Cities/Urban / 12.06.2013

By Anjum Altaf One of my insights into Pakistan’s socioeconomic evolution was due inadvertently to my father when, as a student of economics, I encountered his changed post-retirement pattern of time use. It was the nature of the change that was surprising. I saw him rise early to monitor the water level in the rooftop storage tank, climb down to check the underground one, turn on the electric motor, then switch it off after an appropriate interval. Often the motor would malfunction and he would arrange to have it fixed. Less frequently, someone would be called to clean the tanks. Over time the pipes to and from the tanks acquired a byzantine complexity with various valves catering to the vagaries of the public supply. A hand pump sprouted in the backyard as a last resort and its water sent for regular testing. Water consumed a big part of our...

Cities/Urban / 12.06.2013

By Anjum Altaf One of my insights into Pakistan’s socioeconomic evolution was due inadvertently to my father when, as a student of economics, I encountered his changed post-retirement pattern of time use. It was the nature of the change that was surprising. I saw him rise early to monitor the water level in the rooftop storage tank, climb down to check the underground one, turn on the electric motor, then switch it off after an appropriate interval. Often the motor would malfunction and he would arrange to have it fixed. Less frequently, someone would be called to clean the tanks. Over time the pipes to and from the tanks acquired a byzantine complexity with various valves catering to the vagaries of the public supply. A hand pump sprouted in the backyard as a last resort and its water sent for regular testing. Water consumed a big part of our...

Cities/Urban / 26.05.2013

A Citizens' Initiative By Anjum Altaf The presence of international borders that are closed is unfortunate in many ways. However, to a social scientist they present the possibility of fascinating natural experiments in which locations close to each other but separated by the border can be studied to advantage. For example, the Punjab border separates Kasur in Pakistan from Ferozepur in India by a distance of 39 miles. One would not expect much to change over such a short distance except for policies that are decided at the national or regional levels, e.g., those related to land, taxation, subsidies, etc. If we study the two cities in depth perhaps we might be able to infer the impact of such policy differences on the prospects of the cities and the lives of their residents. It was such a thought experiment that prompted me to propose a study along these...

Cities/Urban / 20.05.2013

By Anjum Altaf The politics of urbanization could be less or more important than its economics. It depends on the context. In relatively stable societies, economics shapes politics – these are places where one can meaningfully say “it’s the economy, stupid.” Even seemingly bizarre foreign policies can be related to economics as one might infer from the title of Lenin’s classic text Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. In less stable societies, the economy is hostage to politics. Think of Pakistan’s quixotic foreign policy adventures that have no conceivable relationship to national considerations and have driven the economy into the ground. The politics, in turn, is orchestrated by narrow, parochial and privileged economic interests as those who can discern can readily make out. It is in this framework that the politics of urbanization in Pakistan is more fascinating than its economics.
Cities/Urban / 07.05.2013

By Anjum Altaf We ought to care about urbanization because it will shape our lives, for better or for worse, and often in surprising ways. An obvious starter is that all developed countries are predominantly urban. Of course one can ask whether it was development that led to urbanization or the other way around. The historical evidence is clear: cities produced jobs that pulled less productive labor from rural areas. That, in a nutshell, was the story of the Industrial Revolution. The most unremarked replication in recent times has been in South Korea, going from 5 percent urban in 1925 to 80 percent by 2000. At the same time the country transitioned from an aid recipient to a member of the industrialized world, a donor in its own right.
Cities/Urban / 10.04.2012

By Hasan Altaf When I was in graduate school, in Baltimore, one of the poems I had to teach my own students was Robinson Jeffers's "The Purse-Seine." Among both my classmates and the undergraduates it was one of the least popular poems, which should perhaps have been no surprise, since we were encouraged to use it as an illustration of the term "jeremiad": "a long literary work… in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society's imminent downfall." My reaction was more mixed - I liked Jeffers's long lines; I liked his voice; I liked the imagery, the parallel between the phosphorescence of the shoals of fish and the lights of the city. The first two stanzas are seductive, almost hypnotic ("the crowded fish/know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall to the other of their closing destiny the phosphorescent/water to a pool of flame, each beautiful slender body sheeted with flame") - and then, in the third stanza, comes this:
Cities/Urban / 16.07.2011

By Anjum Altaf There are incidents in the lives of big cities that call for sorrow, but once the dust clears, no lamentation and no expression of sorrow can really do a city justice. A place that is home to millions deserves better. I aim to explore the meaning of Mumbai and then return to the salience of this latest incidence of violence in the frame of that larger context. The meaning of a city like Mumbai is mirrored in a million stories. Take one, that of the renowned music director Naushad. Born in Lucknow and obsessed with music, he was given the choice between his home and his passion by his father. Naushad ran away to Bombay; the rest is history.
Cities/Urban / 16.11.2010

By Anjum Altaf What’s happening in Karachi is obvious for all to see. Why it’s happening is less obvious and, for that reason, the cause of much speculation. Karachi’s ills are complex in nature and beyond the stage of simple prescriptions. This article looks at only one dimension of the problem: Why and how have conflicts in the city taken an increasingly religious form? For that, it is necessary to look at events that took place many years ago outside the city itself. It is often the case that the present cannot be explained fully without recourse to seemingly unrelated events that occurred in other places in the past.
Cities/Urban / 15.11.2010

By Anjum Altaf City size is back in fashion as a variable of interest and this time bigness is being viewed as an advantage. This is quite a change from the perspective that prevailed for years when countries, specially developing ones, were decidedly anti-urban and wished to retard migration to prevent cities from increasing in size. Size was seen as a handicap and served as an excuse to explain away the problems of big cities. How should we see Karachi in this new perspective? Of course, well-managed big cities have been around for a long time – Tokyo, New York and London are obvious examples. But somehow it was felt that such success could not be replicated in developing countries.
Cities/Urban / 15.11.2010

By Anjum Altaf City size is back in fashion as a variable of interest and this time bigness is being viewed as an advantage. This is quite a change from the perspective that prevailed for years when countries, specially developing ones, were decidedly anti-urban and wished to retard migration to prevent cities from increasing in size. Size was seen as a handicap and served as an excuse to explain away the problems of big cities. How should we see Karachi in this new perspective? Of course, well-managed big cities have been around for a long time – Tokyo, New York and London are obvious examples. But somehow it was felt that such success could not be replicated in developing countries.