Mukta Naik

Discussions about the politico-economic geographies of South Asian nations invariably hinge around the urban and the rural. On one side, we envisage the metro, that large city that is the playground of deep divides, that space that the super rich and the slum-dweller cohabit. On the other is the village, that quaint repository of the old way of life, where the majority still lives and draws its identity from.

Stuck in the middle of what is increasingly being recognized as the urban-rural continuum is the small city. Not often the centre of our attention, the small city plays an important role in the narrative of human mobility, in the migration of rural people to the city. In this narrative, the small city is an interesting place where aspirations and realities intersect, where lives find meaning, where hopeful things can happen. In the South Asian context (and in China) where ‘small’ cities can be rather large, often up to a million people, what happens in these places is significant. Small cities, therefore, represent opportunities for positive changes.

Unfortunately, it often does not play out this way. Devoid of opportunity, capital and infrastructure and still stuck in the clutches of feudal power structures; small cities in South Asia are unable to reap the benefits of urbanisation. Instead, they are in the danger of slipping into a malaise that is hard to emerge from.

This is well illustrated by examples from a study conducted by the Lahore University of Management Studies (LUMS) on a group of seven satellite cities around Lahore, Pakistan— Kasur, Sheikhupura, Kamoke, Nankana Sahib, Daska, Pattoki and Toba Tek Singh.

Poor labour market integration with the big city

Lahore is Pakistan’s second largest metro with a population of 11 million. Despite being less than 100 kilometres from Lahore, the study found that these cities have negligible labour market integration. Owing to a unidirectional flow of capital, even those small cities proximal to the metro have been relegated to becoming market or service towns for the rural hinterland around them. The narrative will use Daska, an industrial town of about 500,000 people 80-kms from Lahore, to illustrate the experiences of this cluster of small cities.

Physical connectivity between the metro and small cities is an issue. Daska has waited years for a link that connects it to the Lahore-Sialkot highway. Older and stronger forms of connectivity, like the Sialkot-Daska commuter train, are now defunct owing to poor service and high fares. In cities where high quality road connections with Lahore do exist, traffic bottlenecks do not permit workers or students to commute daily for work.

Owing to limited industrial development in Pakistani cities, the small city doesn’t generate enough jobs to absorb people and educated populations must move to the metro to find gainful employment and tap into increasingly globalised economic networks. Also, rich people from small towns tend to spend money in the big city. “If they need to see a doctor or watch a film or shop, they go to the big city,” clarifies Professor Anjum Altaf, Dean of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS. In this way, the small city economy is continually impoverished and has insufficient purchasing power to attract service providers. The poor quality of public services, limited infrastructure and educational opportunities in the small city further pushes the elite out. A new district hospital constructed by the provincial government in Daska a few years is reportedly short of doctors and residents are forced to go to often questionable private sector healthcare outlets for treatment. At the same time, too many service providers inundate the metro.

As Anjum writes in The South Asian Idea Weblog, “Technological advances have now made it possible for these elites to continue doing business in small towns while moving to live in bigger cities where better services and opportunities are available for themselves and their children. Their interest in the social improvement of small towns has thereby diminished considerably.”

Already stretched for resources, Daska is burdened by poor migrants who come in from rural areas to work in the well-established agricultural machinery industry here and populate slums and illegal colonies. Affluent families from the villages are able to sell their rural land buy relatively cheap real estate in the small city. However, less prosperous families from Daska are unable to afford housing in Lahore or Sialkot and are unable to meet their aspirations for the better life that they imagine the big city can fulfil. Daska becomes a place of social contradictions an unrest.

Religious conservatism dominates social and political thought

These demographic upheavals and the withdrawal of the elite, in Anjum’s hypothesis, have created a vacuum that appears to be being filled by religious fundamentalism. The study reports “a growing linkage between religion and politics” in all the seven cities and finds “increasing conservatism” and the “growing influence of religious forces as mediators in issues related to life in small cities”.

A professional religious class has emerged and is influencing social behaviour. “With much less industry in small cities and a growing population, the young generation has nothing to do,” Anjum points out, further adding that “religious education in the madrassas are producing the kind of people who are not fit for an industrialised economy.” This leaves cities like Daska even more divorced from the industrialised modern economy that cities aspire to be part of.

Stuck in a cycle of entrenched feudalism

Despite the several demographic changes in the small cities of Pakistan’s Punjab, the balance of power still remains firmly entrenched in the hands of the established land-owning families and continues to be dynastic in nature. Architects Arif Hasan and Mansoor Raza found this in the case of Uch, in southern Punjab. An important centre for Sufism since the 12th century, political power still rests with the dominant Sufi families of Bokharis and the Jilanis who are descendants of the original saints. The Mayor as well as key officials of Uch belong to the Jilani family and while they now live in Lahore, they can only be elected to power from Uch where their caste and kinship networks are strong.

The LUMS study points out that “the dominance of land owning families is sustained by the manner in which electoral constituencies are delimited” such that the “urban population of small cities is outnumbered by the rural vote that is based on clan loyalties.” In fact, the curtailment of the powers of the bureaucracy by the Devolution Plan has given further importance to elected representatives and in the case of cities like Uch, encouraged feudalism.

A collective voice for small cities

No doubt, metropolitan cities help us understand and address the more obvious urban problems. However, a wider perspective that includes smaller cities and rural areas within a region would provide more balanced models of urbanisation, especially in South Asia where non-transparent land markets and large-scale human mobility add complexity. Emphasising the importance of looking at small cities in the context of networks, Anjum says, “There are no real sharp lines. We can’t think of cities in isolation; rather, it is useful to think of them as locations connected to each other, as part of a network.”

Whilst advising local governments and building capacity are important, real change cannot happen unless national and province-level policy begins to favour network-based approach that includes small cities. LUMS’ research project ‘Association of Small Cities’ funded by UK-based International Growth Centre takes a step in this direction by working to create a collective voice for small cities, one that can influence the policy dialogue.

Banner photo by Minhajian

Photo 1 by Shaheen9867

Photo 2 by Pak-Pearl

Photo 3 by Farizulu




Categories: Governance, Livelihoods, Migration