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Census 2017 and the Urbanization Challenge (Editorial October 2017)

Census 2017 and the Urbanization Challenge (Editorial September 2017)

Surah-20 Ta Ha/ Ayat 6: To Him belongs what is in the heavens and on earth, and all between them, and all beneath the soil.

After about nineteen years of dilly-dallying, the sixth Housing & Population Census in Pakistan was finally conducted this year. The provisional results of the headcount have been released by Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), and they suggest that Pakistan’s population now stands at 207,774,520 individuals as compared to 132,362,279 back in 1998, showing an overall increase of 57 percent. This means that a staggering 75 million people have been added to national population since the 1998 census. The Economic Survey of Pakistan 2016-17 had estimated the country’s population at 199 million, but the results show that the increase has been far higher than the authorities had estimated.

Various political parties, especially those from Sindh, have raised serious concerns over the results. The Sindh government has gone a step further by rejecting the results of the census; alleging that the federal government had conspired to deliberately show the population of the province lower than the actual. However, one aspect that was largely ignored by the mainstream media is the huge population increase and the growth rate of 2.4 percent which means that Pakistan will soon surpass Brazil to become the world’s fifth most populous country. This state of affairs portrays the level of governance and service-delivery challenges that policymakers will have to deal with in the near future.

A noteworthy trend, as per the data published, is growing urbanization, an idea of which can be had from the figures that the population of the country’s 10 largest cities has swollen by around 74 percent between 1998 and 2017. It, in effect, means that the these cities now host nearly one-fifth of the country’s total population. Urban population is now counted at 36.4 percent of the total, down from an estimated 40.5 percent quoted in the Economic Survey. But, it is hard to deny the ground reality that urbanization in Pakistan – in the context of ‘urban characteristics’ – has grown phenomenally, but putting only 36 percent of country’s population in this bracket seems an implausibly drawn conclusion. Mere a four percent increase in urban population of the country is the outcome of the flawed definition adopted by the PBS and it is in stark contrast to the on-ground situation. Former federal minister and a distinguished economist, Dr Hafiz A. Pasha, has criticized the definition of ‘urban areas’. He asserts:

“The pragmatic method used has been to follow the areas covered by urban local governments as specified by provincial governments. However, this can lead to under-coverage in two ways. First, urban metropolitan boundaries may not have been expanded to adequately reflect residential development at the urban-rural periphery. This is probably the case especially with Karachi.

Second, rural settlements may have grown in population and acquired access to basic services, thereby qualifying for treatment as part of urban areas. Interestingly, the last census in India of 2011 used the some definition as in Pakistan. This led to an estimate of the share of urban population at 31 percent. However, when towns with population size of 5000 or more were also included the share of urban population increased substantially to 47 percent.”

Although the census results do not present the true picture of urbanization in the country, yet even these underestimated findings lend credence to the United Nations Population Division estimates which suggest that “by 2025, nearly half the country’s population will live in urban areas.” Then, have our urban centres seen evolution of governance structures? Have requisite policies been made to counter the looming pressure on the municipal services? The answer, unfortunately, is a big NO.

At present, the country’s two largest cities, Karachi and Lahore, are very densely populated and are receiving the influx of more and more internal migrants who come here in search of better economic opportunities, ergo improved living standards. It is happening because these are the only places where employment opportunities, though dwindling, still exist. Better healthcare facilities, education, transport and so on, are available only in big cities. And, this is the precise reason behind the unplanned urbanization. To stem this tide of internal migration, there must be provision of facilities to other towns and cities so that people may find employment and better civic facilities in their areas. It will happen only when there will be an equitable distribution of funds to the grassroots level and when budget will not be spent on development projects only in one or two cities.

This unplanned urbanization poses many a challenge to the policymakers, and to cope with these, it must be ensured that preparation of plans for management of these major cities are drawn up keeping in view the ground realities. And this planning necessitates a dialogue between elected representatives and urban development and environmental experts. The current adhocism and lack of integrated urban planning will affect the lives of millions and will have an adverse impact on overall development of the country.

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