Comparing Small Towns in South Asia

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 lines. The study could include small cities across any or all of the following international borders in South Asia:

Indian Punjab – Pakistani Punjab
Rajasthan – Sindh
Gujarat – Sindh
Indian Occupied Kashmir – Pakistan Occupied Kashmir
Bengal – Bangladesh
Meghalaya – Bangladesh
Tripura – Bangladesh
Uttar Pradesh – Nepal
Bihar – Nepal
Assam – Bhutan
Tamilnadu – Sri Lanka
Kerala – Maldives

The exciting aspect of this proposal is that the academic motivation is only an incidental part of the exercise. We wish to build knowledge slowly from the bottom up leaving behind a lot of interest, awareness, and capacity for sustainability. What we are hoping to do is to link college students and instructors who would carry out the studies in these sister cities over an extended period of time. The students and instructors from paired institutions would use the Internet to participate in each other’s work. In this way we will diversify the development of people-to-people understanding away from metropolitan centers and elite institutions, something which is essential if the movement has to build an appeal with broad support.

At the same time young citizens would go beyond the stage of expressing good intentions and be involved in collaborative work accumulating useful information for research and teaching purposes. In the process they would get to know each other in more intimate ways.

The study of matched pairs of cities would yield comparisons across international boundaries and across regions within some countries as well. We will draw up simple baseline profiles of these towns using a few key indicators to be spelled out later. The preparation and regular updating of these profiles would be assigned to local academic institutions that would integrate them as class assignments for students of these institutions. The capacity of a core group of teachers would be enhanced to manage these profile updates over a five-year period.

At the end of the period we would know better what is going on in small towns and why. We would understand what are the commonalities and differences and what might account for them. In the process we would have built up a lot of local capacity and involved local students in research on local issues. Based on these profiles we would put together an informed research agenda for the future. What we are looking for now are suggestions from readers on how to finalize such a study and to put it into practice. It can be started with just one matched pair so we are looking for individuals who would volunteer to take charge in individual cities. As soon as we have a matched pair, we will specify the details of the next steps.

Note: The original idea for such a study was proposed in this post: What’s Happening in Small Towns? We have already carried out a pilot study of small towns in Pakistan centered round Lahore – see schematic below (click to enlarge). Some of the readers might be surprised to know that Amritsar is just 30 miles from Lahore, an easy drive for lunch! Small cities map

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. Students have set up a Facebook group to share their research findings: http://www.facebook.com/groups/smallcitiesinitiative/

Also, there is now a website with details of the continuing research on small cities: http://www.small-cities.com/

Here is a link to a presentation on small cities in Pakistan at Cornell University in September 2014: https://vimeo.com/user34890344

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