NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 27

Infrastructure development can bring about political stability

Undoubtedly, Pakistan is currently facing not only the worst political instability but also an extreme economic crisis in its history. While there are various long-term, short-term, and immediate causes contributing to the political instability and economic woes, one major solution could be the development of small cities and towns through extensive infrastructure improvements.

Small cities and towns provide an environment where a true democratic culture can flourish, which is instrumental in establishing consistent political stability. Additionally, small cities and towns are considered as engines of economic growth. Given this context, it has become crucial to focus on developing small towns and cities across Pakistan, in addition to the mega cities. The fundamental reason behind this is that Pakistan is experiencing rapid urbanization, with more and more people migrating from rural areas to urban centers. However, the existing infrastructure in cities and towns is inadequate, resulting in a decline in their livability. Fortunately, there is growing awareness of this problem among decision-making circles in Pakistan. Consequently, important urban development projects have been initiated at both the federal and provincial levels, particularly in the Punjab province.

In this regard, the Punjab government has undertaken the task of developing 154 small cities within the province. Similarly, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province has launched the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Cities Improvement Project (KPCIP) with financial assistance from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to enhance the key cities in the region. If these projects are properly executed, they can bring about a significant transformation in the lifestyles of the residents in these provinces. This is especially relevant because a majority of the population in these provinces, as well as in Sindh province, reside in big cities or semi-urban small cities and towns.

Given that a significant portion of the population is no longer living in agriculture-based rural areas, it has become crucial to concentrate on the development of non-rural regions and localities. Traditionally, Pakistan’s focus has been on uplifting rural areas, particularly improving the agriculture-based economy and related sectors, or on developing major cities and federal and provincial capitals. Consequently, we have witnessed projects like the Orange Line and Metro Line in Lahore, Multan, Rawalpindi, and the Bus Rapid Transit in Peshawar over the past decade. However, it is now imperative to shift the policy focus towards the development of relatively smaller cities and towns. It is worth noting that while KP and Punjab have initiated projects for the small or semi-urban areas, Sindh and Balochistan provinces have yet to make similar efforts.

Balochistan faces serious financial and capacity constraints in launching urban development projects, whereas Sindh has shown disinterest due to the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) political stronghold in the rural areas of the province. The PPP has struggled to gain significant support from urban centers such as Karachi, Hyderabad, and Sukkur in the past decade. Despite the recent PPP victories in the local body elections in Karachi, Hyderabad, and Sukkur, concerns about the transparency of these elections persist. Consequently, the development of cities and towns in Sindh is not a priority for the PPP, purely for political reasons. However, considering the demand of the times, the development of small cities and peri-urban areas should have been a priority for the past decade.

Regarding the project to uplift 154 small cities and towns in Punjab, the provincial Local Government department initiated the preparation of master plans for these urban local governments a few months ago. Apart from the metropolitan cities, where the local governments are legally bound to prepare a master plan for their areas, the remaining 154 towns/cities will now have master plans developed. Once these plans are finalized, they will be presented to the respective district planning and design committees for deliberation and notification as mandated in the Punjab Land Use Rules 2020. A concept note and PC-1 of the project have already been submitted to the planning and development department for inclusion in the Annual Development Plan schemes and allocation of funds. Importantly, it has been agreed that the master plans of these 154 towns and cities will be prepared by registered town planning firms under the supervision of the Pakistan Council of Architects and Town Planners (PCATP) within a period of one year. The follow-up, monitoring, and implementation of these plans will be ensured in the third year by the relevant provincial departments and authorities, specifically the Project Management Unit. This approach ensures the proper execution of the policy, as handing it over to provincial government departments for implementation through contracts may not yield desirable results.

As this project focuses on the development of small and medium-sized cities and towns in Punjab, major cities such as Lahore, Gujranwala, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, and Multan have not been included in the list, as they already have existing master plans for land use and zoning for residential, commercial, agricultural, and industrial activities. Unfortunately, the provincial governments in the past did not pay attention to the development of these 154 towns and cities, resulting in disastrous consequences for the region and the country as a whole, with unchecked horizontal growth being the norm. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which has governed the Punjab province for at least four terms in the last two decades, should be held accountable for this negative policy regarding the development of semi-urban and peri-urban areas in the province.

Regarding the urban development project in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the proposed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Cities Improvement Project aims to improve the livability of cities by making physical investments in water, sanitation, solid waste disposal infrastructure, and green urban spaces. It also provides institutional support to enhance service delivery and the performance of municipal companies. The KPCIP will benefit approximately 11 million people in the five target districts (with an urban population projected to increase to around 11.0 million by 2035) and aligns with the government’s development priorities. It is worth noting that there are no major cities in KP, including Peshawar, the provincial capital. Therefore, all the cities included in the project, apart from Peshawar, can be considered small cities. Urban development in KP is crucial as the province lacks purely urban areas, which hampers economic growth and the overall quality of life for its residents.

Currently, caretaker governments are in place in both Punjab and KP, tasked with holding free, fair, and transparent elections. If future governments prioritize the development of small cities and towns in Punjab and KP, it would result in vertical growth, curbing horizontal expansion, preserving green areas, controlling escalating land costs, and creating development zones for residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural activities. Additionally, it would enable the implementation of high-rise structures, low-cost apartment projects, and generate economic activities. Hopefully, the PPP government in Sindh will prioritize the interests of Sindhis and Pakistan as a whole over their vested political interests and develop their own plans for the development of cities and towns.

Lastly, considering Balochistan’s serious financial, intellectual, and capacity issues, the federal government must take the lead in formulating urbanization plans as the province lacks urban infrastructure.