Between the People and the Polis

South Asia’s Mega-cities and the Urban Future.

Well, first of all, Kanak, Himal and the India International Centre, thank you so much for having arranged this and having invited me.

Delhi is special to me. I was born here, and left Delhi on the last train that ever went from Delhi to Karachi. That was the 15th of August, 1947. So it’s always nice, in a way, being back in Delhi.

The contents of my talk are drawn from my research work, teaching and activism in Pakistan in general, and in Karachi in particular. But you know, I have had the privilege of having been associated with programmes and projects in a number of cities in Southasia and in Asia in general, and over the last two and a half decades, I worked on a number of projects in these countries and have had the benefit of meeting their planners, government officials and NGO activists, and on occasion spent some time with the communities that live in these cities.

The subject of megacities has been discussed almost to death. It is something that is written about. The economists write about the economic aspects of it; environmentalists write about the terrible environmental conditions. The planners write about the infrastructure issues that are so damaging to the lives of poor communities. And now, you can add climate change to it. All these discussions take place in the press all the time, and also are subjects of academic research. They are all available on the net. I will approach this issue from a somewhat different perspective. I will talk about the socioeconomic change that is taking place and the state’s response to that socioeconomic change in physical and in investment terms. Since most of my research is on Karachi, I will refer to Karachi often. But I think you will be able to identify similar trends in your own cities.

One statistic stands out regarding the megacities of Southasia. And that is the phenomenal increase in their populations, especially after the last census. This holds true of them, all except for Calcutta. For instance, the Delhi population, according to the 2011 census, was between 16 and 17 million. Today, it is being claimed that it is more than 24 million. I don’t know how accurate it is, but serious writings claim that it is 24 million. Then, you have Dhaka. It was projected at 18 million for 2015. I am told by my Bangladeshi friends that it shot way beyond this. They talk of 22 million today.

I would believe none of this, by the way, because the figures are so large. I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t come from Karachi, because Karachi has grown at a phenomenal rate. It was 11 million in 1998. Today, it is about 21 million – almost double that amount. Not only that, it has expanded, it has increased, by 100 percent – spatially, the city has expanded by 23 percent, swallowing up villages and their pasture lands and ruining the districts’ rural economy. Now there are two points of view here. A very able Karachi planner, Farhan Anwar, has documented the terrible damage this expansion does to rural communities and how it impoverishes them, whereas my colleague Parveen Rehman supported this expansion because she said it was going to benefit the poor who were coming into the city. Now you have two very pro-poor planners thinking in very different terms. I think this is a subject that needs attention.

The only areas where the poor can find affordable land, and that too informally developed or only for occupation, is on the extreme city fringe, which is far away from work areas.

Also in 2011 it was estimated that the total urban population of Southasia was 243 million, of which 34 percent lived in megacities. If we take today’s figures, it’s already 40 percent. I find it very difficult to believe, but evidence suggests that this is so. But the question I’ve been engaged with is why is this phenomenal increase taking place? Roland deSouza, another Karachi planner, has argued that this expansion is simply because Southasian populations have grown by about 550 percent between 1941 and 2011, whereas in other countries the growth has been much less. For example, Thailand increased in about the same period by about 280 percent, and Britain by 160 percent. Roland argues that if we had increased by only 300 percent, we would be living in a very different world. So, as he says, our positive achievement is that we have produced so many children. Its simple, growth less, migration less; growth more, migration more. Percentages do not tell us the truth anymore because the figures are so large. So for one thing, I think we should talk more in terms of figures rather than percentages.

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