Archive for the ‘Cities’ Category

The Atomization of Society

June 12, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

One of my insights into Pakistan’s socioeconomic evolution was due inadvertently to my father when, as a student of economics, I encountered his changed post-retirement pattern of time use.

It was the nature of the change that was surprising. I saw him rise early to monitor the water level in the rooftop storage tank, climb down to check the underground one, turn on the electric motor, then switch it off after an appropriate interval. Often the motor would malfunction and he would arrange to have it fixed. Less frequently, someone would be called to clean the tanks.

Over time the pipes to and from the tanks acquired a byzantine complexity with various valves catering to the vagaries of the public supply. A hand pump sprouted in the backyard as a last resort and its water sent for regular testing.

Water consumed a big part of our daily conversation. As a social scientist I was intrigued: What was going on? Privatization was a fad at the time and I could sense that the management of household water had become a private responsibility. But this was not really privatization – as I reflected I realized this was the beginning of the atomization of Pakistan’s urban life.

Privatization and atomization differ in the scale of their operations. A private provider can cater to an entire city; atomization occurs when each household turns into its own supplier.

Conceptually, and in terms of efficiency, this is a huge difference. As an economist, I wondered what the real cost of atomized water provisioning was over and above the tariff that was charged for the intermittent and unreliable public supply.

I published my conclusions in a 1994 paper titled The Economics of Household Response to Inadequate Water Supplies. Not surprisingly, I found that the aggregate costs of atomized water provision exceeded those of a modern water supply system even when I ignored many expenses – for boiling impure water, imputed value of household labor, redundancy costs of induced perversities like installation of suction pumps, costs to the environment, etc.

Over time I have observed the phenomenon of atomization becoming the defining feature of urban life in Pakistan. First it was security with people taking on the responsibility of protecting their assets and their persons. Then it was electricity with the investments in individual power supplies.

As with water, any objective analysis of service provisioning would show that the real costs per unit of atomized provisioning exceed the tariffs at which modern collective supplies can be viably operated by public or private suppliers. People are actually paying more than the higher tariffs they protest.

It is not that people are irrational. In subsequent work I found that households rejected higher tariffs for promised better supplies because they did not believe in the promises – they had lost faith in the possibility of efficient service delivery.

The atomization of society is thus the flip side of the failure of the state in Pakistan where the public sector is grossly inefficient as a service provider and hopelessly ineffective as a regulator of private suppliers. Part of the problem is well known – the use of the public sector for patronage and the unaccountability of regulatory staff.

Equally important, the system design is inappropriate in our context. The role of a monopoly provider is unavoidable for networked services (like water and electricity) where competition is difficult to introduce. But a monopoly provider is not well suited to deliver services at the retail level where variations in demand and income streams are much larger than in developed countries and the rule of law is weak.

Intelligent solutions are possible as I saw subsequently in East Asia. Monopoly providers supply bulk metered quantities to neighborhood blocks with private concessionaires responsible for subsequent retail operations. The performance of various concessionaires is subject to public disclosure to monitor egregious variations in cost or quality of service. Neighborhood committees ensure collective pressure for quick dispute resolution.

This design is not alien to Pakistan where the Orangi Project in Karachi has shown for sewerage that the mix of public bulk infrastructure and private tertiary operations offers a viable model.

Work in rural areas has helped me understand better the natural evolution of service provisioning. Take water: when all households are poor the need is served by the common village well; when a few become better-off, the sensible solution is for them to install private boreholes. However, there is a tipping point – when most households can afford private boreholes, upgrading at the individual level is no longer economically optimal. A central piped supply becomes more cost effective with the few households unable to afford the service subsidized from overall savings.

We are witnessing a perverse ruralization of urban life with affluent households resorting to self-provisioning. It is ironic because most rural localities, in the Punjab at least, have passed the tipping point and are ready for central provision, something I documented in a 1993 paper Rethinking Rural Water Supply Policy in the Punjab, Pakistan.

Transforming cities into giant villages is madness. A way back to sanity in the provisioning of urban public services is possible. What are needed are appropriate system design and the selection of competent managers. But neither is possible without strong and informed demand from citizens.

Learning from experience I tell students that the knowledge we generate as researchers should be directed not to policymakers but to citizens to create an informed lobby for better services. All we need now is to invent a language in which we can communicate with the men and women in the street. Test yourself: Translate Millennium Development Goals into a local language and see how far you can carry the conversation.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on June 11, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

Millennium Development Follies is a companion post that illustrates how we fail to communicate with our own citizens.

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Comparing Small Towns in South Asia

May 26, 2013

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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The Politics of Urbanization

May 20, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

The politics of urbanization could be less or more important than its economics.

It depends on the context. In relatively stable societies, economics shapes politics – these are places where one can meaningfully say “it’s the economy, stupid.” Even seemingly bizarre foreign policies can be related to economics as one might infer from the title of Lenin’s classic text Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

In less stable societies, the economy is hostage to politics. Think of Pakistan’s quixotic foreign policy adventures that have no conceivable relationship to national considerations and have driven the economy into the ground. The politics, in turn, is orchestrated by narrow, parochial and privileged economic interests as those who can discern can readily make out.

It is in this framework that the politics of urbanization in Pakistan is more fascinating than its economics. (more…)

The Economics of Urbanization

May 7, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

We ought to care about urbanization because it will shape our lives, for better or for worse, and often in surprising ways.

An obvious starter is that all developed countries are predominantly urban. Of course one can ask whether it was development that led to urbanization or the other way around. The historical evidence is clear: cities produced jobs that pulled less productive labor from rural areas. That, in a nutshell, was the story of the Industrial Revolution.

The most unremarked replication in recent times has been in South Korea, going from 5 percent urban in 1925 to 80 percent by 2000. At the same time the country transitioned from an aid recipient to a member of the industrialized world, a donor in its own right. (more…)

The Great Cities: A Pakistani Jeremiad

April 10, 2012

By Hasan Altaf

When I was in graduate school, in Baltimore, one of the poems I had to teach my own students was Robinson Jeffers’s “The Purse-Seine.” Among both my classmates and the undergraduates it was one of the least popular poems, which should perhaps have been no surprise, since we were encouraged to use it as an illustration of the term “jeremiad”: “a long literary work… in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society’s imminent downfall.” My reaction was more mixed – I liked Jeffers’s long lines; I liked his voice; I liked the imagery, the parallel between the phosphorescence of the shoals of fish and the lights of the city. The first two stanzas are seductive, almost hypnotic (“the crowded fish/know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall to the other of their closing destiny the phosphorescent/water to a pool of flame, each beautiful slender body sheeted with flame”) – and then, in the third stanza, comes this: (more…)

The Meaning of Mumbai

July 16, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

There are incidents in the lives of big cities that call for sorrow, but once the dust clears, no lamentation and no expression of sorrow can really do a city justice. A place that is home to millions deserves better. I aim to explore the meaning of Mumbai and then return to the salience of this latest incidence of violence in the frame of that larger context.

The meaning of a city like Mumbai is mirrored in a million stories. Take one, that of the renowned music director Naushad. Born in Lucknow and obsessed with music, he was given the choice between his home and his passion by his father. Naushad ran away to Bombay; the rest is history. (more…)

What’s Happening in Karachi?

November 16, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

What’s happening in Karachi is obvious for all to see. Why it’s happening is less obvious and, for that reason, the cause of much speculation.

Karachi’s ills are complex in nature and beyond the stage of simple prescriptions. This article looks at only one dimension of the problem: Why and how have conflicts in the city taken an increasingly religious form? For that, it is necessary to look at events that took place many years ago outside the city itself. It is often the case that the present cannot be explained fully without recourse to seemingly unrelated events that occurred in other places in the past. (more…)

Karachi is a Small City

November 15, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

City size is back in fashion as a variable of interest and this time bigness is being viewed as an advantage. This is quite a change from the perspective that prevailed for years when countries, specially developing ones, were decidedly anti-urban and wished to retard migration to prevent cities from increasing in size. Size was seen as a handicap and served as an excuse to explain away the problems of big cities. How should we see Karachi in this new perspective?

Of course, well-managed big cities have been around for a long time – Tokyo, New York and London are obvious examples. But somehow it was felt that such success could not be replicated in developing countries. (more…)

Urbanization in India: Some Questions

September 22, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

There has been a radical shift in the global consensus on urbanization. Till very recently India shared the anti-urban bias of most developing countries – the conclusion of a major 2004 study was that “most problems should be easier to manage if urban population growth is slowed.” Now urbanization is in fashion and cities are being touted as engines of growth. A 2010 McKinsey report begins with the statement that ‘urbanization is critical to India’s development’ and the government has launched the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) to support this vision.

India’s urban population is projected to increase from 340 million in 2008 to 590 million in 2030.  With this post I hope to initiate a discussion of some of the likely dimensions and implications of this increase.

Would cities really play a dynamic role in economic growth or would they become concentrations of poverty and of communal or class conflicts? The answer could depend largely on the public policy initiatives that accompany the change.

An important conceptual distinction, often overlooked, needs to be made between urbanization policy and city management (the focus of JNNURM). Urbanization policy should be concerned with the spatial distribution of population and the size distribution of urban places. It can be better characterized in terms of the desired destinations for rural migrants: should they be encouraged to move to small towns, medium-sized cities, or to large metropolises? The management of individual cities, on the other hand, should be considered independently of spatial policy.

The emerging global consensus on spatial policy considers size to be a major advantage if cities are managed well – Tokyo, New York and London are often held up as the models to emulate. The 2009 McKinsey report on urbanization in China recommends a concentrated spatial pattern centered round mega-cities. While this may be the right recommendation for China, I believe the generalization is flawed. In particular, I wish to argue that it is a mistake to think of urbanization as an independent phenomenon. On the contrary, it is a derivative phenomenon that follows from the distribution of employment because people move in response to opportunities for jobs. Thus there is, and needs to be, a very strong link between urbanization policy and industrial or economic policy. If they are not coordinated there can be a lot of misallocation of scarce resources. The combination of urbanization and economic policies gives rise to what can be termed the ‘economic geography’ of a country.

This can be easily recognized if one looks back on the distinctive economic geographies of pre-industrial, industrial, and post-industrial economies. This has also been very starkly obvious in the case of China where the government has proactively managed the economic geography of the country both because of its control on the location of jobs via state-owned enterprises and on the movement of people via the mechanism of an internal passport system. Thus, when its industrial policy was to promote town and village enterprises, it supported the rapid growth of small towns while freezing movement to the big cities. Later, when the industrial policy shifted to manufacture for the global market, the urbanization policy also changed to permit migration to the large cities on the eastern coast as well to create new large cities from scratch. Shenzen epitomizes the latter phenomenon: it has grown from a fishing village at the end of the 1970s to a city of 14 million today of whom 70% are migrants without a formal status of urban residents.

This should convince us that the prime driver of urbanization policy in China is industrial policy, i.e., the determination of what kind of jobs are to be created and where they are to be best located? However, a little further reflection should lead to the realization that industrial policy itself is not a completely open choice – it needs to take into account global conditions, comparative advantage, the nature of the domestic market, and the characteristics of the human and physical capital that is available at any given time.

The joint policy choices that need to be made keeping in view all these factors can be quite complex and need integrated analysis and planning. There is need at this time in India to begin proactively discussing issues of economic geography. This would integrate urban and industrial policies and highlight the relationships that need to exist between different sized cities in the Indian context. It would thereby also provide a basis for the optimal allocation of resources to different size-categories of cities. It is quite possible that city-size alone might not be the best measure of priority as it presently is in the JNNURM with its bias towards the bigger cities.

We know that India, unlike China, does not have a state-directed urbanization policy although earlier attempts to slow urban growth could be considered a variant. The spatial policy is one of laissez faire with rural-urban migration being channeled via market signals and forces. The estimate that between 75 to 80 percent of the urban population will reside in Class I cities by 2030 is one that is based on the projection of existing trends assuming that the laissez faire regime remains unchanged.

A market-led urbanization policy is the accepted norm in developed countries and one that is recommended in theory. However, we should not fall in the trap of making a fetish of markets. It is often the case in developing countries that the markets that exist are incomplete or legacies of past colonial regimes whose objectives might have been at odds with those of present governments. For example, it made economic sense for colonial governments to develop the major ports and the links to them in order to facilitate interactions with the mother country. This rationale may or may not remain important for an independent country. If the rationale changes, new markets and market connections often have to be created by strategic allocations of public sector investments. These can alter the subsequent patterns of the movement of financial and human capital. As an example, the government in China created new markets where none existed first via the Town and Village Enterprise policy and then by the massive investments in the Special Economic Zones on the east coast.

It is clear that urbanization policy in India is not explicitly integrated at present into the national economic policy to enhance the effectiveness of the latter. A debate is needed on what kind of urbanization pattern would be optimal for India given the economic orientation it chooses for driving future growth. Based on the policy of choice, measures and incentives could be put in place to shape the spatial pattern of population distribution and the size-distribution of urban places. This need not be through direct control over the movement of people. Rather, it should be the outcome of purposefully determined and spatially strategic public investments.

This is not the place to prescribe the economic orientation that would be best for India at this time of global recession. However, it should be obvious that a decision about urbanization policy in the absence of consensus on economic orientation would be premature. An investment in thinking through some essential characteristics of the Indian situation would be rewarding and should yield some pointers towards feasible scenarios for the future. Here I wish to list a few considerations as starting points for a discussion of feasible alternatives for the economic geography of India:

1.     Unlike China and the US, the majority of the Indian population resides inland and not along the coasts. What are the implications of this demographic difference?

2.     Almost half of India’s rural population is illiterate and unfamiliar with industrial work making its transition to an urban lifestyle relatively more difficult. Does this imply that a staged pattern migration might be a preferred route to consider?

3.     Raising the productivity of rural labor (including its health status) would require major investments if returns to urbanization are to be realized. Should these investments be made pre- or post-migration?

4.     India’s fastest growing industries have low employment potential within the formal labor market and especially low employment potential for illiterate and unskilled workers. Rural migrants will find it very hard to find a niche in demanding urban job markets. What are the implications for the spatial distribution of population?

5.      The scarcity of land in Indian cities would push low-value activities and poor people to the peripheries. Environmental concerns would reinforce these trends. Should this suggest a proactive policy promoting satellite towns?

6.     Agglomeration economies in cities depend on infrastructure investments that integrate labor markets – primarily rapid transit that links affordable housing and concentrated job centers. These investments in urban productivity have lagged in India where priority has been given to social welfare. Should existing major cities get such investments first or should cities with the most future potential get the prioirity?

7.     The politically dominant unit in India is the state and not the city – it is the Chief Ministers of states that rise in national politics not mayors of cities. It seems difficult to envisage changes that would reverse this hierarchy. What kind of mechanisms and incentives are needed to encourage states to leverage their cities more effectively?

8.     The electoral system and constituency boundaries create a bias towards non-urban voters especially because voters that can be influenced are preponderantly outside municipal boundaries. How can cities overcome this handicap?

9.     A growth-first strategy focused on cities would heighten already severe spatial inequalities. Would India’s democratic system allow enough time to postpone addressing these inequalities to the distant future, i.e., would a spatial version of the trickle-down policy be politically feasible? If not, what kind of urbanization policy would balance urban and rural interests?

10.  Cities in India are much more fractured along lines of religion, ethnicity and caste than their counterparts in East Asian countries. Would these fault lines survive the tensions that could be released by uneven growth and changes in demographic balances? If not, what measures would need to accompany accelerated migration to urban areas?

The aim in raising these issues is to get away from the facile generalization that there is some optimal urbanization policy that is equally applicable to all countries. An urbanization strategy focused on the undoubted economic potential of large cities would have to survive the many pitfalls that are unique to India’s political, economic, and social landscape. It is the contours of this landscape that should shape the urbanization policy that would be best for the development of India and for the prosperity and well-being of its people.


Lahore – What is to be Done?

January 26, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

In two earlier posts I had made the point that there are evidence-based methods to resolve the conflict over the proposed construction of an expressway along the Lahore Canal to reduce traffic congestion. In this post I suggest two specific approaches to achieve this objective.

Before proceeding to the concrete suggestions one should note that the judiciary, having intervened in the controversy, has given both sides time to resolve the dispute through mutual discussions. I feel this approach would prove inconclusive because this is not the kind of market transaction that is conducive to negotiations that are aimed at striking a deal, e.g., an agreement to sacrifice a number of trees that lies somewhere in the middle of the range mentioned by the two sides. (more…)