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Analysis

Pakistan’s Economic Growth Will Remain Stunted Without Town Planning Laws

Muhammad Usman Bajwa writes about rapid urban expansion that is being currently witnessed around the globe and its positive impact on economic growth, and how as a developing country, Pakistan faces a serious problem of haphazard urban growth which is hampering economic activity.

Cities are currently accommodating more than 54 per cent of the global population and by the year 2050, this figure will reach 66 per cent. Asia alone has a 2.11 billion strong urban population, which makes this region very important from an economic point of view.

Over the last decade, Asia has become the omphalos of global economic growth by providing 33 per cent of the global output. There are 31 mega cities in the world with a population of over 10 million. Propitiously, the southern segment of the globe has 24 mega cities.

Pakistan is witnessing rapid urbanisation and has manifested the fastest rate of urban growth among South Asian countries. According to a 2017 population and housing census, Pakistan has two mega cities, namely Karachi and Lahore, which have a population of 14.9 million and 11.1 million, respectively.

In addition, Pakistan is home to eight metropolitan cities with more than one million people. Alacritous pace of urbanisation in Pakistan is a good omen and a potential venue for economic development if we see this ballooning phenomenon through the lens of urban planning.

Consequently, the unprecedented pace of urbanisation and the absence of urban planning system in Pakistan are prompting ill-planned development activities on agricultural fields, overburdening existing urban social infrastructure, leading to acute shortage of decent housing and contributing to the proliferation of urban slums.

The incumbent Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government has launched its five million units housing programme for the homeless, lower and middle-income stratum of the population. But it would be a daunting task to provide five million housing units in a single five-year term.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has constituted a high-level expert committee to develop a strategy and planning framework to accomplish the task of providing affordable housing units to common citizens. Unfortunately, the eminent and veteran urban planners of the country are missing from the high-level expert committee for Naya Pakistan Housing Programme.

Housing is purely a subject of urban planners and there is a dire need to look at this issue from their perspective because the success of housing programme is linked with sustainable planning of cities for the future generations.

Cities are powerhouses which drive the economies of all countries worldwide. At this juncture of global urbanisation, cities have gained the status of Global Cities or World Economic Centres which promote international trade and act as hubs of innovation.

Internationally, it is an established fact that urbanised countries witness rapid economic growth which has a positive impact on human development. On the contrary, Pakistan’s GDP growth is stagnant from the past two decades and has yet to harmonise with the unprecedented rate of urbanisation in the country.

At the age of 71, the sixth largest populous and one of the most rapidly urbanising country in the world still don’t have a Town and Country Planning Act at the federal or the provincial levels. Resultantly, cities are growing haphazardly and all development activities are carried out according to the will of bureaucrats and politicians.

The futile housing initiatives in the past primarily portrayed that housing policies and plans were not compatible with the real needs and demands of the target population, due to which laws were formulated without seeking input from urban planners.

Government initiated social housing programmes in the past – like PHA Flats and Ashiana Housing Scheme – were occupied by urban capitalists and playmates of politicians.

It is important for the current government to shift its focus towards the housing programme by joining hands with urban planning professionals from the academia, local development authorities and the municipal committees.

They can perform the task of scrutinising contemporary master plans of different cities and work on improving the proposed housing development areas in master plans and structure plans.

‘Naya Pakistan’ demands a new mindset and top-notch professionals for the management of public institutions and public welfare programmes. Unlike past governments which destroyed state institutions by nepotism and malpractices, the incumbent government seems to have the vision to invigorate state institutions by adopting international practices.

Housing is a multifaceted and local subject and it demands multipronged actions by involving local stakeholders at the district level. Master plans of cities are prepared at the lowest administrative tiers and used as a tool to direct and control future urban development of cities.

Internationally, local development authorities and municipalities reserve land banks in their jurisdiction for low-income housing to be supplied to rural migrants. Once local development agencies have land banks, they can play with land prices and influence the real estate markets.

Several developed and developing countries have reformed their urban and regional planning system and sanctioned social housing under the umbrella of town and country planning system.

Studies show that empowered local governments and development agencies have shown fruitful results after diagnosing housing needs.

It is important for the government to encourage the local real estate developers to invest in low-income housing by giving them tax subsidies. By the way, if the sitting prime minister really wants to make this housing programme lucrative, then he should aggressively promote town and country planning system. It is common knowledge that responsive and sustainable cities play an instrumental role in the economic development of any country.

Now it’s time to initiate regulatory reforms in the town and country planning system by enacting a comprehensive town planning act at the federal as well as the provincial levels. But for now, the ultimate concern of town planning system is to remove regional disparities and ensure sustainable development of cities and rural settlements.

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