The Politics of Urbanization

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.

Almost every news report in the election season makes the point that the urban sentiment is quite different to the rural one – more politically conscious, more receptive to party programs, less weighed down by clan loyalties, and less indebted to patrons for access to basic rights.

As the country becomes more urbanized, the hold of dynastic quasi-feudal elites should decline – but this is where politics intervenes. Electoral outcomes depend heavily on how individual constituencies are delimited. In most secondary cities the urban vote is fragmented over many constituencies each of which has a rural majority. As a result the urban vote is under-represented, a standard practice in all conservative polities where entrenched privilege benefits from rural votes.

It is also no surprise that the population census has not been carried out since 1998 although that is no more difficult a task than conducting an election. Given rapid migration and urbanization a census update clearly has implications for the allocation of seats both across provinces and the urban-rural divide.

It is here that one can glean a lot from the Latin American experience, a fore-runner to Pakistan’s encounters with kleptocratic democracies and authoritarian dictatorships focused on shoring up entrenched privilege against the demands of marginalized majorities empowered with the right to vote.

It was only after Latin American countries were almost fully urbanized that biased delimitation tactics became ineffective. Urban citizens were then able to struggle and organize over time to vote into power leaders like Lula, Chavez and Morales who represented better the demands of the majorities. Pakistan still awaits such representatives and must contend with several more rounds of rule by representatives of entrenched privilege, either populists like Peron or strongmen like Pinochet.

The violence with which the Latin American transition was accompanied, and which still continues, clearly suggests that the violence in Pakistan is not exceptional. We can expect our cities to become even more violent as entrenched privilege defends its interests and attempts to break up the solidarity of the urban vote. Here Pakistan is more vulnerable than Latin America because of the ethnic and sectarian heterogeneity of its urban population that remains vulnerable to the politics of identity – witness the internecine wars in Karachi the origins of which can be traced back to political manipulations of one kind or another.

The politics of urbanization plays out within cities as well as a brief recap of its history would illustrate. At the time Europe was urbanizing the footprint of the city was small. Without mass transportation rich and poor had to live in relative proximity. There were no privatized sources of clean air or water and no selective protection from diseases via immunizations. Outbreaks of pestilence affected all citizens with equal effect. It was this shared fate that became the basis for urban reform as elites fearful for their lives and businesses allocated resources to city-wide improvements in sanitation and sewerage.

All this has changed in our times as advances in science and technology have ironically worked to the disadvantage of the poor. The affluent can now physically segregate themselves by moving to suburbs, protect themselves from disease through inoculations, and are no longer dependent on city-wide networks for access to amenities. As a result our cities have split into rich enclaves and poor slums and there is no powerful group of influential citizens to lobby for reforms that benefit the entire city. Urban funds are spent on better roads for cars while pedestrians and cyclists are left to fend for themselves. The emphasis on clean water and sewerage for the low-income areas is remarkable only for its absence.

It is in this context that those who project cities as unambiguous engines of economic growth need to take pause. Because of their ethnic and sectarian heterogeneity and the polarization of rich and poor, South Asian cities can just as easily be powder kegs ready to explode. And the fuse is quite likely to be deliberately lit by those who stand to gain from the fracturing of the urban vote.

The gerrymandering of electoral constituencies does not mean however that the city can be ignored. We need to keep our eyes open and our ears to the ground as we move forward in time. The capacity of the state and market to deliver to urban citizens the essentials of everyday living like electricity and natural gas has eroded to a dangerous degree. Unless it is ameliorated, if not fully repaired, any random trigger can set off pent-up frustrations that have accumulated over the years.

If that happens the politics of urbanization would overwhelm not just the economy but the country itself.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on May 19, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author. This is a companion piece to The Economics of Urbanization which appeared in the same paper on May 6, 2013.



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