Rethinking urbanisation

February 25, 2019


The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

A SYMPOSIUM on cities and infrastructure, held at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, saw a variety of researchers, urban policy practitioners, activists, and artists getting together to discuss various aspects of Pakistan’s accelerating urbanisation process. The underlying theme, and a very pertinent one at that, was displacement and inequity produced by development, specifically the sort which relates to the aesthetic regeneration of the city and the building of large, avowedly modern infrastructure.

Since the Empress Market demolitions, the unfolding murkiness of Bahria Town’s expansion in Karachi, and the year-long heritage and conservation conflicts over the construction of Lahore’s Orange metro train line, there has been palpable unease over different aspects of Pakistan’s urbanisation process. Resultantly, there is a consensus, among scholars and activists at least, that the way our cities are designed, regulated, expanded, and administered is problematic. The monetary gains of this urbanisation are funnelled towards a sketchy, and largely undocumented real estate and construction sector; the use-value of this new infrastructure is mostly for the upper classes; and the aesthetic outlook is in step with that of an insular state elite, in the throes of a particular Gulf-tinted vision of modernity.

At each step, there are visible and documentable social justice and inequality concerns, which need to be addressed. Based on recent discussions at the Cities and Infrastructure symposium, as well as larger conversations happening in Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi, one can identify three areas of concern for researchers, concerned policy practitioners and activists.

The first of these is the institutional configuration of urban administration and regulation. In all three major cities, Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad, it is quite apparent that displacement, regeneration, and development have taken place under the aegis of a bureaucratic-technocratic structure, which offers no avenues for citizen participation or accountability.

New models of development where the state invites private investors to acquire land create new challenges.

This is acutely apparent in the case of the Lahore Development Authority, which exists outside of the legal domain of the local government system and reports directly to the provincial tier of government. As a result, all projects that it (or similar bodies like the CDA) undertakes have very few legal provisions for the systematic incorporation of public views. The most they have are bureaucratic exercises like open-days, hearings, or town-hall meetings which serve no purposes except to check off procedural boxes.

This institutional flaw is particularly egregious given that changes imposed on how people physically experience their places of residence and work will fundamentally alter their day-to-day-lives. If planning and regulation bodies were decentralised and responsive to elected local governments, they would, at the very least, experience some formal and informal channels of pressure from public representatives. In such cases, the decision to build or destroy something, which is inherently a political act given that it involves material trade-offs, would be settled in the domain of a political institution (the local government system) rather than a bureaucratic system.

The second area of concern is the interaction of urban development and the market. This has been raised by a number of researchers already, most notably by Aisha Ahmad at Oxford University, who point out that the scale and scope of a city’s built environment is directly tied to the flow of money and its relationship with investors, builders, and state functionaries (politicians and bureaucrats). New models of development where the state invites private investors to acquire land, rather than exercising eminent domain using the Land Acquisition Act as it used to in the past, create new challenges.

For example, the coercion deployed by the state through a legal instrument to dispossess holders of land is a tragedy, but one that is easily identifiable. On the other hand, how does one tame the workings of the land market which create similar negative consequences but currently operate within the entirely legal domain of market exchange? If a private developer or a public body operator pays a price at which a landowner is willing to sell to produce a large gated housing community, what sort of regulations should be created to guard against the by-products, such as dispossession, unemployment for farm workers, sites for speculative investment, ecological crises?

Finally, the third problem area that requires creative thinking and attention is the cultural ideals of urban life itself. This is slightly harder to grasp, but it is something that undergirds the problems encountered in the first two domains. There is a need to continue the nascent (but growing) interrogation of what it means to be urban in Pakistan, what sort of aesthetic and practical goals should a city encompass, who should the city serve, and to what ends should it be administered and regulated. This is a challenge because as recent state-led events like the Empress Market anti-encroachment drive, or the state-and-private-capital combination witnessed in the expansion of Bahria Town in Gadap show, existing projects can take the shape of both ‘heritage protection’ and ‘modernisation’, depending on the site at which they are working.

As the work of Karachi-based artists Zahra Malkani and Shahana Rajani in Gadap highlights, the definition of modernity and what constitutes heritage used by the state and private developers is exclusionary and often in service of narrow, profiteering interests. On top of that, in places like Lahore and Karachi, there is a bigger problem that these definitions have become hegemonic in the sense that they constitute the active aspirations of most common people. Most people want to live in gated communities, enjoy wide car-friendly boulevards, and experience the consumerist comforts on offer in places like Dubai or Singapore.

Creatively remoulding and rethinking these aspirations to fit the social justice and ecological constraints of a place like Pakistan may prove to be the biggest challenge. And to counteract against it, the nascent critically minded conversation on offer today will eventually have to force its way into the domain of mainstream policy and political ­discourse.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2019