Growing Urbanization in Pakistan
A Looming Challenge
Large-scale migration from rural areas to bigger cities for better access to basic services and employment opportunities without proper urban planning has caused rapid urbanization while adversely affecting standard of living in mega cities of the country. In developed countries, cities are the engines of economic growth, innovations and entrepreneurship. But in Pakistan, the huge flow of migration due to multiple factors has turned the cities into hotbeds of discontent caused by overpopulation.
The final results of the Population Census 2017 have shown that Pakistan’s urban population grew immensely by 76 percent to 75.68 million in 2017 from 43m in 1998. In other words, around 36.44pc of the country’s total population of 207.68m lived in cities in 2017 compared to 32.5pc out of 132.35m in 1998. According to the data, Balochistan is the most rapidly urbanising province followed by Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Rapid urbanisation is placing more pressure on limited public services (education, health, clean drinking water, sewerage, and so on) which are available for city dwellers as socio-economic infrastructure in major cities crumbles owing to lack of sufficient investments.
Do these figures depict the true situation?
Pakistan ranks among the world’s most rapidly urbanising countries. Final census figures show that just under 76m people — or 36.44pc of the populace — lived in cities in 2017 compared to 43m who lived in urban areas back in 1998. However, according to various studies, urbanisation data in Pakistan may not be entirely reliable. This is because the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics’ definition of ‘urban’ tends to be based on cities’ administrative limits, which leaves out ‘urbanising’ or ‘peri-urban’ areas that extend beyond the demarcated boundaries. Thus peri-urban areas may exhibit urban characteristics but are considered rural for the purposes of census data collection. This underrepresents the urbanised areas, leading many researchers to argue that nearly half the population could be classified as urban if the PBS definition of a city or urban area were to be interpreted more liberally.
While rapid urbanisation — driven mainly by a high birth rate and the migration of farm labour in search of better jobs and facilities — provides immense opportunities for boosting economic growth, poor urban planning and management is posing serious challenges. A few years ago, a World Bank study described Pakistan’s urbanisation as messy and hidden, which is preventing the full tapping of potential and contribution to economic development. It is messy because it is inflating major cities at such a breakneck speed that the government is unable to deliver public services or create jobs. Although the breakdown of city infrastructure is more pronounced in Karachi than anywhere else in the country, other ‘better-managed’ cities in Punjab, including Lahore, are also feeling the strain of the enormous pressure on their limited public services brought on by rapid population growth. Thus, it is not surprising to see a dramatic growth in urban slums, the separation of residential areas on the basis of socioeconomic status, increase in poverty levels, ugly housing sprawls, deteriorating air quality, rising mobility problems for those — particularly women — who cannot afford their own transport, etc. More importantly, the city sprawls — or horizontal expansion of the urban areas — for the wealthy are eating into fertile agricultural land. The gap in the services available to residents of the poorer, disorganised neighbourhoods and affluent urban communities has not only increased, it has also exacerbated crime and other social issues.
Dwindling household size, which has reduced to 5.55 persons in Sindh and 6.38 persons in Punjab against the national average of 6.39 persons, is also creating housing shortages as well as mobility issues in the cities. It goes without saying that agricultural land around cities is being grabbed by the wealthy to develop expensive sprawling housing societies for the affluent with all amenities.
In fact, Pakistani cities present a striking contrast as disparities in the quality of life and circumstances of people living in different areas increase with the passage of time. The growing gap in the services available to residents of the poorer, disorganised neighbourhoods and the affluent communities is spawning crime and creating law and order issues.
Poor urban management
Urban management and not urbanisation is a challenge; urbanisation is an opportunity. Urbanisation is unstoppable. The massive urbanization has also made it a challenge for the policymakers to make planning for thickly populated urban centres. Therefore, if not all, the majority of urban areas are being faced with air and noise pollution, water, sanitation and transport issues due to lack of proper sewerage and waste disposal mechanism.
If Pakistan is to progress, we will have to encourage urbanisation. In order to exploit the full potential of cities for economic growth, we would have to address the attendant problems and reshape our cities on an urgent basis
How to resolve the issue?
The lack of sufficient public investment, the bulk of which is spent by governments to develop infrastructure and facilitate the mobility of car owners, is but one reason for our collapsing cities. Major factors pulling our cities apart are the absence of strong local governments, paraphernalia for effective urban management and planning, and public participation in the policymaking process, as well as the fragmentation of public services and responsibilities that hamper the execution of plans. Unless Pakistan’s cities are reshaped to become a source of economic opportunity and democratisation, they will spawn greater social discontent and crime. The urbanization challenge seeks serious attention from policymakers to strike a balance between industrial growth and the basic needs of the residents.
Similarly, the agriculture sector, which dominated the country’s economy for decades, should also be focused on sustainable growth and food security. But over the years, the unplanned urbanization without sound public policies has posed a number of challenges by creating urban slums and environmental degradation. Therefore, urbanization seeks well-conceived policies for ensuring the provision of basic amenities of life to the growing population.
It is estimated that after 2025, more than half of the population in Pakistan would be living in cities. However, this challenge could be addressed with indigenous solutions of sustainable policies, effective implementation and evaluation by ensuring transparency, social justice, participation, efficiency and accountability.