Comparing Small Towns in South Asia

A Citizens’ Initiative

By Anjum Altaf

The presence of international borders that are closed is unfortunate in many ways. However, to a social scientist they present the possibility of fascinating natural experiments in which locations close to each other but separated by the border can be studied to advantage. For example, the Punjab border separates Kasur in Pakistan from Ferozepur in India by a distance of 39 miles. One would not expect much to change over such a short distance except for policies that are decided at the national or regional levels, e.g., those related to land, taxation, subsidies, etc. If we study the two cities in depth perhaps we might be able to infer the impact of such policy differences on the prospects of the cities and the lives of their residents.

It was such a thought experiment that prompted me to propose a study along these lines. The study could include small cities across any or all of the following international borders in South Asia:

Indian Punjab – Pakistani Punjab
Rajasthan – Sindh
Gujarat – Sindh
Indian Occupied Kashmir – Pakistan Occupied Kashmir
Bengal – Bangladesh
Meghalaya – Bangladesh
Tripura – Bangladesh
Uttar Pradesh – Nepal
Bihar – Nepal
Assam – Bhutan
Tamilnadu – Sri Lanka
Kerala – Maldives

The exciting aspect of this proposal is that the academic motivation is only an incidental part of the exercise. We wish to build knowledge slowly from the bottom up leaving behind a lot of interest, awareness, and capacity for sustainability. What we are hoping to do is to link college students and instructors who would carry out the studies in these sister cities over an extended period of time. The students and instructors from paired institutions would use the Internet to participate in each other’s work. In this way we will diversify the development of people-to-people understanding away from metropolitan centers and elite institutions, something which is essential if the movement has to build an appeal with broad support.

At the same time young citizens would go beyond the stage of expressing good intentions and be involved in collaborative work accumulating useful information for research and teaching purposes. In the process they would get to know each other in more intimate ways.

The study of matched pairs of cities would yield comparisons across international boundaries and across regions within some countries as well. We will draw up simple baseline profiles of these towns using a few key indicators to be spelled out later. The preparation and regular updating of these profiles would be assigned to local academic institutions that would integrate them as class assignments for students of these institutions. The capacity of a core group of teachers would be enhanced to manage these profile updates over a five-year period.

At the end of the period we would know better what is going on in small towns and why. We would understand what are the commonalities and differences and what might account for them. In the process we would have built up a lot of local capacity and involved local students in research on local issues. Based on these profiles we would put together an informed research agenda for the future. What we are looking for now are suggestions from readers on how to finalize such a study and to put it into practice. It can be started with just one matched pair so we are looking for individuals who would volunteer to take charge in individual cities. As soon as we have a matched pair, we will specify the details of the next steps.

Note: The original idea for such a study was proposed in this post: What’s Happening in Small Towns? We have already carried out a pilot study of small towns in Pakistan centered round Lahore – see schematic below (click to enlarge). Some of the readers might be surprised to know that Amritsar is just 30 miles from Lahore, an easy drive for lunch! Small cities map

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. Students have set up a Facebook group to share their research findings:

Also, there is now a website with details of the continuing research on small cities:

Here is a link to a presentation on small cities in Pakistan at Cornell University in September 2014:

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17 Responses to “Comparing Small Towns in South Asia”

  1. Ercelan Says:

    excellent idea! count me in as volunteer for field. hope to persuade karamat ali for organisational support through PILER

  2. Maryam Ahmed Says:

    Brilliant initiative! I can help set up student/scholar teams in Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Punjab (both) and Sindh and would be happy to participate to the best of my abilities.

  3. Baraabar Waala Lahori Says:

    This is fantastic. Though there are numerous varying factors that need to be catered to, despite the geographical similarity,( and several intelligent ones will be identified) and causality will be challenging to establish; but what’s most exciting is the bottom up approach. If this can be pulled-off, it will be an amazing feat.

  4. Hassan Goreja Says:

    I am trying to put together a team that can work on it. The data and information coming together from this initiative can be used for PhD and Master’s dissertations as well. Has LUMS got any plans to set up a central secretariat sort of thing to coordinate information among several institutions and teams?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Hassan: Others have also mentioned the possibility of using the information for research. Let’s think through this and work back to what kind of information would be most useful for that purpose. LUMS would be quite prepared to act as a repository. We already have a good data unit that makes information available to researchers in user-friendly ways.

  5. Ercelan Says:

    priests are coming in too large a number to scare me off. karachi has several ‘small towns’ to offer insights. maybe that is where to begin: e.g. karachi area x vs ? in kp?

  6. Para Hunzai Says:

    I plan to be in Nepal from October so would love to volunteer there.

  7. Mehmood Ashraf Says:

    Its really great working on this project under the supervision of sir Anjum. I am working on this in my hometown Daska. This is amazing and surprising and believe me, you will love it all!! We want to carry this discussion in parallel with Jammu. Please let me know if anyone you know is from Jammu and is interested in working with me simultaneously. That would be awesome! Waiting…

  8. Shiraz Hassan Says:

    I had the most amazing experience while working as a “Research Associate’ on this ‘Small Cities’ project under the supervision of Dr. Anjum Altaf. I am thankful to Dr. Anjum for his tutelage, advice, and guidance. Many findings were unveiled which were not perceived and which alters my interests to Urban Planning. Pakistan is among the countries where policy framework on semi-urban centers is tardy, mainly due to the defeciency of first hand experience.

    That is why I beleive its very commendable initiative for students. For them learning will continue outside the classroom. I recommend all the students to actively participate in this initiative. It will help them to make connections and to acquire knowledge that they would never have otherwise perceived.

    I am currently in Peshawar, that is why I can’t collect data from the mentioned cities, however I will continue to post and read this thread for mutual learning. I would love to do any work in KPK pertinent to this project in near future.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Shiraz: I will ask Asad Ghafoor to forward you the work we have done so far on labor market integration between Lahore and Kasur which we will extend to other neighboring cities soon. You can replicate this work for cities falling withing a 50 mile radius of Peshawar – I can think of Kohat, Mardan, Charsadda, Pabbi, Nowshera, Risalpur, etc. You can do one city every other weekend or so. This would enable us to construct a parallel profile for KPK.

      We will be looking for volunteers in Hyderabad and Quetta to carry on the work in Sindh and Balochistan.

      • Shiraz Hassan Says:

        Thank you Sir… I had read that work and also had some discussion with Asad Ghafoor. I will start work in suburbs of Peshawar as soon as I got free from ongoing field visits in KPK.

  9. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Along the India-Pakistan border, we have identified the following city pairs:

    Mirpur Khas-Barmer
    Bahawalnagar-Sri Ganganagar
    Mirpur Khas-Barmer

    Comments and suggestions are invited for discussion. Views from residents of any of these cities would be particularly welcome.

  10. Maryam Says:

    This seems like an interesting research, any updates on it? Has it been published? The link to the facebook page seems to be broken.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      The link to the Facebook page has been updated. There is now also a dedicated website for our research on cities –

      The comparative work across borders has not been able to take off because of the immense hurdles in the way of cross-border research. I have established links with academics at Cornell University (where i presented the work on small cities in Pakistan) who are working in India. At some point we may be able to hold a joint conference and see if we can trace commonalities and differences. The lack of a common framework and instrument will remain a handicap.

      Here is the link to the Cornell presentation:

  11. hassan Says:

    This completely went off my radar. Thanks for the comment Maryam. While not immediately but I can stir things up here in Cambridge to see if there is any interest.

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