In Pursuit of the Pakistani Dream: The Plight of Urban-slum Dwellers

Spearhead Analysis – 31.10.2017

By Raja Safiullah
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

The deserted streets of Lahore on Eid present a spectacle in itself; as people leave for their hometowns across Pakistan over the holidays. It is a subtle reminder of the extent of rural-urban migration, that has taken place over the course of seven decades, for a select class that has migrated for improved white collar opportunities, better education, and improved living standards. What often goes virtually unnoticed is the static worrisome state of the slums on the periphery of urban centers such as Lahore, where the lower-income classes that make up almost half the urban population reside.  Large proportion of the people who dwell in these slums, had at some point moved from rural regions for a better and more prosperous life in the city. Given the lack of required skills they are denied entry into the formal sector, and instead have to opt for the informal sector where they face poor working conditions, minimal pay, and more or less, abject poverty. At an equal loss and requiring our attention, are the declining fortunes of the agricultural sector that most of these individuals leave in the rural regions when moving to the urban centers.

The latter part of the 20th century along with the start of the 21st century has been marked by extensive migration from the rural to urban regions, in the developing world. Pakistan has also witnessed this trend whereby people from across the country have moved to the urban centers for economic and social uplift. The seven metropolitan cities, which have primarily served as destinations for the migrants are Faisalabad, Multan, Gujranwala, Hyderabad, Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Quetta, along with the two mega cities of Lahore and Karachi. While the middle-income and the upper-income classes have fared well in terms of what they have found on the other side, the lower-income class has not been this fortunate. The former were able to acquire white collar jobs, and therefore, improved living conditions in the cities, while the latter have been subjected to slum living with limited work opportunities. Devoid of opportunities for acquiring education and skills required for the formal sector, the lower-income class has been restricted to the informal sector.

According to the Labour Force Survey 2008-2009, the informal sector accounted for 73.3% of the employment in the main jobs outside of agriculture; though the survey also suggests that the bigger chunk of the informal sector operates in the rural regions of Pakistan. Nevertheless, these figures show the gravity of the situation and complement the belief that almost half of the population of urban centers dwells in urban slums, which tends to be located at the periphery of urban cities. These slums are characterized by dismal living conditions and remain at the mercy of natural calamities that can wipe out homes for millions overnight. Added to this is the tendency on the part of the urban authorities to see these illegally placed slum-dwellers as a problem, and not as victims – therefore instances of eviction are common. Little help, if any, is provided by the State at large to these individuals when they engage with their employers, as domestic workers. Lack of regulated State protection in the form of labour laws is a norm for such individuals. Therefore, bonded labour becomes a stark reality along with the known problem of child labour. As indicated by the only Child Labour Survey of Pakistan carried out in 1996, 3.3 million children under the age of 14 are put to work in Pakistan. Disillusionment towards the affluent classes and the lack of state support, leaves these estranged individuals open to radical elements within or outside the society. State’s inability to provide education, thrusts the children to madrassahs where narratives shared have a tendency of being in conflict with national interest. These slums therefore often become breeding grounds for terrorist elements, that have for decades wreaked havoc in Pakistan.    

Apart from the social and the security dilemmas that emerge from this ongoing migration, there are strong economic implications as well. Agriculture serves as the primary employer in the rural regions, with almost 40% of the total labour force of Pakistan engaged in the sector. Rural poverty forces the individuals employed in the agriculture sector to be lured to the urban centers. This rural poverty primarily stems from the asymmetrical distribution of land, which is the main asset in the agriculture sector. Large-scale holders carry great influence in the policy-making, as is customary for feudal lords to successfully run for elections. The small-scale holders do not even have the luxury of growing cash crops and instead focus on subsistence farming, and wield little or no influence. This disparity in influence becomes more apparent every year, when floods tend to be directed towards the arable lands of the small-scale land holders to protect the lands of the affluent and those better placed to cope with the losses. Given that the small-scale land holdings are primarily for subsistence purposes, losing the crops to floods leaves the owners with little choice other than to seek their livelihoods elsewhere. Worse still, are those who do not own any land and serve as employees, and work as per the whims of the large-scale land holders who either employ these individuals on their lands or provide them the land on lease. In either case, the feudal lords tend to have tight control over the affairs with the ability to abuse or misuse their power. These factors force many landless farmers to explore the option of moving to the urban centers as the ideal or the only possible means of escape.

At the turn of the century, this migration from the rural-urban regions was facilitated and even encouraged by the State, based on the Classical Economics belief that the only way that the agricultural sector could contribute to the economic growth was indirectly by transferring labour to the capitalist-industrial economy. More recent economic studies have challenged this belief and instead advocate that the agricultural sector has a very important role to play in ensuring food security, and can directly contribute to the economic growth. Even with the change in the State attitude towards the agricultural sector, and consequently migration, the task remains difficult with declining agri-income levels. This is primarily due to the synthetic substitutes being introduced to the industries for raw materials that agriculture sector once provided; and the relative inefficiency of the agricultural sector in Pakistan, as compared to the introduction of higher-yielding seed varieties and other technological advances elsewhere. Apart from looking for a better pay-off for the labour in the urban centers, the perceived potential of better infrastructure and opportunities in the urban regions also attracts the economically marginalized. Rural regions lack physical infrastructure, education and health facilities, and other social services. The desperation to escape the inadequate living conditions in the rural regions along with the hope of a better life elsewhere, tends to blind the aspiring migrants from the fact that a similar fate, if not worse, awaits them in the slums of urban centers.

The recently concluded sixth Housing and Population Census (2017) has made important revelations concerning the population explosion. An overall population growth of 57% since the last census (1998) has been noted, with an annual growth rate of 2.4% nationally. While the urban areas have witnessed the higher rates, around 2.7%, the rural regions have not been far off with 2.23% annual growth rate. The urban regions already seem to be catering to a population beyond their capacity, with the added pressure of high population growth rate. Supplemented by the pressures of sizeable chunk of the rapidly rising rural population that is bound to migrate to the urban regions, given the static penurious state of rural infrastructure, social environment, non-agricultural economic activity, and since the last decade or so, low agricultural sector growth. While perceptions of urban regions as being considerably better off compared to the rural regions continue to persist.

This unravelling trend has cost the agricultural sector a huge share of the labour market, it once occupied. With declining labour availability in the agricultural sector, and relatively static technological development in the last few decades, it is not surprising that the agricultural fortunes have gone down considerably. As per the Agricultural Census 2010 carried out by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) agriculture contributed the most to the GDP – with its contribution standing at 21% of the GDP. However, as a consequence of the accelerated rates of migration from rural to urban regions, a laggard growth of 0.27% for the agriculture sector was noted in the Pakistan Economic Survey in 2015-16. Though considerable improvement has been made in the following year, with the government steering the agricultural sector growth to an impressive 3.46%, as per the Pakistan Economic Survey 2016-17 (PES 16-17). The loss of labour had translated into a fall in crop production, especially cash crops like cotton, which had previously served as major export goods – with cotton manufacturers alone contributing almost 50% of the exports (2015-16). The government has been able to get a grip on the situation, in the words of the Finance Minister, Ishaq Dar, by introducing the Rs.341 billion Kissan Package. The Kissan Package involved handing out inputs and fertilizers at subsidized rates, and reduced tubewell tariffs. Cotton industry, therefore, can be seen resurging in Pakistan at a gentle pace with 7.6% growth noted in the cotton yield along with 5.6% growth in cotton ginning (PES 16-17). Reclaiming the foreign markets lost in the last few years, owing to fall in the cotton yields and the consequent fall in textile industry, isn’t a feat Pakistan government can hope to achieve in a fortnight. As the exports continue to plunge, with a further 3.06% decrease noted in the last nine months (PES 16-17), it appears that the loss in labour that translated into declining fortunes of the agricultural sector, had immense implications for the Pakistan’s agri-based economy. But a renewed interest on the part of the government to invest in the backbone of Pakistan’s economy has created a positive environment for the agricultural sector to blossom, and potentially retain the labour it has been losing to the wasteful urban-slums.

There is a dire need to curb the ever-escalating rural-urban migration. And for that there is a need to change the mindset of the policy-makers in Pakistan, who have conventionally focused more on better equipping the urban regions to receive the incoming migrants. Given the urban centers have already filled up and continue to cater to migrants beyond their capacity, along with the worrisome state of the slums that house most of these migrants; and declining fortunes of the agricultural sector owing to loss of labour due to migration: the necessity has emerged to formulate rural-centric policies. For decades the Pakistani state has improved upon the agricultural sector by providing subsidies and expertise; it has nevertheless fallen short of holistically improving upon the infrastructure, social structures and the non-agricultural economic activity of the rural regions. While almost 65% of the rural population relies on agricultural sector for its livelihoods, a number of other factors are needed to make the rural environment economically and socially healthy. Greater public sector development in terms of schools and hospitals needs to be provided in the rural regions to incentivize the aspiring migrants to stay put. Pathways should also be created for those placed in the urban slums to find a way back to the rural regions, by providing them with micro-finance opportunities, essential skills, and blue-collar job opportunities in the rural regions. Extensive investments should be made in improving the infrastructure of the rural regions and creating linkages with the industrial zones of the urban centers. Crucially, social justice should be ensured through social protection policies in the short-term and creating awareness of basic rights through education in the long-run; and small-scale land holders along with the landless farmers, need to be protected by the state from the excesses of feudal lords. For the dwellers of urban slums that are deemed as a problem to the state and at times the community, can very well be turned into productive assets. If only the injustice they escaped from and the injustice they meet on the other side can effectively be neutralized.