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‘Messy & hidden urbanisation’

May 16, 2016

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The writer is a former governor of the State Bank of Pakistan.
The writer is a former governor of the State Bank of Pakistan.

RECENT research studies on urbanisation in Pakistan, particularly the Social Policy Development Centre’s (SPDC) annual review and the World Bank’s 2016 urbanisation development update on Pakistan’s opportunities and challenges, are noteworthy. The latter report has termed ‘urbanisation’ as being “messy and hidden”. Messy urbanisation “refers to the proliferation of urban sprawl and slums” while hidden urbanisation, a related concept, “refers to urbanisation that is not captured in official statistics, often on the peripheries of major cities”.

Urbanisation — the main driver of economic growth — improves the overall productivity of an economy by reallocating labour from low-productivity sectors such as agriculture to high-productivity sectors such as manufacturing and formal services. High population densities reduce the cost of infrastructure and services. Agglomeration economies allow for the scaling up of production, spillover of skills, transfer of knowhow, availability of intermediate inputs and shorter supply chains.

In Pakistan, however, ‘diseconomies’ occur — due to congestion and scarcity; premiums that are paid by migrants for land, housing, water, transport (indicative of dysfunctional institutions of governance); and exploitative mafias backed by political parties. Half the urban population lives in inhumane slums. Productivity gains of urbanisation have eluded us; this is ‘messy urbanisation’ in practice.

Of ‘hidden urbanisation’, SPDC’s report (extrapolating from the 1998 census and inter-censual growth rates derived from surveys) estimated Pakistan’s urban population would reach 72.5 million, 38.6pc of the total population, in 2015. Casual empiricism and serious studies have challenged the definition of ‘urban areas’ used in the 1998 census; covering only those living in municipalities and cantonments.

In his research, Raza Ali, using a broader definition of ‘urban’ and ‘urbanising areas’, has found that there is no representation in ‘urban Lahore’ of the populations of Lahore’s public sector suburban developments (eg Johar Town), most private sector suburbs and the Defence Housing Authority. Similarly, “settlements peripheral to the city, capitalising upon their proximity, transport links, employment opportunities and access to services have grown substantially and even acquired urban characteristics”, are not included in the census.


Pakistan’s urban population can have serious transformational consequences on politics and governance.


He argues that the attributes of administrative areas do not adequately reflect the process of urbanisation and agglomeration. Including key factors such as density, urban core and distance-to-city, his re-estimation shows that the urban population at the time would increase by at least 20pc to 48m — 36pc of the total population. Assuming an average growth rate of 4pc between 1998-2015 the current urban population would be 87m — or 46pc the total population today.

This large, mixed urban population — consisting of a growing middle class, demographics which favour a younger, better educated, and more confident population; a vibrant social media; and an active civil society — can have serious transformational consequences on the country’s politics, governance and basic services delivery. The 2016 census results should lead to fresh delimitations of constituencies for the national and provincial assemblies, shifting the balance of power from the dominant rural electorate (currently 70pc) to more even-handed representation (55:45).

Rural constituencies are largely driven by politics of biradri, familial and tribal affinities and obligations, and are characterised largely by a patron-client relationship. On the other hand, the expectations of urban electorate are related to tangible deliverables and promised parameters of performance. Those unable to meet their expectations are usually shown the door; the threshold of urbanites’ tolerance for incompetence and corruption is relatively low.

Even the MQM exhibits a high turnover rate over successive elections. A comparison of election candidates over the past five decades has shown the persistence of dynastic and familial allegiances as significant determinants in those rural constituencies with low turnovers. In urban constituencies fatality rates are comparatively higher and new faces more common. Party affiliations matter more in rural constituencies — chasing ‘electables’ into their fold is the major endeavour of leading political parties. The same families who long dominate in rural Pakistan are more prone to changing party loyalties than their urban counterparts.

This tendency, however, has abated since the constitutional amendment that forces a person to resign from his seat if he crosses the floor. If elections in 2018 are held under freshly delimited constituencies, the complexions of parliament and the provincial assemblies — and electoral outcomes — are likely to be quite different from that of 2008 and 2013.

The induction of a large number of urban elected representatives would also help to change governance structure. Accountability for results, transparency, right to information, financial disclosure and audits are in greater demand for the urban electorate. They are more interested in access to public services such as education, health, water supply, sanitation, transport, and land for housing and security — services largely delivered by local governments.

To satisfy their voters, MNAs and MPAs would therefore have to work with their Municipal Corporations, Municipal Committees, Town Committees and cantonments; the impetus for reforming services institutions would, therefore, be shared by all three tiers of government. The main obstacles in adopting reforms, present tensions and inbuilt conflicts, would thus give way to a harmonious, synergetic relationship — improving the quality of governance.

The sequence of events needed to minimise messy urbanisation and unshackle its hidden potential is clear: hold a fair census in 2016, delimit the constituencies on the basis of the results, and empower and resource local governments. Once newly elected representatives enter office their survival instincts will force them to reform the delivery of basic public services, for fear of being voted out by an informed and demanding electorate. While these changes won’t occur over one five-year period, the least that can be done to initiate change is to sincerely and earnestly conduct the national census and delimit constituencies afresh.

Those who are anxious for qualitative change in our national politics and democratic governance should work for this sequence to reach its logical conclusion. Only then will our fractious politics move away from revelry in conflict and confrontation to regard and care for our citizenry, and only then will our abrasive culture of governance give way to a responsive, performance-oriented one. Prayers for a messiah or magic bullet may then, finally, come to a halt.

The writer is a former governor of the State Bank of Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2016