Pakistan is one of the fastest urbanising countries in South Asia and the share of urban population has risen from 17% in 1951 to 37% in 2010 and to 39.7% in 2017 with annual rate of urban change at 2.77%. Projections show that in next 10 to 15 years half of the population will be living in urban areas. Population growth and net migration are the major forces behind urban growth. About one-fifth of the annual rise in urban population can be attributed to net migration. Large cities with population of one million and above had a share in the total population of 50% in 1998 which by now have risen to at least 66% or more. Urban areas contribute 80% of GDP, which accounts for 60% of the employed labour force of the country. Urban poverty rate is almost one half of that the rural poverty rate. Per capita income levels and growth rates have also been relatively higher in the urban areas.

With mix positive outcomes, public policy towards urbanisation in Pakistan is like sporadic spurts of enlightened political leaders who assume power but lack foundational stability or consistent planning and execution. A cursory look at the large urban conglomerates in Pakistan does not provide a satisfactory picture. Master plans are prepared with great effort and at considerable costs only to be breached in their practical applications or execution. Around 35 to 50 percent of the urban population still live in Katchi Abadis. In Karachi, there are 500 such informal settlements, with more than 300 in Lahore. Islamabad has been spared the agony because the master plan formulated 55 years ago is still the main guiding instrument and the deviations are far and few. Lahore has benefitted by the personal interest taken in its growth by successive Chief Ministers over last 10 years. Sialkot is atypical because the local citizens and the business community have taken matters in their own hands and created productive infrastructure and connectivity without the involvement of the government. Karachi saw some semblance of better governance when it had its own City District Government structure in place between 2002-2008. Since 2008, Karachi has suffered from benign neglect as the institutional structure of the City District Government and Town Councils was abolished without any alternative system. Land, water, transport mafias and criminal gangs have assumed ascendency to the larger detriment of the citizens of Karachi. Negative externalities have turned Karachi into a highly polarized, deeply contested and an almost unliveable metropolis.

Peshawar, Quetta, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi have witnessed some mixed outcomes at different time periods but overall do not present a wholesome picture. Gujranwala, Hyderabad and Sukkur are typically the worst examples of unplanned urban sprawl. Multan has made some modest progress in infrastructure development over the last 10 years. All these indicators and estimations pose a very alarming situation for the country where the business sector is small, jobs scarcity is high and economic opportunities are little. Urbanisation has both positive and negative sides but the analysis has shown as if the negativities of urbanisation are not addressed, it will result in far more dangerous implications that overcome all its positive tendencies. By 2025, Lahore’s population, currently about 11.12 million, will reach to 12.13 million. Karachi’s will be 17.12 million where it is 14.91 million today. Strikingly, “What these numbers show”, according to renowned economist Shahid Javed Burki, “is that Pakistan is at the threshold of a major demographic transition”. It is also a fact that in Pakistan, the urban development has shifted from public land to centring a few privileged classes. Hence land in Pakistan has become an important mean for earning money. This unwanted and unjustified process has left serious implications by setting inequalities in urban centres. There is no role of low-income communities in deciding the fate of urban cities.

Movement or shifting of people from rural to urban has a direct link with the shifting of economy from rural to urban. Agriculture sector is the major contributor in Pakistan’s economy. This sector accounted for about half of GDP in the years of 1949-50, but with the growth in cities, this fact decreased to 27% of GDP for the year 2015-16. Whereas during the same period the share of manufacturing sector has increased to 29% from 8% to the GDP while the share of services sector has reached from 25% to 55%. Likewise agriculture sector accounts almost 65% to the labour force but it declined to 38% in 2016. Rise of population in cities increases the low-demand for employment in urban areas. Currently, Pakistan’s major cities are facing the challenge of housing deficit for about 3 million units (while nearly 50% of Pakistani urbanites live in slums). One of the major indictor of urban decay is infrastructure deficit. According to World Economic Forum survey (2012-13), out of 125 countries of the world, Pakistan ranked 67th in lacking basic infrastructure. Poor infrastructure services results in constrained economic activities and reduce the potentials of growth. Balance between demand and supply of infrastructure facilities has faced a chronic imbalance. It is now imperative that we should have an urban development policy addressing infrastructure, improvised basic facilities and community based services.

There are certain inherent flaws for urban decay in Pakistan, such as, low employment rate, unstable economic growth, incapable entrepreneurship and weakening of civilian institutions. It is validated that the fastest growth rate in Pakistan is of the ages between 15 and 25. Although education ratio in urban areas is almost high, finding employment is difficult. Due to incapable entrepreneurship and dearth of employment for youth, emotional distress and disappointment emerges, which results in eruption of street violence and aggression. A study reports the increase in violent crime during the last 15-20 years in Pakistan that is yet a reason of unemployment and lack of opportunities for the youth. Another challenge in urban Pakistan is the intolerance towards the diversity of views and virtues for the future of Pakistan. On one hand are the conservatives who would like to see the economic growth of cities divorced from the cultural evolution and diversity. On the other hand are the pragmatists who see cultural evolution a natural outcome of the urbanization process. The lack of tolerance towards divergent views continues to pull urban Pakistan in different directions, which is not conducive for growth and development.


The writer is Ph.D Political Science, Civil Servant based in Islamabad. His area of specialization is political development and social change.