A recent report by the World Bank points out an obvious crisis that we are no where close to resolving; Pakistan’s messy and hidden urbanization. The report, “Leveraging Urbanisation in South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Liveability” says that Pakistan’s urban areas have immense potential that are waiting to be tapped to transform its economy. Sadly, the government is failing to deal with the pressures that enhanced urban population puts on infrastructure, basic services, land and housing.

The ‘hidden’ urbanization and the low-density sprawl that the report talks about are the slums in plain sight that the government chooses to ignore till they become a threat to national security, or an eyesore. Woefully, the incident of the destruction of the Islamabad slums earlier this year has not spurred the government into action.

It is estimated that the number of slum dwellers in Pakistan varies between 23 to 32 million people. The majority are day labourers unable to afford medical care or school fees for their families and children. The housing shortfall is estimated at 9 million units, according to a report that was published by the State Bank of Pakistan.

Urban slum dwellers will continue to face gruesome economic and health issues. Given the absence of any medium to low-value skills and minimal education, unemployment rates are very high for slum dwellers, particularly women. This, in addition to the lack of competitive job markets, forces many slum dwellers to find work in the informal economy within the slums or in developed urban areas in proximity to the slums.

Housing for the poor remains a largely overlooked problem; instead valuable resources are being spent to upgrade transport and infrastructure without first addressing the needs of this undocumented low-density sprawl. The government must make changes on the policy and institutional levels to channel this informal economy into the country’s GDP, instead of breaking the citizens’ back with taxes. It is the state’s responsibility to provide housing to every citizen and failure to do that is harming its own exchequers.