Researchers and practitioners involved in city building gathered at the Frere Hall in Karachi for the second Pakistan Urban Forum to exchange notes on how to save our cities from the continued rote and squalor.
The Forum was jointly held with the Contemporary South Asian City Conference, which was supported by the South Asia Institute at the Harvard University. The forum brought together urban experts, citizens, and activists who parleyed for three days to find ways to reverse the urban rot that plagues most South Asian cities.
Cities across South Asia are growing haphazardly and not meeting the minimum expected standards for urban services, such as water, sanitation, and transport. The environmental decay plagues almost all large South Asian cities. Terrorism related violence has made city-living even more precarious. It’s time to re-imagine the city and be proactive, like Abha Narain, in protecting our urban habitats.
Abha has been leading the fight to preserve cities by rescuing one building at a time. She has campaigned and acted against the neglect and ugly manifestations of consumerism that left historic buildings in India either crumbling or hidden behind large billboards. Abha and concerned citizens fought the status quo that failed to protect the health and good looks of cities in India. She restored defaced facades and rehabilitated decaying interiors of India’s rich architectural heritage. At the same time, she fought to reclaim public places for public use.
Abha was aided in her efforts by other ordinary citizens who decided to reclaim what was rightly theirs. She told the forum that it was a gynecologist’s petition that helped remove billboards from the façade of a heritage building in India, thus allowing all to appreciate the architectural gems that remained buried under offers for cheap toothpaste or other consumer disposables.
Abha represents the power of the ordinary citizen. Once citizens decide to exercise their civil rights and deliver on their obligations, the status quo improves. It all begins with one concerned citizen and a movement is born as a result.
The second Pakistan Urban Forum is also the result of one person’s initiative that is slowly turning into a movement. In 2006, the third World Urban Forum (WUF) took place in Vancouver. I met Dr. Nasir Javed, who heads the Urban Unit within the Punjab government, at the WUF. While the rest of the Pakistani delegation was busy sight-seeing and doing tableegh (no exaggeration here), I saw Dr. Javed running from one session to another, lugging whatever reading material he could get hold of. He told me that he wants to take these publications with him to build Urban Unit’s library to aide his professional staff in discharging their duties. As we met on the last day of the Forum in Vancouver, Dr. Javed announced in a determined voice that he would hold a similar forum in Pakistan to help formulate the urban agenda for one of the fastest urbanising nations in the world. In 2011, Dr. Javed and the Urban Unit organised the first Pakistan Urban Forum in Lahore that was attended by experts based in Pakistan and abroad.
I had the good fortune of attending both urban forums in Pakistan. I saw hundreds of excited youth in 2011 in Lahore and now in Karachi, attending the forum in the hope of making sense of the mess their parents’ and grandparents’ generations have left them with. I met in Karachi with Jahanzeb (not his real name) who is originally from Buner, but now lives in Karachi after escaping the violence in his hometown. He has a grade 12 education and tons of uncertainty about his future. He works night shifts at hotels doing odd jobs to support his family in Buner. He asked me about what, if any, promise Karachi holds for him.
The urban youth in Pakistan are the nation’s greatest asset because they have the education, awareness, aptitude and drive to build their lives. They are also disillusioned. They heard from experts at the Forum in Karachi speaking in English, a language not understood by those who really need the help of experts. For the urban disenfranchised at the Forum, there was much lost in translation and context.
Jahanzeb had a plan. He told me that he would like to buy second hand clothes and leather bags from Karachi and ship them to Buner for retail. He was concerned that cottage industries in his hometown had died because of the violence. The lack of electricity also made it hard to operate small home-based units. The result is massive unemployment amongst those who have returned since violence ceased. Jahanzeb knows where to buy the raw material in Karachi and how to ship it to Buner. What he lacks is seed funding and support. He lacks guarantors for the prime minister’s youth loan program. He did not know of SMEDA.
Jahanzeb, and millions like him, are caught in a vicious circle. They have energy, ideas, and enthusiasm. They lack collateral and experience. They flock to cities in large numbers hoping for a better future. The cities instead swallow them and spit them out with the rest of the refuse. This needs to end in urban Pakistan.
That cities are the engines of economic growth is a mantra repeated by experts, civil servants, and politicians. They, though offered little to show how to harness the true potential of entrepreneurial spirit in urban Pakistan. The urban rot in Pakistan is a result of, among others, urban poverty and supply side market failures. The governments can remove these structural impediments by adopting growth promoting policies. Such change does not require money. It only requires the establishment not to slap and humiliate the vendor who is offering a service, even without a permit. Establishing and expanding the economic base in urban Pakistan is the real challenge.
And while we ask the governments to do their job, we should do ours.
Abha Narain Lambah and Dr. Javed have shown us how individuals can take initiatives that mature into movements. If you are interested in helping your city or neighbourhood, do something about it, today.