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Growing urbanisation: Shifting sands

August 25, 2013

A road journey from Karachi to Peshawar will reveal several important faces of our urban settlements. Very weak land-use control, fusion of urban activities with rural terrain, amorphous city boundaries, ribbon-patterned development all along the highways and major roads are common observations. From a technical standpoint these show the enormous speed at which urbanisation is taking place in Pakistan.

It is now difficult to believe that when Pakistan came into being in 1947, only 17pc of the country could be called urban. Lahore, Karachi and Dhaka were the prominent urban centres. Karachi, which was a sleepy port town of 435,000 people at the time of partition, grew by two and a half times in just four years. It became a complex urban asylum of 1,050,000 people in 1951. Based on conservative estimates, it is believed that Karachi has transformed into a bulging urban region with more than 20 million inhabitants. At the national level, the stride of urbanisation is fast — the 1998 census reported that 32.5pc of the country was urban, which, according to studies by the Planning Commission, will grow to nearly 50pc by 2030.

Causes behind rapid urbanisation have been several. The creation of Pakistan gave rise to one of the largest social dislocations in recent history. Millions of people crossed the borders to re-settle in the new homeland of their choice. A sizable proportion of this population load was shouldered by cities like Karachi, Lahore, Hyderabad and Faisalabad.

The country witnessed the introduction of agricultural reforms — popularly called the green revolution in late 1950s and after. Expansion of canal command areas, introduction of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, use of tractors, threshers and other mechanical devices and use of improved seeds were some core interventions that led to the enhancement of agro-production. But it also caused rampant loss of employment and livelihoods for manual labour, especially for unskilled and semi-skilled people.

The demand for industrial labour, construction workers and manpower in transportation and services sector in the cities were some key triggers that caused population migration from rural to urban areas. The fall of Dhaka in 1971 gave rise to a new wave of inter-regional migration mainly towards Karachi and cities in southern Sindh. Afghan wars since 1980s also added urban migrants to Pakistani cities. People displaced due to droughts, flood and earthquake disasters have been recent additions to urban locations. And the war on terrorism, unleashed in northern Pakistan has caused large scale exodus to the cities — the Swat operation of 2009 is a case in point.

The rapid pace of population increase in cities due to migration and natural growth have generated multiple outcomes. The urban centres face the acute problem of squatter and unplanned settlements. These settlements have been evolving ever since independence due to the inadequate state response to the need of housing for the poor. As state land was abundant in several cities, many katchi abadis sprang up on these loosely guarded territories.

The landlords of peri-urban locations also contributed to the promotion of katchi abadis for their own benefit. With the passage of time, options of any affordable housing for the real poor have simply vanished due to several reasons. Burgeoning land prices, high construction costs, very low savings/capital accumulation among the needy groups and absence of housing credit options are the few reasons.

Urban land, which was considered a social asset a few decades ago, is now traded as a commercial commodity. It is well-known that internal migration to Karachi from various disadvantaged regions is still continuing at a rapid pace. Much of this population is absorbed in the confines of existing katchi abadies.

In reference to one interpretation, katchi abadis can be called the shock absorbers for the city because there would have been mass-scale riots if the low-income groups had an absolute denial of housing options. And uneven settlements, poor governance and absence of elected local governments give rise to social conflicts, crime and violence. Many medium and large-sized cities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh experience this problem at an expanding scale.

Poverty is a visible variable in almost all urban centres of Pakistan. It is an outcome of a broad-ended process of change in the social, economic and physical dimensions. Around the globe, urban areas are experiencing this change which has become very prominent towards the turn of the millennium. There are many factors that have brought about this change. The 20th century model of the welfare state, which was derived from the Western social democratic tradition, has been overtaken by the market economy doctrines.

As a consequence, the vulnerable sections of the society are finding it difficult to cope. Thus the allocation of land for different purposes, apportionment of resources for development, creation and promotion of enterprises, issues in labour relations, provision of social amenities and even dispensation of justice are being adjusted and often compromised according to influences of market approaches. Urban poor are often evicted from high-value locations in cities and forced to reside in remote locations.

Few basic measures need to be adopted on a priority basis. A credible and stable local government structure should be revived to enable urban dwellers and other citizens to manage municipal affairs. Credit towards access of land by the needy and poor must be ensured to enable them to acquire land for effective and equitable utilisation.

Effective checks must be applied to the snowballing rise in real estate development. Appropriate changes must be introduced in the zoning and building regulations to promote mixed land use in an effective manner. The old principle of cross subsidy must be re-introduced where land and housing prices for the poor may be partially subsidised by the levies on real estate enterprises. It must be remembered that urban and regional security and prosperity cannot be achieved in contexts where more than half the population is denied the right to access a decent roof over its head.