In situ urbanisation to reduce disparity

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ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has experienced one of the highest rates of urbanisation in South Asia, with around 37.7% of its population residing in urban areas. This statistic is poised to grow even further as the economy undergoes urban enrichment and development.

However, the majority of Pakistan’s land remains rural, presenting unique challenges and disparities. The following discussion will explore the impact of urbanisation on rural regions, the resulting disparities between rural and urban regions, and propose a solution: in situ urbanisation, aimed at equipping rural areas with the necessary resources for improved living standards and economic growth.

Urbanisation is a considerably natural process that occurs during economic expansion. Certain cities and towns become hubs for commercial and industrial activity as market mechanisms take on a primary role in the economy.

According to UNDP, urban areas in Pakistan generate around 55% of the national GDP while contributing majorly to total tax collection. Although cities are becoming major economic players day by day, urbanisation in Pakistan seems to be sprawled all over the place.

Unmanaged urbanisation without the support of accompanying growth has led to around 40% of urbanites living in slums and unsafe living quarters in cities. Pakistan is currently facing alarming issues relating to the distribution of scarce resources such as clean water, environmental degradation, and urban poverty.

Unrestrained urbanisation is not only damaging to cities and city dwellers, but the mal-distribution of economic opportunities has hindered rural development as well. Life in the city is inherently different from life elsewhere, but rural living does not have to lag with regard to the standard of living.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that about 80% of economically impoverished individuals in developing countries live in rural areas.

Rural locations in Pakistan are usually at the less privileged end of the spectrum in terms of access to goods and services, social facilities, and economic opportunities.

There are widespread and multi-faceted disparities between the living conditions in cities versus those in rural communities. These disparities include the following dimensions: access to healthcare facilities, access to education, employment opportunities, and standard of living.

To understand the matter effectively, consider the case of Balochistan. While contributing almost 6% of the national population, the majority of Balochistan’s population itself lives in rural areas.

Residents of the province have stepped forward and expressed the pressing needs of their healthcare system, shedding light on the shortage of medicinal drugs and the lack of medical staff. The Universal Health Coverage monitoring report of 2021 notes the density of physicians and nurses is 0.53 per 1,000 and 0.15 per 1,000 respectively in Balochistan.

When it comes to education, rural students face a severe shortage of opportunities. Out of the 22.8 million students out of school in Pakistan, as estimated by Unicef, almost 3 out of 4 of those belong to rural regions.

Similarly, the low employment generation in rural areas is the leading cause behind the accelerated rural-to-urban migration in Pakistan.

All these factors contribute to a standard of living that is incomparable to the urban lifestyle. Such aspects are the driving force behind the expeditious rate of urbanisation, which in itself is shaping a rather bleak future for the nation’s cities.

If urbanisation rates are not checked, obstacles related to housing, clean water, and management of resources will become alarming challenges for policymakers shortly.

A manageable pathway to tackle such dire circumstances is through the idea of “In situ urbanisation”: the concept of equipping rural regions with the economic and social calibre that could help them to reach the same living standards that are found in cities and towns.

In situ urbanisation is a place-based approach to rural development, enabling residents to achieve financial and social growth locally, and reducing the need to migrate to higher-paying cities. One way to implement in situ urbanisation is by fulfilling the rural demand for indispensable human resources by looking into the regional mobility of labour.

As previously noted, rural areas of Pakistan do not have enough professionals to respond to their basic human requirements of health and education. The rural populations living in Sindh are deprived of quality education due to the lack of qualified teachers; a situation common in other rural regions in Pakistan.

In the same way, studies have shown that an influencing factor in the poor healthcare and education services in rural areas is the reluctance of competent professionals to work there.

According to the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council, there are 48 public and 75 private registered medical colleges in Pakistan signifying a decent number of students that become doctors each year. Furthermore, more than 1,200 public and 700 private hospitals are running in the country; yet rural areas do not have adequate medical staff to meet their demand.

Despite their appointments, they are hesitant to move to rural areas to provide their services due to the striking contrast between facilities available in rural areas as opposed to urban centres. Therefore, our initial focus should be centred on incentivising the much-needed service providers to work in rural areas.

Surveys conducted across Pakistan found disruptions in social, professional, and personal lives to be the key deterring reasons behind the reluctance of doctors to serve in remote communities. To eliminate such barriers, policymakers should design programmes that specifically target such incentives and increase retention.

Providing better working conditions along with personal accommodations; from financial incentives to necessities like access to the internet, will help increase the labour force participation in rural areas.

Countries like Thailand, China, and India have showcased successful strategies that increased the mobility and retention of employees in rural regions. Thailand’s renowned policy established decades ago required doctors in the public sector to complete a compulsory three-year appointment in rural sectors.

China has developed monetary and workplace incentives for employees, while India initiated a system of providing career progression opportunities in exchange for services in rural communities, such as offering exclusive seats to healthcare providers.

By mobilising professionals to extend their services to remote areas, the primary issue of human capital shortage will be addressed.

More importantly, by having access to satisfactory healthcare and high-calibre education, rural residents will progress substantially in skill development. This will open up a range of opportunities for individuals to initiate income-producing activities.

Remote employment and inter-regional connectivity can provide rural individuals with a variety of directions to explore without the need to migrate to urban locations.

With the increased labour force participation in rural areas, the economy will witness a boost in its GDP and climb up the ladder in terms of rural-urban equality.

Pushing rural development alongside urban expansion is of utmost importance to maintain a healthy and balanced economy. To do so, it is important to equitably distribute human resources across regions through strengthening regional labour mobility.

This will set in motion the wheel of social and economic development in rural areas, the effects of which will eventually reach the entire economy of Pakistan; presenting the successful implementation of in situ urbanisation.

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