Development Pathways: Time To Rethink Our Obsession With Infrastructure

Development Pathways: Time To Rethink Our Obsession With Infrastructure
Infrastructure was to be the saviour and throughout the 1950s-1990s, development meant more infrastructure (World Bank reports). I remember Mian Nawaz Sharif in 1997 just after the inauguration of the M2 Islamabad-Lahore motorway saying, ‘how are we going to have development if we continue to have broken down shabby busses and wagons plying this new motorway. We will import Mercedes wagons to replace them’. Mercedes minivans were imported, as were Daewoo buses, and supposedly development took place as a result. The likes of me (middle to upper class Pakistanis) in our air conditioned cars, enjoy the motorways, signal-free corridors and underpasses ushered in by the Sharif brother’s obsession with transport infrastructure. For many Pakistanis, the same infrastructure has become a curse, and relieved them of their right to mobility, livelihoods and even life spaces. I shall explain.

Infrastructure could be simply categorised as: invisible, visible and monumental. Invisible infrastructure could include: water supply and sewerage, health care, waste disposal and electronic communication etc. Visible infrastructure could include: roads, canals, railway lines, mass transit etc. The visible infrastructure could take on a monumental scale in dams, bridges, convention centres, motorways and so on. Of these three categories, the invisible infrastructure tends to be most beneficial to the poorer segments of the society. After all, you don’t have to see all the plumbing and pumps to see where your water is coming from and where your waste is going.

The visible infrastructure is necessary and is beneficial to all if planned and built appropriately. Monumental infrastructure although, sometimes expedient for politico-cultural reasons, is most often wasteful, elite centric and exclusive. Most governments, especially of poorer countries like Pakistan tend to focus on visible infrastructure, especially in its monumental sense to the neglect of the essential invisible infrastructure. After all, who wants to cut the ribbon, or unveil a plaque to a trunk sewer or a midwife training programme? There’s no glory in that!

Here, I specifically want to focus on the transport and urban infrastructure. The story of dams and irrigation infrastructure and how it dispossess, pollutes and destroys the livelihoods and lives of the poor is well known and doesn’t bare repeating here. Thanks, first to Islamabad in the 60s and more recently with the DHAs and Bahria towns, Pakistan is following the worst anti-poor, environmentally damaging and anti-social North American automobile centric model of urban development. Signal free corridors in Pakistani cities have become the urban equivalent of the great wall of China dividing communities and people. How does an old person, or a woman with infants or the sick negotiate high over passes every 3-4 kilometers of the length of such corridors?

In Pakistan where the car ownership rates are no more than 10% per household, the obsession with automobile infrastructure works to the detriment of the remaining 90%. Despite the pollution, congestion and exclusivity inherent in automobiles, Prime Minister Imran Khan wants to spend precious financing on enabling Apni Car scheme instead of availing the same for much more urgent water supply, sanitation, health care or even COVID vaccines — in a country which is about a week or two away from the same fate as India with the pandemic.

The recent Rawalpindi ring road is a case in point. We know from the examples of ring roads in Beijing, Moscow and even our very own Gujranwala and Lahore that ring roads never remain ring roads. They are a government subsidy to real estate developers, destroyers of valuable agricultural land, and enablers of urban sprawl. Everything in modern urban planning tells us that safe, inclusive and environmentally clean cities are high density, mixed of commercial and residential use, and walkable.
Banishing the working poor to the margins, or having them depend on private transport to commute to their increasingly distant work places is a recipe for their further marginalization. Housing societies are engines of social alienation and waste.

Commercial and residential development out to the ring roads further accentuate traffic problems instead of solving them. Many concerned citizens including the inimitable young MIT trained planner and a proud citizen of Rawalpindi, Ayesha Shahid, have been at the forefront of opposing this wasteful and anti-farmer, poor scheme. Just recently we were tempted to break open the bubbly Fanta/Pepsi when we heard the news that the tendering for this ill advised project has been quashed because, ‘the advertised alignment is being enquired into for having been influenced by a rent seeking syndicate owning properties along Paswal Road and in the adjoining Mauzas’, among other reasons. But then we learned it was a conflict among multiple ‘rent seeking syndicates’ who will likely come to some agreement for an alignment that allows everyone to seek rent more equitably.

The point is that such wasteful infrastructure projects are inevitably to the benefit of commercial mafias and to the disadvantage of the poor whose land is appropriated for pennies compared to the real price. Not only it adds to the public debt that our poor government can ill afford as a subsidy to already rich real estate developers, but destroys the rural livelihoods and is a blight on the landscape. Chakri road like the rest of Potowar had and still has some of the most breathtaking landscapes along its length. And it is nothing short of heart breaking to see the city dump and even uglier housing society developments along its length.

Sitting on a mountain by the fabled cave of Ashab-e-kahf in the Nachchivan region of Azerbaijan, I found myself thinking that every square inch of this planet is beautiful. We humans are the only ones introducing ugliness through our misguided notions of development. Our military-establishment is choke full of people from Potowar. I wonder, do they not love the incredibly beautiful landscape of their ancestors? Do they not feel pain at the blight that is being visited upon it? Or are they just blinded by the elite development paradigm? Do they love their cars more than their land and their people? And if they can’t care for their land, how could they expect anyone else to care for them or their life spaces?




Daanish Mustafa is a Professor of Critical Geography, Department of Geography, King’s College, London. His research interests include water resources, hazards and development geography.  Email: