OP-ED: What’s happening in small towns? —Anjum Altaf
We recognise that our initial perceptions could be entirely misplaced. We could also be right for the wrong reasons, and the results of the study may surprise us and force us to modify our hypotheses
Either a great deal or nothing at all is happening in small towns, depending on how one looks at them.
At the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) we are preparing a study to find out. We believe the study would benefit from comments and suggestions of individuals with firsthand experience of small towns. To invite feedback from interested readers, I am describing here our initial hypotheses, the issues we propose to investigate, and the methods we plan to employ.
In a nutshell, we want to verify if small towns have declined economically and become socially more conservative, and if so, whether these changes can be linked to an increase in religious extremism. We also want to identify small towns where changes might not have taken these forms and to understand the reasons for the differences.
Our starting hypothesis is that the economic function of small towns has changed significantly. Previously, many of them were busy market (mandi) towns serving as points of interaction between rural hinterlands and larger commercial centres. Dramatic improvements in transport and communications have eroded the importance of this function. Agents in rural areas can now be in direct touch with their counterparts in the big cities, and transportation is fast, cheap, and efficient enough to eliminate the need for intermediate transaction points. The net result is that the ‘footprint’ of the big city has become much larger and it has taken over many of the economic functions of a small town.
Internet-based technologies are further enlarging the reach of the big city. A pointer to the future is the emergence in India of a service called ‘e-choupal’ which creates a direct marketing chain between the village and the big city. Its advantage is claimed to be the elimination of wasteful intermediation and multiple handling, thereby reducing transaction costs.
This is a process similar to the one that occurred in Western economies over the last century. However, there, as a result of economic growth, small towns developed new economic functions to replace those they had lost. In particular, as the costs of land and labour rose in the big cities, many industries moved out and relocated in the less expensive small towns. This has happened here to some extent around Faisalabad, Gujranwala and Sialkot, for example. But in Pakistan, the past quarter-century has been characterised by economic stagnation, and this relocation has not been widespread enough. On balance, small towns seem to have lost more economic functions than they have gained.
Advances in communication and transport have also had an impact on the social fabric of small towns. Small town elites formerly comprised property owners who used their power to obtain public funds for improvements in local living conditions, e.g., roads, schools, clinics, etc. But technological advances have now made it possible for these elites to continue doing business in small towns while moving to live in bigger cities where better services and opportunities are available for themselves and their children. Their interest in the social improvement of small towns is thereby diminished considerably.
We hypothesise that the vacuum created by the social withdrawal of the economically productive, property-owning elite has been filled by the emergence of a professional religious class. Over the last quarter century or so, these new ‘elites’ have been able to channel zakat funds into the promotion of religious education and institutions, primarily madrassahs. The central ideas that motivate social behaviour and political action in small towns are now largely religious, not economic.
The unemployment stemming from the economic decline of small towns has been exacerbated by the increased supply of unemployable youth graduating from madrassahs. This supply is the consequence of a major human-capital development programme that has, by now, produced graduates numbering in the millions. This bulge of unemployable youth has, in turn, increased pressures for injecting more religious content into the institutions of society to provide some kind of employment opportunity for graduates with religious qualifications. Social improvement is now sought increasingly through governance based on religion rather than through old-fashioned economic development.
We intend to test these hypotheses first in the Punjab in small towns up to a population size of about 200,000. Later, the research will extend in two directions: covering the other provinces and exploring more explicitly the economic and social linkages between small towns and big cities. Eventually, we plan to add a module yielding comparisons across a number of Asian countries.
Given the absence of prior research, we will begin our investigations by using an anthropological approach. Field workers would live in the selected towns for extended periods and interact with knowledgeable persons to piece together an account of the changes that have taken place in these towns over the last quarter-century. Quantitative data would then be gathered to support the key findings.
We recognise that our initial perceptions could be entirely misplaced. We could also be right for the wrong reasons, and the results of the study may surprise us and force us to modify our hypotheses. Still, we believe this work is needed because very little systematic research is available on what has been happening in the small towns of Pakistan.
Small towns can make a significant contribution to economic development. We know from published research that town and village enterprises have been a major component of the dramatic economic growth in China over the last quarter-century. By contrast, we have not come across any vision statement regarding the role small towns are expected to play in the future development of Pakistan or about the public policy initiatives needed for that purpose. To develop such a vision, we first need to find out what has been happening in small towns over the recent past. This is the motivation for the proposed research.
The author is a Visiting Fellow at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad. The proposed study is yet to be approved by the institute. Please email comments to email@example.com or mail them to PO Box 2342, Islamabad