Our Urban Nightmare
By Mir Adnan Aziz
On May 23, 2007, the world reached a seemingly invisible but momentous milestone. For the first time in history the world's urban population outnumbered the rural one. Now more than half its human population, 3.3 billion is living in urban areas. By 2030, this is expected to swell to almost 5 billion. Many of the new urbanites will be poor. Their future, the future of our cities and the future of humanity itself, all depends very much on decisions made now in preparation for this growth.
Towns and town creation play an important role to impose control over the country. It also directs the activities of urban residents towards the larger purpose of establishing an administrative network and helps attain national prosperity. Unfortunately powerful political and economic interests shape urban policies to line their own pockets. The middle and working classes pay the bills for humongous, perpetually undelivered projects and programs.
There is an ominous divide between the urban and rural economy. Incomes in the cities have greatly increased for some whereas rural residents, who make up a huge section of the population, have barely felt the effect. This economic differential leads to large scale resentment and a sense of deprivation. The widening divide in turn drives millions into the cities, creating slums filled with poor, dislocated people. To slow down this stampede, we have to bring jobs to the countryside. Investors should be encouraged to build factories away from the presently focused main cities and help boost the local cottage industry.
The course of sustainable development at the local and regional levels requires the pursuit of economic policies that do not add new burdens to the carrying capacity of our locale. Population shifts or migrations to urban areas globally have traditionally been a tell-tale sign of many issues. Here people move for assumed advantages, such as employment, educational and economic opportunities. There is also forced movement to flee environmental crises, persecution and violence at the hands of the feudal.
In Pakistan what is happening today is the migration of farmers, peasants and landless rural families to cities that do not have sufficient means to absorb the newcomers productively. The result has been an explosive growth of slums with hungry miserable people without access to even the basic necessities of life. Here these souls discover their utopia to be a concrete jungle with sprawling slums, massive traffic jams, chronic unemployment, no education/health care, almost no electrical/water services, less recreational facilities and sky-rocketing food costs.
This urban nightmare is almost impossible to escape as it ensnarls millions. People migrate, more are born into it through no fault of their own; to live and die in it. They are unable to escape its grip, thanks to the numerous barriers purposefully placed by the oblivious system. With this urban explosion, the feeble obsolete infrastructure crumbles further, with the housing situation aggravating with each passing day.
Our bourgeoning population growth at almost 3 percent and strong inward migration (rural to urban) trends add to the woes. This is also compounded by the decreasing average household size in our urban centers. This translates into more houses for a smaller number of people. For a population of 160 million there are nearly 19 million houses countrywide against a required 26 million. This leaves a staggering shortfall of nearly 7 million houses.
The number is huge if seen against the backdrop of housing units being built annually. The bulk of existing 19 million houses consist of 67 percent rural houses, while kuccha and semi pukka houses account for about 40 percent of total housing units. Room density for Pakistan and India is nearly 3.5 persons per room while it is 1.3, 1.1 and 0.5 in the case of Turkey, China and USA respectively. At present the urban housing demand stands at 8 percent per annum.
The rural-urban migration may be a global phenomenon but developing countries like Pakistan with already over burdened urban cities, seem reeling under the endless deluge. Karachi, that utopian beacon for all, is attracting more than 250,000 to 300,000 people annually! This mass migration adds to the innumerable woes of this city ominously creaking at the seams.
Migrants inhabit squatter settlements or shanty towns called katchi abadis. Karachi has 539 katchi abadis and a staggering 49 percent of the city population lives there. Presently 30,000 housing units, a fraction of the gigantic demand, are being constructed. Pakistan's social and human indicators too make for dismal reading. In the context of development, the government faces a three pronged crises: wide-spread poverty, fast track unplanned urbanization and rapid erosion of our natural resource base.
Over two-thirds of our adult population is illiterate. 740,000 child deaths are reported each year, half of them linked to malnutrition. This is one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. Pakistan is also experiencing one of the fastest rates of urbanization in the developing world. This will result in the urban population exceeding the rural by the turn of the century. Our population growth rate is the highest in South Asia. According to long-term UN projections, Pakistan will emerge as the third most populous country in the world by the year 2050.
Already, 36 million people live in absolute poverty. More than half of the cultivable land in the holdings of 50 acres and above is in the hands of big landlords, thereby encouraging the rich-poor divide to further widen. Even after six decades of independence we are essentially a feudal society. Ultimately, collapse always results in the 'abandonment' of urban centers, but that abandonment can take many forms. Sometimes, it means just what the word implies-people move out of the cities. Other times, it means that everyone crowds into the cities, hoping to escape the poverty of the countryside, only to die in an orgy of violence, famine and disease.
A lack of imagination, rather than lack of skills, is a far more critical distinction between survivors and victims. To learn to make our cities livable we will have to break some longstanding chronic habits. The hardest habit to break is the 'syndrome of tragedy', that brooding feeling, like we are terminal patients in almost all walks of life. There is absolutely no dearth of 'specialists' out to prove that change is not possible. What has to be explained to them is that it takes the same energy to say why something cannot be done as to figure out how to do it, provided an honest working will is there.
We long for a spiritually satisfying niche, a human habitat that cooperates with our biological nature, a community rich with multifarious interactions. Communities are living, growing organisms that need constant internal regulation and whose health should be based upon happiness alone. 'No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part are poor and miserable'. Adam Smith made that statement back in the 18th century. It holds true for the Pakistan of today.
Today our struggling cities, like almost everything else, are portrayed as evolutionary dead ends, with no future to contemplate. Our vision should be less a dream, an end-point or an unrealizable utopian existence, out there somewhere in the future; it should instead be an unending process to promote social justice and economic well-being among all Pakistanis. We should work towards peace with nature and that enveloping ecosystem which sustains life on our planet and is the true source of our natural capital.
It is time to raise our voices in opposition to the degradation of our lives, the jeopardizing of our individual and collective health and well being and above all the pollution of our politics. The consumer culture we inhabit bombards us with messages to buy beyond our budgets and live beyond our means. We can be more happy and content if we could but get off the habit of buying too much and consuming thoughtlessly. Hiding our unhappiness by frolicking in this consumer paradise for some, we who can, eat too much, spend too much, and waste too much time on things that do not matter. Along the way, we contribute to the plunder of nature's depleting capital and the theft of our children's future.
It is time to construct a future where people and nature matter, where wealth is based on the things that count rather than merely the things that can be counted. It is time to find the means for putting our urban house in order by planting seeds that will establish new roots for our urban community; enliven and enrich the nourishing soil on which we depend for human life itself.