Urbanisation needs a system of policy development and response
"Rapid urbanisation is neither a crisis nor a tragedy. It is a challenge for the future", said the Late Dr. Mahbubul Haq while writing Human Development Report in 1990. It was becoming manifest even at that time that since the 1950s, cities were becoming important as engines of economic growth, which could pull both agriculture and industry towards rapid growth through structural transformation of the economies. Promises of well-being were being showcased as realisable goals, which could make everyone happy or at least happier than before.
But soon, social scientists started thinking that cities in less developed countries helped economies grow faster but the growth was geographically uneven, unequal, and the costs of such growth were not equally shared, too.
Economists and sociologists are now of the opinion that many less developed countries that house mega-cities are not able to adequately manage fast paced and rapid urbanisation, especially in South Asia.
For example, issues around urban poverty, inequality, deprivation, poor governance and crimes, under-employment, congestion, pollution, and risks associated with disasters and accidents are just showing tips of the iceberg.
While South Asia has pocketed one third of its population in urban areas, it will around half of its people living in urban areas and competing for scarce resources, searching for good quality municipal services, secure neighbourhoods, and better business environments by 2050.
As argued in South Asia Human Development Report 2014, urbanisation in South Asia is a multifaceted and a complex challenge since it has been "rapid, mostly unplanned, and disorganised". It is complex and multifaceted challenge because of number of reasons.
One reason is apparent contradictions in urban life. For examples, it has skyscrapers which show affluence and are hubs of opportunities but at the same time majority of urbanites live in slums.
While there are enclaves of safe neighbourhoods where civic amenities are available, urban poverty and a lack of social security is a never-ending trap for labour employed in the informal sector. Along with this contrast and "dual reality" new challenges of natural and manmade disasters and climate change is very much here to take their toll.
These dualities in life are not just emerging out of nowhere. Some of these are necessary corollary of a painful neglect of sustainable human development and lack of efforts in building capabilities of people to live productive and happier lives.
Therefore, it is being said that urban planning in South Asia is like a spaghetti bowl of conflicting priorities and policies. Such polices need cohesion and a better focus towards integrated development efforts. For example, urban poverty unlike rural poverty is not only an issue of employment or income.
It is an issue of sustained access to municipal services which ensure education, better health, water and sanitation, street lights, public transport and what not. It is interesting to note, "no city in South Asia provides a round water supply while sanitation facilities are provided only to the core of cities leaving out slums and informal settlements in unhealthy environments. There is no surprise that recent spike in polio cases in Karachi are from such settlements in the periphery of the "city of lights".
Vernon Henderson has shown that rapid city growth creates a strong demand for public investment in urban infrastructure which includes governance and services related arrangements. Unfortunately, some of our political parties are playing hoodwink with this important facet of our national life.
If we look at Karachi, one of the mega-cities of South Asia alongside Dhaka, Delhi, Mumbai, and Colombo, it is ranked as the most dangerous city in the world, and is placed at the bottom on ‘livability’ ranking where 88 per cent sewerage remain untreated.
While cities in South Asia typically contribute around three fourth of the economic output but eight out of ten people employed are working in informal sector without any social security system safeguarding their economic and social rights. In Karachi, 75 per cent of the employed in work in the informal sector while the city is said to be controlled by powerful networks who mediate access to water, housing, and sanitation.
Interestingly, Arif Hasan, renowned town planner, claims that according to the Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020, Karachi requires 80,000 housing units per year for its expanding population.
However, building permits are issued for only around 30,000 units a year and about 32,000 units are built informally. The rest of the population is not catered for and it leads to disorderly densification and then associated social problems and conflicts ensue.
But the issue of urbanisation is not all about population increase due to rural-urban migration or natural increase in population living in urban areas, it is also that rural areas are also being transformed into cities and people want to have a city-like lifestyles. If South Asia has to respond to these challenges of urbanisation, it needs very careful and research-based planning and development efforts.
It is interesting to note that urbanisation is at the top of decision-making when it comes to big decisions in the business world. German Red Cross recently asked over 1,100 leaders from businesses, governments and civil society from across the world to identify the mega trends that are influencing the agenda for big decisions at their organisations.
The results show that accelerating urbanisation (28 per cent), resource scarcity (27 per cent) and the spread of mobile Internet (27 per cent) are three most important markers.
We should recall that urbanisation is not a crisis but a bunch of challenges which need constantly alert system of policy development, analysis, and response. From India, there is a good example of Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM) for such integrated planning. However, in Pakistan’s case we really need to work out intergovernmental harmony amongst various tiers of the government. Although, local government system is theoretically a good window to look at problems of urbanisation but evidence in South Asia is still not compelling that it works.
What perhaps can work is to have well-coordinated and integrated development planning and implementation and use of information communication technologies. Lahore in Pakistan and Ahmedabad in India have tried to address system of public transport which must be evaluated and replicated where possible.