The Informal City


Almost all Third World Asian countries have been subject to structural adjustment and have adopted economic policies based on neo-liberalism. As a result of this, many of them are embarking on privatisation of service provision, education and health. In all these sectors previously there have been major government subsidies, both in operation and maintenance and in setting up of services and institutions. In most countries structural readjustment and the new market economy has been accompanied by inflation and recession. All these factors have led to an increase in the cost of services and the curtailing of government expenditure in the social sectors and in the development and O & M of physical infrastructure for the future. In addition, land has at last become unashamedly a commodity, and its sale or acquisition at subsidised rates for house building for low income groups, is going to be increasingly difficult.

The result of these policies is that the informal sector will have to find new ways for acquiring land and developing services for the poor. There is no doubt that as a result of these policies, informal settlements are going to increase and that their location will be well outside the city and on subdivisions of agricultural land or in ecologically unsuitable areas. Also, there will be a further densification of existing settlements. The informal sector will have to produce consumer items (such as soap, shoes, garments, automobile spare parts etc.) in larger quantities and cheaper prices, not only for residents of low income settlements but also for those of lower-middle and middle income settlements. This process has already begun, in both South and South-East Asia.

However, the most serious result of these developments is going to be the further division of the city into poor and rich areas. More so because neo-classical economic policies have introduced a powerful corporate sector as an important player in urban and national economics. Its life-style and culture is one of affluence and it has introduced a First World physical and social environment in its work and residential places. This conflicts with the reality, not only of the informal city, but also with that of the less affluent planned areas.  This process of division is well on its way in many Asian cities. The rich increasingly live in ghettos, surrounded by armed guards and security services. Their recreational, educational and cultural institutions and activities are now also being located within their own areas, separated from the rest of the city.

What impact this is going to have on the informal settlements or what their response will be is yet to be understood. However, there are a few trends that are important. One, that the informal settlements are producing more aware and educated activists and leaders who have a close link with formal sector institutions. Their awareness level and those of their supporters are helped considerably by the media revolution. Also, that an increasing number of professionals, NGOs and concerned individuals are forging links with the informal city, researching into its problems and lobbying on its behalf. Yet, it has been noticed that their links are stronger with the more developed informal groups and settlements and that their relationship with the really marginalised groups, soon becomes a patron-client relationship.  In addition, the power of the informal sector, both as an independent entity and as a support to formal sector institutions and processes, is increasing. And finally, in the political process, the vote bank of the informal settlements is resulting in the promotion of a populist political culture. All these trends, conflict with the neo-liberal policies of the state and with their emphasis on privatisation and market values for land and services.


To mitigate the adverse effects of the new agenda described above, the poverty alleviation concept is being promoted and applied in a big way. The effect it has having in Pakistan is, to say the least, alarming for both the formal and the informal city. The term poverty alleviation is creating a mind set that increasingly ignores the causes of poverty and seeks only to address their effects. The fact that poverty is the creation of macro and micro level economic and physical planning is conveniently set aside.

In the urban areas this mind set has already created a de-facto situation where two different methodologies, one for the rich and the other for the poor, have evolved. They have different standards, technologies and procedures of implementation. For the poor areas, the technologies and standards are still in the process of experimentation and exploration and are as such half baked.

As a result, official plans in Karachi for instance, give the poor areas as compared to the richer areas, less water per capita; poorer road specifications; open drains and soak-pits for sanitation instead of underground water borne sewerage; and less public open space per capita although the poorer areas have higher population densities. In addition, in the rich areas private health clinics administer immunization whereas in the poor areas immunization camps are set up although most poor areas also have private practitioners. The architecture of government facilities, for the rich and poor areas has also started to differ considerably. The list of differences in planning standards and procedures is endless. These trends, most of which are now being supported by poverty alleviation programmes, along with the privatization of university education, are dividing our cities for good and creating conditions for social strife and civic conflict. There is a need, above everything else, to question the financial allocations that considerably favour the richer areas rather than the shared institutional, recreation and cultural spaces of the city centre and the low income residential and work areas. Here it must be said, that unlike the past, there are strong lobbies in the urban areas today that, if supported by legislation, can pressurise the state into changing its inputs and planning processes so that they are more equitable. Unfortunately, most of these lobbies have also started to look at our cities as two separate entities which require two separate forms of development.

The methodologies and strategies of a number of important NGO development projects are being promoted for poverty alleviation planning. The fact that the principles and procedures developed by these projects are equally valid for the richer areas of the urban centres is completely ignored.

The mind set described above has entered Pakistani universities, research organizations and most NGOs. Pakistan has been invaded by poverty alleviation experts and loads of money for poverty alleviation programmes. From the looks of it, it seems that we will soon have poverty alleviation as a subject at the university level, and after that we will have our own poverty alleviation experts.

Any policy orientation related to poverty alleviation must take into consideration the issues discussed above.

One Comment

  1. you are legend bro. your research proved the only way to get my thesis done. i am from UET lahore. thanks again bro. i cant leave this site without thanking you.

    Posted December 8, 2019 at 3:02 am | PermalinkReply

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