Thursday May 23, 2024

Poverty of urban planning

By Amir Hussain
December 07, 2019

Arif Hasan is perhaps one of the few decent voices in Pakistan who has consistently resisted the neoliberal model of development. In a seminar jointly organized in Islamabad by the Akhtar Hameed Khan Resource Center (AHKRC), Institute of Rural Management (IRM) and the Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN), Arif Hasan delivered an insightful talk to lay bare the problems of mega projects among other things.

To Arif Hasan, the neoliberal development model is essentially driven by banking greed and the appetite for profit within international lenders which also sits well with the propensity in the local elite for self-aggrandizement. The easiest way to satisfy the economic appetite of international lenders and the elite’s propensity for self-aggrandizement is to build gigantic physical infrastructure projects.

This important contention is relevant to our contemporary issues of unplanned urbanization and its impact on the quality of life. The rural poor, and in particular those who are socially and culturally uprooted from village life without being fully integrated into urban life, are being pushed further into ghettos of poverty and wretchedness. Over the last three decades, since the late Akhtar Hameed Khan launched his Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), civic life in Karachi has seen tremendous changes.

The squatter areas of Orangi Town where the OPP was initiated are now being inhabited by middle-class professionals alongside poorer settlements. The rapidly changing shape of urban areas has perhaps outlived the incremental change envisaged in the OPP and hence new challenges are emerging which must be addressed immediately.

There is no in-depth research being carried out on the phenomenon of rapid urbanization and its impact on the socioeconomic, cultural and political life of people. Apart from scant data on changing urban dynamics, which comes from various studies carried out by Arif Hasan and some others, there is no research leading to policy reforms and aligning urban planning to address the emerging challenges of abrupt urbanization.

Karachi has literally been left to its own devises where poverty and hopelessness resides next to the opulence concentrated in state-of-the-art high-rises and mega structures. And this is not only in Karachi; other major cities like Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and Multan face similar challenges where public money has been diverted to build mega structure at the cost of locally viable development as well as human development.

Why are these gigantic infrastructures built? Well, simply because they have both safe returns and political visibility, no matter if they are not primarily driven by the objective of improving public services. The fundamental premise of the development model of trickle-down benefits is founded on the idea of creating a secondary economy for profitability rather than supporting local development. Amidst sprawling vertical and horizontal slums, dilapidated streets and broken local infrastructure, big cities like Karachi and Lahore have become investment venues for prosaic large-scale projects with relatively low utility to the people.

The understated detrimental impact of neoliberal economics has aggravated the state of poverty and disparity far more than the oft-repeated mantra of the corruption of the political elite in developing countries. While corruption and rent seeking cannot be condoned as a lesser menace, projects involving mega structures provide kickbacks through political influence.

However this corruption is intrinsic to capitalism as an economic system and it is generally termed as an acceptable practice for ‘the ease of doing business’. Notions like efficiency, good governance and accountability are reduced to some instrumental tools to ensure high returns on investments and loans. The high returns on investments and loans are ensured through so-called structural adjustment and rightsizing of the developing economies. Joseph Stiglitz has beautifully articulated this phenomenon in 2002 in his book ‘Globalization and its discontents’, which was written in the context of the Far East economic crisis of 1997.

The nexus between international lending agencies and global corporate giants determines the pathways of economic and political globalization through free flow of global capital and restriction of the labour movement through a stringent visa regime. The economies of the developing world provide fuel and lubricant for the smooth functioning of the global corporate engine. The global corporate engine is not restrained by any moral or ethical principle of governance and accountability but is driven by the economic necessity of profit maximization.

Apart from conditional lending and protected investments through sovereign guarantees, international lenders and their highly-paid experts promote exclusive zones of prosperity in a rising ocean of poverty. The explicit value and grandeur of exclusive zones of prosperity are directly linked to increasing technical and financial demands for the financers and experts of the developed world. Financers make money and technical experts make a promising career out of misery, poverty and helplessness.

Mega projects from borrowed money with little comparative public utility and value for money have gained centrality in the political narrative of development in recent years. Big mega structures like metro bus and train services were designed not out of empathy towards public service but as political monuments. Worse than the monumental significance and self-aggrandizement, these projects took away the policy priorities of human development. The neoliberal model of building big structures is the most unaccounted for wastage of public money, which could otherwise be spent on local development.

Well, we all need reliable and cost effective public transport to reduce the burden of traffic on the roads, improve air quality, reduce travel cost and create inclusivity. But none of these objectives have been met with the metro bus service as it caters to less than 10 percent of commuters. The money spent on building these big projects could be utilized to improve urban-rural connectivity, revamp the transport management system, upgrade health and education facilities, and enhance the technical and professional skills of the burgeoning unskilled young population of the country.

The sprawling shanty towns and expanding unplanned urbanization is an alarming fact which remains unattended in our mainstream discourse of development. To Arif Hasan being urban is defined by mode of governance rather than the economic and physical characteristics of a space. The peri-urban shanty towns are disconnected from rural life without being integrated into the urban governance structure. They lack rural safety nets without having an alternate governance system to access urban amenities.

Land grabbers and powerful real-estate groups have further pushed the lower middle classes and the poor to the peripheries of cities while the middle classes have been confined to vertically expanding colonies. The colonization of urban spaces has radically altered social relationships and the political outlook of mega cities like Karachi.

The writer is a social development and policyadviser, and a freelancecolumnist based in Islamabad.


Twitter: @AmirHussain76