districts have high out-migration and low return-migration, whereas the more developed districts … have low out-migration and high return-migration.”

It then highlighted the exceptions: “The only districts that do not fit into this pattern are the less developed districts of Sindh and lower Punjab, which are characterised by both low out- and return-migration.”

The puzzle was that while both the erstwhile NWFP and Sindh were characterised by similar indices of rural poverty, the relative out-migration of labour from the former was much higher than from the latter.

One of the joys of research is stumbling upon the unexpected — I realised for myself the importance of the dog that does not bark. While we were focused on studying the causes of migration, the lack of migration from some areas was an equally important phenomenon to explore and explain.

It was my inference at that time that the explanation of the puzzle pertaining to the very different individual responses to rural poverty resided in the nature of the land tenure systems in the two provinces — one tied its labour to the land in much more coercive ways than the other.

The why and how of it are fascinating topics to explore but I leave them here to the imagination of the reader.

It was natural to extend this insight to the movement of labour from rural Sindh within Pakistan. The immobility hypothesis explains why, for example, Karachi is the largest Pakhtun and not Sindhi city in the world despite the fact it is located in Sindh and over 1,000 kilometres from Peshawar.

The internal movement of labour in Sindh also threw up an interesting contrast with Punjab. The ethnic homogeneity in the latter meant that both labour and capital circulated freely between rural and urban locations in the province.

The ethnic heterogeneity in Sindh, with rural and urban areas dominated by different groups growing increasingly alienated from each other, meant that the corresponding circulation of labour and capital was much more restricted if not severed altogether.

The deprivation of modernising capital investments from urban areas had obvious negative implications for the prospects of rural development in Sindh. For our limited hypothesis related to demand for air service, it meant that both international and national flows of labour from rural Sindh were severely constrained.

To some extent, this provides a partial explanation for the curious case of Hyderabad whose airport has remained barely functional over the years. Of course, it highlights a number of larger questions about local variations in political economy and their implications for the nature of economic change that would bear more careful analysis.

The writer is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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