The Link between Urbanization and Slum Settlements: A Case Study of Islamabad

Source:  Pakistan Herald Published in Current Affairs on Friday, October 10, 2014

The capitalist elite of Islamabad desperately wants to invest their capital in the large swathes of land currently inhabited by slum dwellers so as to convert it into luxurious residential colonies, shopping malls, skyscrapers etc.


The globalization of corporations, financial institutions, industrial hubs, markets etc. in the last half century or so had a profound impact on the lives of nearly every individual on earth. One of the byproducts of this phenomenon of globalization is the accelerated pace of urbanization. According to business dictionary, urbanization can be defined as an increase in a population in cities and town versus rural areas. The United Nations define urbanization as a movement of people from rural to urban areas with population growth equating to urban migration. And it had predicted that by 2008, around 50% of the world’s population would be living in the urban areas.The French sociologist Henri Lefebvre had accurately predicted in the 20th century that the relations between urban and rural were fast transforming with the disappearance of traditional peasantry and rural community being urbanized in a consumerist fashion. Moreover, farmers and peasants are increasingly growing agricultural products so as to sell them in the markets instead of self-sustenance, thus adopting a more capitalist approach (Harvey, 2012).  This rapid urbanization has resulted in many problems as well, the issue of slum or squatter settlement being the most dominant. But before we go into further details of this phenomenon, it is important to define the term ‘city’. Louis Wirth in his article ‘Urbanism As a Way of Life’ defines city as a relatively large, dense and permanent settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals. Robert Park an eminent urban sociologist noted that the city is man’s most creative & successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But unfortunately it is the same world in which a large chunk of humanity is condemned to live and is forced to fight for the right of housing, clean water, basic services such as utilities etc. Going by this definition, what kind of city do we seek essentially means what kind of individuals are we prepared to be? It also encompass the social relations that we are willing to forge, lifestyles that we seek, cultural values that we desire etc. (Harvey, 2012).

Historical Evolution of Cities:

The cities formally developed for the first time in the epoch which has been called as ‘civilization’ by anthropologists and archaeologists. Large human settlements appeared in the valleys of Nile,Tigris-Euphrates and Indus and the surplus food stuff was used to support a growing urban population. This development took place around 5,000 to 6,000 years back (Engels, 1884). Once the simple farming societies with a village community became more populous and complex, tribes, factions and chiefdoms appeared so as to maintain control over the society. The ancient tribal society was relatively simpler. People lived in small groups and nearly everyone knew each other. Economy was quite simple and every family used to grow its own crops, built its own home and carve its own tools. Political leaders had no real authority and no family had more wealth, power or influence than the other(Gmelch & Zenner, 1999). The ancient state of course was much complex than the typical chiefdom or tribal society. Thousands of people used to reside in such a city state. By this time, private property had emerged and there was a clear division of labor. Society was divided into classes, where a privileged elite nominated the king who used to rule a large number of common people or peasants. The king had absolute control over the political and military affairs of his state and his subjects were forced to pay taxes. The transformation from ancient tribal commune to ancient state level society occurred somewhere around 3000 B.C. in different parts of the world. With the development of small scale states, cities arise for the first time in history. Without state a city cannot be imagined due to the reason that the latter is the concentration of politics,economy, religion and the institutions and personnel of government. On the contrary a hunter’s society or a village community was not complex enough to require complicated processes of governance and thus states or cities were not required back then (Gmelch & Zenner, 1999).

Modern Perspective of the City:

Ever since the ancient times, important changes have taken place in the productive forces as well as in the societal, economic and political arenas. However, since the industrial revolution, city has become central to the entire process of capitalism as the location of free market.According to eminent anthropologists & geographer David Harvey, city has arisen due to the geographical and social concentration of the surplus product.As the German philosopher Karl Marx wrote that in order to survive and thrive capitalism needs to produce value (or profit). But this surplus value cannot be produced until and unless there is a surplus product. And this surplus product always requires free market (located in urban centers) so as to channel it.Thus, in producing the surplus product, a capitalist contributes to the process of urbanization. The reverse is also true. Urbanization is required by the forces of the capital so as to absorb the surplus product. Therefore, there is an intrinsic connection between capitalism and the process of urbanization and the latter is indeed a class phenomenon (Harvey, 2012). It should be noted that for capitalism to thrive, the re-investment of surplus capital by a businessman/industrialist is absolutely necessary or lest he/she would be unable to cope with the cut throat competition and the capital would lose its value. Thus, the entire system would fall into a crisis. It is accepted wisdom that the property market had served as the important stabilizer of the US economy for quite a long time and even after the financial meltdown of 2008 (as unemployed surplus was invested in this sector). But an interesting point to note is that this sector no longer served to stabilize the economy of the US but in fact of the entire world as the process has went global. In order to save the system from further falling apart, capitalists have been investing in this market, thus constructing large buildings, colonies, skyscrapers etc. The result is unfortunately not pleasant- people with no houses and ghost houses with no people in it (Harvey, 2012). Besides, as the classical Marxist perspective holds, the investment and development in a region is not even. This means that some urban centers are developed and nourished at the expense of others. This forces people from small towns and rural areas to migrate to these large urban centers in search of employment and better facilities. However, it is an irony that a large majority of them is unable to afford private housing in the city and thus are forced to develop their own squatters. Thus, this is the process through which slums settlements arise in the midst of bustling city centers.

Urbanization In Pakistan:

There are two basic factors for rapid urbanization in Pakistan. One is the rising population of the country which is growing at an average rate of 2% per year. The present population of the country is estimated to be around 180 million and forecast suggests that it could soar to 380 million by 2050. The second factor is the rising rural to urban migration and for reasons that are in line with the general rules of international political economy (as explained in great detail above). Moreover, wars and internal conflicts have also accelerated the pace of urbanization. For instance, there cently launched Zarb-i-Azb military operation in the tribal areas of FATA (Pakistan) against Islamist militants have forced over a million people to take refuge in the nearest city centers such as Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan etc (Kugelman, 2014). Besides, in the past, the population of Pakistan increased five-fold from 1951-2009 (from 33 to 167 million) while the urban population expanded by nearly seven times in this time period (Rehman, 2012). This was also one of the many reasons why the slums appeared in almost every major city of the country.

Issue of Slums in Islamabad:

Islamabad is the capital city of Pakistan. Until 1959,the largest city of Karachi (which happens to be its major commercial hub)served as the capital. It was after the military coup by General Ayub Khan that the construction of a new city named ‘Islamabad’ was sanctioned which would also serve as the capital of the country. The process was undertaken after years of debate on the 1952 plan by the Swedish firm Merz Rendel Vatten. It was envisioned that the new city would be completely bureaucratic without any non-official civilian population. Instead of devising a municipal government for the city, the control over city’s planning and administration was given toCapital Development Corporation (CDC) now known as Capital Development Authority (CDA) which is wholly a bureaucratic organization. The responsibility of the city’s architecture was given to Costantinos Doxiadis who stipulated that the ‘Islamabad was to be developed without any commitments to the past’(Hull, 2009). Today, Islamabad stands as a busy bustling city with shops,markets, educational institutions, hospitals etc. with citizens from all over the country sharing its space. The structural socio-economic factors which have been discussed in great detail already are also responsible for the creation of large scale slums in the capital. According to official CDA statistics, there are 24 squatter settlements in and around Islamabad city which houses nearly 13,521 families comprised of 84,591 individuals. Most of these people are employed in the informal sector, often taking up more than one jobs. They work in fruit & vegetable markets, factories besides taking up professions such as cobbler, wood cutter, ironsmith, shopkeeper, sweeper etc. Most of the slums are without basic amenities such as electricity, clean water, gas etc. While some slums have been regularized by CDA, this bureaucratic body is nowadays lobbying to bull doze the rest of them, thereby forcing the slum dwellers to move back to places from where they had come in the first place. This essentially means making them house less and unemployed at the same time. However,if the government is committed to resolve the issue then an initiative can betaken which would benefit all the parties involved. The model is that of‘stakeholder participation’ in which the houses of the slum dwellers would be developed incrementally. This revolutionary idea was first put forward by Tasneem Siddiqui who served at important government positions in the past and now runs an NGO named Saiban in Pakistan. When he was posted as the director of Hyderabad Development Authority (HDA) he implemented this scheme which he called Khuda-ki-Basti in the city and saw the successful outcomes. The plan is simple. The city government should only charge people what they can afford for a residential plot and the charges must be received in instalments over the course of several years. The slum dwellers would then be required to construct their own homes and at the beginning receive most basic of amenities.Only when they are able to pay for more services should they receive a gas,electricity and sewerage connection. Most significantly, they’d also get the ownership documents of their houses. The plan is quite simple, effective, and beneficial for all stakeholders and avoids red tape. In short it is a win-win situation. However, in our case the implementation of the plan is contingent upon the seriousness and commitment of CDA and Federal government both of whom appear non-serious about resolving the grave issues faced by slum dwellers (Siddiqui, 2014).


The issue of slums in Islamabad cannot be seen in isolation from the broader issue of employment of surplus capital as elaborated by David Harvey. The capitalist elite of Islamabad desperately wants to invest their capital in the large swathes of land currently inhabited by slum dwellers so as to convert it into luxurious residential colonies, shopping malls,skyscrapers etc. The government in partnership with the capitalist class is trying hard to achieve this objective but is facing strong resistance from the slum settlers. However, if the government is serious in resolving this grave issue, then it ought to redirect the channel of capitalist investment towards lesser developed areas so that people from backward regions might be able to find employment near to their homes, thus reducing the pressure on larger cities such as Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore.


Engels,F. (1884 ). The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State .London: Penguin Classics .

Gmelch,G., & Zenner, W. (1999). Urban Life . Illinois : Waveland Press Inc.

Harvey,D. (2012). Rebel Cities . New York : Verso .

Hull, M.(2009). Uncivil Politics and the Appropriation of Planning in Islamabad.London: Routledge .

Kugelman,M. (2014). Understanding Pakistan's Unstoppable Urbanization .Washington : Wilson Center .

Morgan,L. (1877). Ancient Society . Harvard University Press .

Rehman,T. (2012). The Class Structure of Pakistan. Karachi: Oxford UniversityPress .

Siddiqui,T. (2014). Pakistan's Urbanization Challenges: Housing for the Low Income .Washington : Wilson Center.

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Written by Hassan Mujtaba

Author Information: The writer is a member of staff. Twitter : @hassanmzaidi

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