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Pakistan’s urban policy: Turning cities into slums

Updated Apr 08, 2015 04:59pm


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For our fortunes to turn, urban economic development has to be at the forefront of economic policymaking, but it is not. 
—Tanveer Shahzad/
For our fortunes to turn, urban economic development has to be at the forefront of economic policymaking, but it is not. —Tanveer Shahzad/

If you have lived in a middle-class neighbourhood in a large city in Pakistan, you probably grew up deprived of what urban living offers elsewhere: quality education, entertainment, hope, and opportunities.

What you know is chaos, congestion, religious zeal, violence, and a stifling sense of entrapment. No wonder millions of Pakistani youth have one goal: “Pakistan se zinda bhaag”.

But this need not be the case. Cities in Pakistan could be transformed to become engines of economic growth. However, this would remain a dream as long as urban economic development stays on the back-burner of Pakistan’s economic policymaking.

For the nation’s economic fortunes to turn, urban economic development has to be at the forefront of economic policymaking, which in the past has focused exclusively on agriculture and manufacturing, and more recently on remittances.

Pakistan's economists, too, have ignored the subject of urban economic growth. Hundreds, if not thousands, of academic papers have been generated that offer a tiny variation on the time-series models that focus on the macroeconomics of Pakistan’s debt-ridden economy.

Also read: Housing shortage reaches 9m units: State Bank

That is why having one of the nation’s preeminent economists, Dr Nadeem ul Haque, focus on urban economies is a rare but welcome event.

In a recent PIDE working paper, Dr Haque makes a strong case for developing cities to their potential to trigger economic growth.* He identifies several shortcomings that have prevented urban economies from reaching their potential in Pakistan.

Understanding Pakistan's urban economy in its unique perspective

I would submit that similar shortcomings have been prevalent in North America and Europe, where hundreds of bustling metropolis developed and thrived. It is, therefore, important to understand the unique failures of policy and social order that have kept Pakistan’s urban centres in a state of despair.

Urban research is scarce everywhere, not just in Pakistan

Dr Haque laments the paucity of urban research in Pakistan. But this is also true for North America. The celebrated economics departments in North American universities often boast little more than a token urban economist. Departments with two urban-focused academics claim to offer an ‘urban’ specialisation!

Compare research in macroeconomics, which is being produced with industrial efficiency, to research in urban economics, which is few and far between in the West. Alternatively, compare the number of books published with macroeconomics in their title to those highlighting urban economics on the cover page. Based on the sales volume, the bestselling urban economics title on is ranked 187,207. In comparison, the text on macroeconomics is ranked much higher at 1,431.

The dominance of small builders is a common trait too

Dr Haque highlights that unlike North America, where large builders mass-produce housing, residential development is largely done by individual households or small-sized developers in Pakistan. While it is true that large builders and land developers are uncommon in Pakistan, the housebuilding industry in North America is also dominated by a large number of small builders.

Michael Buzzelli, who is currently a professor of Geography at the Western University, studied the structure of house-building firms in North America. Dr Buzzelli and I were contemporaries and focused on the supply side of housing equation for our doctoral dissertations. Dr Buzzelli’s findings are quite revealing.

His research showed that the house-building industry “continued to be the preserve of small firms, when over 85 per cent of all builders constructed no more than 25 units each.” He further noted that roughly one-third of small builders constructed just one house a year.

The other not so commonly known fact about large home-builders in North America is that they are considered large not because of their size, but because of the number of housing units they produce under their brand. Essentially, large builders are agglomerates of a large number of small builders and trades who are individually incorporated businesses that collaborate to produce a large number of housing units under the same brand.

What we need is a better definition of the term 'urban'

The other key limitation of urban policymaking in Pakistan is how one may define 'urban'. The government uses arbitrary administrative boundaries to define what is urban and what is not. Some researchers have argued that Pakistan is more urban than what the official statistics show.

Dr Haque quotes research which claims that almost 70 per cent of Pakistan is either urban or urbanising. This is rather exaggerated and it complicates further the task of reforming urban economies.

He quotes unpublished work from South Asia Institute at Harvard University that shows 39.7 per cent of Punjab’s population to be urban and an additional 33.2 per cent urbanising. Almost 40 per cent of Sindh’s population is estimated to be urban with an additional 19.4 per cent urbanising.

The devil, however, is in the detail.

The report considers an area 'urban' if it has a gross population density of 500 persons per square kilometre. The other criterion for being urban is a minimum population threshold of 100,000 or more in a single place defined by the Census. The minimum gross population density for an urbanising area is set at 250 persons per sq km.

Take a look: Chinese group offers $1bn investment in housing sector

I am concerned that the density thresholds have been set too low. Take Lahore for instance, where the population density in central areas, such as Ravi Town was recorded at 25,000 persons per sq km (based on the 1998 Census). The population density in Cantonment was recorded at 5,800 persons per sq km. Even the sparsely populated Wagha Town reported a population density of 1,100 persons per sq km, which is more than twice the population density thresholds defined earlier.

One needs to acknowledge that what surrounds the haphazardly growing urban areas of Pakistan are not urbanising areas, but Ruralopolises. These areas “underline the fusion of rural economic and social systems with metropolitan spatial organisations. Ruralopolises are the sites of urbanisation through implosion.”

Lack of local governance structures

Dr Haque rightly identifies the lack of institutions and governance structures that have contributed to the sorry state of Pakistan’s urban centres. It is hard to imagine an urban governance structure in the absence of urban or local governments and stable institutions that could enforce plans and prevent their violations.

A stronger constitutional cover is needed to protect the local governments from becoming victims of provincial governments, which have repeatedly and deliberately defeated attempts to evolve democratic governance at the municipal level. This also requires abolishing Cantonment Boards that effectively disenfranchise citizens by denying them the right to run and lead their local governments.

More high-density developments are needed

Also, his point about the lack of high-density mixed use developments in urban Pakistan is spot on. Where are the tower cranes, he asks. He identifies the blind adherence to the Garden City utopia that led to low-density residential neighbourhoods. As a result of that, urban development policies institutionalised urban sprawl in Pakistan. The low-density development contributed to converting excessive conversion of fertile agricultural land to low-density residential land uses.

Read on: Rezoning Lahore

If housing were developed at high-density in mid- to high-rise developments, the land conversion would have taken place at a much slower pace. However, urban governance mechanisms have to be improved before any high-density development can be delivered in Pakistan.

Time for Pakistan's powerful to look beyond their own interests

Urban land is the instrument of wealth creation in Pakistan. This fact is not lost on politicians, armed forces personnel, and even members of the judiciary. Every powerful group in Pakistan has laid claims on land all across Pakistan. Housing schemes have been developed for the benefit of the interest groups who have acquired land at highly subsidised rates, developed housing, and flipped properties for astronomical profits.

On the other hand, plumbers, machine operators, restaurant workers and millions like them lack the institutional backing enjoyed by the others to acquire hundreds of hectares for the benefit of their community. For equitable economic growth in Pakistan, access to state land for planned development has to happen for all, and not just for the privileged few.

Every first Friday of the month is the most important day for financial markets in the United States. The government releases the non-farm payroll statistics for the previous month. The number of jobs created in the past month influences the interest rates and the larger economy. The federal government diligently reports the employment statistics every month in the United States.

When was the last time such numbers were reported on a regular interval for Pakistan? Has the economy generated or lost jobs during the tenure of a government in Pakistan is a question of prime importance, yet it is seldom raised by the electorate, and hence never answered.

If job creation were a real concern of the government, it would have focused on creating the right environments for urban centres to become engines of economic growth and provide employment to the millions of youth who have come of age in the past few decades. But it is clear that they do not care enough.

At the same time, urban centres lack infrastructure for entertainment. Dr Haque notes that the Defence Housing Authority in Lahore has 26 mosques, one cinema, and a library. It should therefore come as no surprise that the urban youth have embraced religious fanaticism in a place where entertainment is scarce and religious institutions aplenty.



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Murtaza Haider is a Toronto-based academic and the director of

He tweets @regionomics

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (27) Closed

saeeds Apr 08, 2015 05:16pm

Government cannot control this .With population out of control no government in the world have any solution for this. It is people responsibility to understand with more children and less resources they are verge of destroying there country and world.

N.Sid Apr 08, 2015 05:33pm

Amazing the writer has turned Islamabad into a slum. The picture gives an impression as whole of the city is a slum. This is how you see it, perceive it and write about it. Need to look at the real, unbiased picture.

BTW the above picture is an Afghan refugee basti, few hundred families live there. The premise that middle class neighborhood will deprive you of the quality education, entertainment, hope and opportunities is also not true. On the contrary middle class urban dwellers have a huge presence on some of the best institutes in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad urban centers.

N.S Apr 08, 2015 05:41pm

"Pakistan sey zinda bhaag", phrase is downright derogatory to close to 200 million people living, loving the country, has high aspirations about the country and hopeful and striving to make it happen...a success story. The real phrase is "Pakistan zinda baad" close to our hearts.

On the contrary a person sitting in Canada, cannot perceive the real picture unless he sits in the midst of the people, have a first hand knowledge about the real issues, know the pros and cons of the society.

Khalid. K Apr 08, 2015 05:44pm

Why people who have left the country to settle in the west, tries to be more western, more loyal than the king, in degrading the country of their origin.

MHamza Apr 08, 2015 06:07pm

Pakistan badly needs good infrastructure.

DV Apr 08, 2015 06:33pm

It is not matter of batter infrastructure but, need to control our population. Migration from villages to Cities is an issue. Govts. are not in condition to provide better facilities and security to vast population. Developing Countries Like India, Bangladesh & Pakistan has big issue. Our medical science has done tremendous advancement from last 5-6 decades, results child death rate was above 25% in 60es and now days it is below 1%. Our resources are under great pressure. 70% of Our forests/wild life is already disappeared. We always blame our government to provide batter infra but, forget our responsibilities. Most of our Asian love to damage our government property (build with our own money)

confused engineer Apr 08, 2015 07:28pm

@saeeds I do not agree that population is the sole problem. I agree with the author that the government's focus should be on high density development. We can turn the population problem to our advantage by enhancing quality of the same human resource with good infrastructure.

ashok kumar lal Apr 08, 2015 07:31pm

this is applicable to India also.

John Apr 08, 2015 07:56pm

Some people believe that Empire State Building in Midtown Manhatton, New York City has contributed a lot in getting US out of depression in 1930s and 1940s. The iconic projects are needed to boost economy. Listen and follow Malik Riaz. Learn from this person. He is gifted. Trust me.

K Apr 08, 2015 08:45pm

Mr Murtaza you continue to surprise me with your command on vast number of subject. It is well written article and indeed very important issue that need to be raised. Unfortunately, everything depends on deliverance of Civil Government where Local Govt system can evolve and be strong enough to challenge the powerful bureaucracy, Cantonment boards & influential politicians/individuals. But this dream seems very unlikely to be fulfilled any sooner

Pragmatist Apr 08, 2015 09:18pm

“Pakistan se zinda bhaag”. That was exactly my slogan when 31 years ago I left Pakistan. The religious fever and fanaticism was rising every day due to Zia and his cohorts. Whereas Pakistan educated and trained me, my talents were bartered away in the service of a strange land, for the peace and security it offered. Sorry for our once wonderful country that has been ruined by a few mad men.

aditya Apr 08, 2015 10:26pm

Best line of article : “Pakistan se zinda bhaag”. But running is not the solution.

pakistani Apr 09, 2015 02:51am

After every one second one child is coming as Pakistani in this world and we have not managed our population at all in last three decades we were 4 crore 40 million in 1951 and we are about to touch 22 crore now. Though government figure may say 18, 19, but in reality our population is must be somewhere around 22 crore or 220 million, which is a huge no. without proper planning in cities villages, education health people are bound to migrate to cities and this is the sad result what the author has highlighted.Quality matters more then quantity of the people, we need to realize this as soon as possible for the betterment of future generation.

helloWorld Apr 09, 2015 04:06am

I see wicket stumps!

HOney Apr 09, 2015 04:09am


Polulation density in Hongkong and Singapore is over 10 times than of any city in Pakistan or India. Yet Hongkong and Singapore have much higher quality life and far better infrastructure.

Amir Bangash Apr 09, 2015 06:42am

Nice work by Murtaza Haider.

AKS Apr 09, 2015 09:35am

Out of the four pillars of democracy, only Pakistani media is 'actually' concerned about Pakistan's development and Dawn, perhaps, is the 'jewel of the crown' of Pakistan media .

One of the biggest reason of prosperity of any country is- what 'issues' the media focuses on in that respective country. In India too, one of the main factors in the growth story of India's economy is the 'independent and transparent' media it has. 80% of the news shown in Indian media focuses on economic growth and development issues, in fact, it even audaciously slams politicians or anyone who disturb the growth process or peace process in the country.

Media is and should be 'The Voice of common people'.

ilyas Apr 09, 2015 10:46am

Its not just middle class localities. Visit Clifton Block 2 right across Bilawal House and would witness several inches thick layer of garbage next to apartments worth upto Rs. 30 million. Sewerage water often run on the street and majority is destined to buy water from tanker mafia whose water quality changes every other day. Road condition would remind you of jeepable roads in the remote Northern Areas of Pakistan with car getting frequent dents underneath. People enjoying food on the footpath with sewerage water promoting disease within few feet.

Abdulla Hussain Apr 09, 2015 10:47am

Pakistan needs a good planner, in Malaysia, Singapore & some other countries a single good planner converted the entire country remarkably. Regretfully in Pakistan we dont have such person.

Agha Asad Raza Apr 09, 2015 11:08am

Islamabad is a TOTAL mess now. Just go to any of the markets and you will see beggars and illegal encroachments, building and shops and complete chaos. Just look behind the buildings on Jinnah Avenue or any market and you will know what I mean. CDA should be dismantled and dumped in the garbage that is piled up around Islamabad.

Ahmer Apr 09, 2015 11:16am

Its shameful to compare no. of cinemas with mosques and relate it with fanaticism. Private sector is there to if there is need for cinemas and other entertainment.

Ahmer Apr 09, 2015 11:18am

It is against freedom of speech

Noman sultan Apr 09, 2015 11:38am

"every effort counts" Do we have a wish to change our self , every thing going to change and every productive pulse will make difference in the regional and internationally .

Musa Apr 09, 2015 02:12pm

The Basic thing that our country lacks is education. Our Government spends about 3% of its budget on education so naturally these are going be the outcomes. But the element of Nationalism in this country is not less. There are many reasons why the country is not progressing. First we need to have a strong hold on our internal security. Its true that a country cannot progress when it is in a state of war. But on the other hand its hard to absorb that our Political authorities are less attentive towards such matters.

Afzal Apr 09, 2015 02:15pm

@Pragmatist You are right! I too left for a new destination some 40+ years ago when the unrest started after Ayub Khan. But I do return (home) annually or whenever an opportunity is given to find the situation, infrastructure more grim than the last time. A handful of egoists exchanging seats in the government every now and then have ruined the country in shambles.

DV Apr 09, 2015 02:32pm

@HOney, Did you ever been to Singapore or HongKong if, yes, I am sure the freedom you enjoy in India or Pakistan, can't be in any other part of world.

Kala Ingrez Apr 10, 2015 05:14am

In Greater Karachi, generations after generations grew up deprived by MQM and PPP of what urban living offers elsewhere: quality education, entertainment, hope, and opportunities. Murtaza, you are more patriotic then the last president of Pakistan; you have been away far too long from your beloved country - renounce your Canadian residence/citizenship and please return. Karachi needs you and MQM seems to be without a vision and a leadership - ample opportunities waits you - time to show by action instead of writing for sake of writing - just come back home.