Planning for internal migration


The role of intermediate cities in fighting inequality, poverty and violence



So, here you are,

Too foreign for home,

Too foreign for here;

Never enough for both’

– Ijeoma Umebinyuo

United Nations-Habitat launched a report on the global state of urbanisation earlier this year, titled: ‘The World Cities Report 2016, Urbanisation and Development: Emerging Futures’, in which it calls for a new urban agenda to tackle rising world urbanisation. The upcoming United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, in Ecuador in October 2016, presents a promising platform to discuss a framework for this new urban agenda. And for countries like Pakistan, this debate is not a moment too soon.

It is not news that Pakistan, a country of around 188 million population has a considerably high urbanisation rate, with estimates from 2010 to 2015 averaging between 2.8% to 3.3% annually. Of course, we might have had better estimates had there been a recent population census, but that is another debate altogether. Pakistan had its last census in 1998, but since then due to reasons – varying from lack of governmental will and lack of funds – the process of having a census keeps getting postponed.

There has been extensive discussion over the inability of Pakistani cities to manage the influx of so many people every year. Pressure on scarce resources like water, land, energy and existing infrastructure increases, rendering them even less capable to cater to the ever-increasing urban population dependent on them. On the other hand, it has also been observed that high urbanisation corresponds to a high Gross Domestic Product. Pakistan’s urban economy contributes 78% to its GDP[1] and its cities host one-third of the total population

Does economic growth in Pakistan’s cities benefit the most marginalised?

But does this economic growth translate into increased wellbeing for the tens of thousands of poverty-stricken people who leave their villages and migrate to cities every year? Are numbers enough to reflect that people are living better lives?  I have my doubts.

The Sustainable Development Policy Institute recently undertook a study under its research programme to gauge the resilience status of rural people in semi-arid regions of Pakistan who move to cities. The report’s initial findings show that most of the migrants from these areas are between the ages of 14 and 22 and most often migrate to find work, rather than to pursue education.

Consider a young man who moves to a metropolitan city of Pakistan, such as Lahore or Karachi, from a remote village in one of the less developed parts of the country. He may have spent a few years studying in the village’s local school, may even have been trained in a particular skill, but as he leaves behind the rural life to find a living in the city, is he well-equipped to compete against the hundreds and thousands of similar young men born and bred in the city and looking for work? Is the quality of primary education in a remote village in south Punjab comparable to the primary education students receive in cities such as Multan, Lahore or Karachi? Are similar health services provided in both areas? Do people in villages get the same opportunities to develop a skillset as those in the cities? You shake your head; so do I.

“I moved to Karachi to look for work when I was 14. I planned to earn and continue my studies in the big city but the pay is so less and the city expenses are too high. My factory job hardly provides for two meals for my family a day,”, said, Muhammad Anwar, a 25-year-old migrant from a village in Dera Ghazi Khan (Punjab).

Unplanned urbanisation: a poverty trap

The movement of less-educated and low-skilled workers for menial jobs such as cleaning, daily-wage labour at construction sites, or driving a rickshaw, is a gamble. It may improve their financial wellbeing, but it may also introduce new challenges that they did not expect prior to the move. These young migrants lack both the skills needed in the city and the experience of city life, and, uprooted from their homes and all that is familiar, often suffer from what is known as ‘identity crisis’ – confusion over whether they are citizens or villagers. They live in densely-populated neighbourhoods and squatter settlements, often quite far from the city. Oversaturation of less-skilled migrants further pushes them into vulnerable settlements such as slums, trapping them into a vicious cycle of poverty.

With socioeconomic inequities widening, frustrations rise, crime accelerates, terrorism takes a new form and hopes of a better city life are left far behind. The issue becomes one of survival.

The consequences of unplanned urbanisation are not limited to migrants alone; it takes a wider toll on the social fabric and settlement issues become political, pertaining to housing acquisition processes and land conflicts. Evictions from slums and squatter settlements leave migrants in a more fragile state, bringing the issue of human rights into question.

Internal migration policy needed – the role of intermediate cities

This is where an internal migration policy could be a powerful tool. Among other prospects, investing in intermediate cities would be a viable solution to manage rising unplanned urbanisation. Intermediate cities are those that are, by definition, urban, but are less populated than metropolitan hubs and often receive little government attention for development. If supported with educational, health, housing and employment opportunities, these cities could redirect the burden of overpopulation from urban hubs. They could also serve as a link between urban and rural interactions by reducing rural-urban inequalities, and may even attract private and foreign direct investment.

The concept of intermediate cities is not new. The Government of Punjab province should be commended for introducing the Punjab Intermediate Cities Improvement Investment Programme, worth US$600 million, in collaboration with the Asian Development Bank. As part of the project, in the next 10 years, cities with a population of between 250,000 and 1 million will be invested in to improve urban services such as infrastructure, waste water management and an improved institutional framework in the hope of turning them into engines of economic sustainability.

While the project aims to improve services for people living in these intermediate cities , the government should also direct special focus towards managing the inflow of migrants from rural areas and the procedures in place to help these communities to settle. The impact of migratory movements should also be taken into account during the planning phase of this programme to ensure migrants get equal access to resources and services.

In addition to basic amenities, investing in the skills and education of young rural migrants – so that they become on a par with their urban counterparts – should be made a priority in order to give a level playing field to everyone competing in the labour market. Finally, the need for a National Population Census cannot be more emphasised, considering that the only authentic estimates of population and population flows date back to Pakistan’s last census eighteen years ago – a timespan during which a whole new generation has been born and come of age.



  1. Your point regarding Census is very important and I think this is high time for the government to start thinking about the census. Without census data, whatever we say and whatever figures we quote from any source will always remain questionable. If governments spends on Census today , it will surely be able to save double of that by accurate planning and distribution of assets.

  2. Your point regarding Census is very important and I think this is high time for the government to start thinking about the census. Without census data, whatever we say and whatever figures we quote from any source will always remain questionable. If governments spends on Census today , it will surely be able to save double of that by accurate planning and distribution of assets.

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