Unmet aspirations – Umair Javed


THE rapid pace of urbanisation in Pakistan is both a catalyst and a reflection of deep-seated change in society and the economy. Large-scale movement of households and individuals to urban settlements is driven mostly by educational and employment reasons, and in turn, creates new opportunities for more people to migrate. This is not just true for a metropolis like Karachi or the heavily urbanised region of north and central Punjab, but also increasingly of ‘urban regions’ in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Peshawar Valley and Hazara Division), northern Sindh, and southern Punjab.

As in many countries of the Global South, urbanisation is often treated first and foremost as an economic phenomenon. Twentieth-century aspirational ideologies of development saw the urban form as synonymous with higher standards of living; recent trends in the economic growth literature talk about the agglomeration and scale effects that enhance productivity, given the ‘right’ type of urbanisation.

In all such frameworks, the development- and progress-related anxieties of political and intellectual elites in the Global South manifest in their growth obsession with cities and urban migration. As understandable as this is, it comes at the cost of ignoring other material, cultural and social characteristics of urban growth.

Pakistan’s case study demonstrates this skew in focus quite evidently. A country so overwhelmingly young is governed by logics and perspectives that fail to take generational economic and cultural shifts into account. Following from this premise, in the next few paragraphs, I want to highlight a few broad areas of importance where the country can do better. And to do so it needs to devote more energy and resources to understanding the underlying issues at hand.

What do the vast majority of young citizens, those aged between 18 and 30 in particular, want in their lives? In purely economic terms, the answers haven’t changed much over the past century. Well-paying jobs, a conducive environment for entrepreneurship, and a stable pathway towards social mobility. These aspirations explain why so many move from rural areas and small towns to enrol in higher education in bigger cities, and why so many end up staying on often in unforgiving circumstances.

Sadly, for many, these ambitions remain unfulfilled. The cyclical nature of growth, punctuated by sporadic boom and frequent bust cycles, means the vast majority of jobs are unstable and with employment contracts that are highly tenuous. There’s no access to easy credit that would allow the growth of entrepreneurship either.

Material aspirations that go beyond just getting a job or making some money, run into the constraints placed by the very nature of Pakistan’s urban form. Young men and women face countless problems finding liveable accommodation on reasonable terms. Urban development in cities like Lahore and Faisalabad continues to perpetuate the single-unit file-plot investment trend, without focusing on the actual use value of real estate. Anecdotally, the growth of a few Askari-built apartment building complexes in one corner of Lahore has led to a deluge of young white-collar families flocking to the area, showcasing just how desperate people are for decent habitation.

Overall, the property market for those who manage to make it in life without sizable parental subsidies is extremely unforgiving. House prices, as a recent analysis by Profit Magazine shows, are 18.4 times the average urban household income. The corresponding figure for the US and UK is 4.2 and 7.9 times respectively. Even accounting for data skews, these figures show how difficult it is to meet economic mobility goals that are tied to home ownership.

Beyond the material dimensions of urbanisation, Pakistan’s idea of development at the micro level (income mobility) and macro level (economic growth) urgently needs to be supplemented by social and cultural notions of freedom and growth. Here too we see shortcomings, not just in the actual humdrum of everyday life, but also at a conceptual level. Simply put, the generation responsible for making decisions does not know or wilfully chooses to ignore the preferences of mobility, autonomy and cultural consumption among young people.

This gap is precisely why Pakistani cities are largely unliveable, with no public spaces for men, and especially women, to enjoy safely; no transport that can overcome mobility constraints, and few avenues for cultural expression and consumption. This gap, along with the deeply entrenched desire to control young people, is also precisely why decision-makers spend their energies trying to ban mobile games and social media platforms.

In turn, the problems created by unwelcoming urban forms (bad jobs, bad accommodation, bad public life) perpetuate inter-generational economic and social dependencies. Young people see no avenues to chart their own public and personal identities, thus falling back on the multi-generation patriarch-controlled household as the only option. Possi­bilities for other forms of social existence are too prohibitively expensive, and thus only accessible to young people that belong to the upper classes. Little surprise then that newer real estate projects that promise ‘independent New York-style living’ are cropping up mostly at the upper-most end of the market.

Urban policy conversations in Pakistan are usually focused on a narrower range of development-related issues. And understandably, the scale of various crises makes it very difficult for it to be any other way. But at some level, we need to take stock of what large swathes of the citizenry — the urban youth — want; how can we provide them with the space to develop even clearer ideas of what they want; and how can they ultimately take decisions to attain those goals. At each step in the life cycle of a young adult in Pakistan, economic constraints, ingrained paternalism and inter-generational indifference undermines individual autonomy, self-expression, and fulfilment. It goes without saying that this is simply unsustainable.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.