Experiencing Rural-Urban Transformation in Lahore
In conventional accounts of rural-urban transformation, both popular and academic, three major narratives can be traced. In one narrative, rural-urban transformation appears as a story of modernization – the coming of modernity and progress to the lives of otherwise destitute people residing in backward rural areas. In this view, urbanization is seen as an opportunity for the rural classes to achieve social mobility and compete with the urban middle classes. In another narrative, the story of rural-urban transformation is essentially a tragic one – of the loss of a calm, pure, provincial life to speed, chaos and pollution which characterizes urban life. This is of course accompanied by references to a nostalgic past where life was simpler and slower and is usually, though not always, a view expressed by former rural dwellers themselves. In yet a third narrative , the transformation presents itself as exploitation – ‘accumulation by dispossession’ as Geographer David Harvey terms it – through which rural frontiers are siphoned into the folds of capital. In such a schema, rural-urban transformation appears as a fundamentally unequal process benefitting one class over the other.
In each of the three narratives outlined above, certain claims about how the transformation is experienced by the rural dwellers are laid. Yet, contrary to these competing big narratives, our field work in Lahore’s villages has only confirmed to us the heterogeneity of the experiences of rural-urban transformation. When observed up close, one realizes that not only do the experiences of rural-urban transformation differ across classes and geographies, but also the values which people ascribe to different aspects of this change differ. Put another way, it becomes clear that different people in the village value different aspects of this transformation, and thus no singular meta narrative can be discerned. For any one person, both positive and negative aspects of the transformation would be apparent, and it is in the grey areas of ambivalence that change is actually experienced. This blog, then, is an attempt at mapping some of these varied experiences and the values they are rooted in. More than presenting an alternate theory of the experience of rural-urban transformation, the hope here is to chart out the varied experiences of the multiple actors which inhabit the theatre we find ourselves in, and the values in which these experiences are rooted.
On our first visit to Sheikh Kot, we met Talha*, owner of a small general store on the side of the village furthest from Bahria Town, the housing society which had populated next to the village. Since Talha and his family had no agricultural land in the village – which would’ve meant that he had received money from Bahria Town in exchange for his land – we expected him to express disdain at Bahria sprouting up on the village’s land. But when we put this very question to him, his response was surprisingly positive. “We are pretty happy with Bahria coming in”, he told us. “It has raised the value of our houses and brought us great malls such as Imtiaz and Al-Fatah (both chains of local supermarkets)”, he continued; “what else could we have asked for”. Quite similar were the sentiments of two elderly men, Bashir* and Ashraf*, smoking hookah right next to an open sewage line in the village. “The arrival of Bahria has brought wellbeing to our people”, Bashir told us. “Personally, our jobs have ended and we spend our days sitting here”, explained Ashraf, “but in turn our children have found better jobs which can sustain us, not to mention that now there are hospitals, markets, roads all around us which we can use”.
Sheikh Kot is a village towards the south-west of Lahore. Named Ramkot before partition, the village is now surrounded by Bahria Town on one side and by Sui Gas Society, Phase 2 on the other.
For all three men discussed above, the rural-urban transformation they experienced spelled good news, based on the access to grid they have now attained in the form of markets, roads, hospitals, etc. Neither are they alone in this: for a significant number of villagers in the field sites we visited, housing society model of urbanization is fruitful precisely due to ‘opportunities’ for the villagers which accompanies it. While cash income was sparse in the earlier setup of economy, now they had available to themselves a larger variety of commodities to purchase and the ability to get them. Bashir and Ashraf even used this to pose a critique of those who presented the village past as some superlative reality. Asked if they sometimes reminisced about the past bygone, Bashir chuckled, “people from our class had to toil then, they have to toil now. Only the form has changed, not the fate. Now at least we can have goods and services we didn’t earlier”. Note that for Bashir and Ashraf, even the loss of their source of livelihood does not tarnish their positive evaluation of urbanization.
Yet, even for this same set of people, this very opportunity spells precarity too: now they have to be reliant on uncertain market conditions to make ends meet. In our conversation with Ali*, a shop keeper in Sheikh Kot, he lamented that earlier everyone in the village had access to wheat and food, despite if they were landowners or landless, if they were poor or rich. This was of course due to the nature of the village economy, in which almost everyone was previously involved. Now, though, as the agricultural land became housing society and village residents had to rely on the labour market to make a living, precarity set in. One could not be sure of how long their current source of livelihood would last, and skills would get obsolete really quick. While the quality of life – on some abstract level – might’ve improved, it was accompanied by the fundamental uncertainty of devising how a living is to be made, and whether that’ll continue.
Marketization, though, is a complex phenomenon. There’s also a major group who view urbanization as positive development due to the increase in value of their land it brought along. Take Abdul Aleem* for example, a 78-year-old man from Harpalke for whom the prospect of getting tens of millions in exchange for his par-acre land is exciting. Asked what he thinks of DHA next door, Abdul Aleem expressed gratitude: “thankfully DHA has come so our lands have attained value. The land which was worth merely 3 lac 15 years earlier is worth 10 crores now; our fortunes have changed”. Abdul Aleem is just one of a number of landowners who still hold piece of land in Harpalke village. Another, Shehbaz*, told us that DHA is offering 25 crore rupees for one acre of his land (he owns four acres)! For many of these landowners, big and small, the overnight escalation of the land’s value has been a harbinger of wealth and material prosperity they would’ve never in their wildest imagined to be theirs. Aware of the importance of economic capital in this day and age, it’s of no surprise that the residents are glad to have such capital in possession.
Harpalke, originally a Sikh village, is towards the west of Lahore. It is surrounded by several housing societies like Formanite society, Askari 11 and DHA Phase 9. Acquisition for the latter is still ongoing.
Not all is about market and value, though. Some see the hazards of urbanization as outweighing its benefits, focusing on things such as the depleting water table and the impact on health of the dismal state of sewage in the area. Abeera Bibi*, a longstanding resident of Sheikh Kot visit expressed her dismay at the health and environmental hazards which plagued her village. “There is no sewage system and the water is all polluted. We recently did water boring and got clean water at 700 ft! Kids of the area are sick all the time and no one in the government bats an eye”. Similarly, Iqbal* from Charrar village lamented the broken sewage lines which have caused a plethora of health and safety related issues in the residents of the area. “DHA has come here as a tormentor: we and our kids are living in our faeces and drinking poisonous water while outside [in DHA] every luxurious service of the world is available. What justice is this?” Water testing from the area confirms that numerous toxins are present in the water.
There’s also another angle: for some, urbanization presents itself as a moral problem. Haji sb*, a major landowner from Sheikh Kot village, when asked about the impact of urbanization, retorted, “First of all it has lead to moral decay of our village. Where people used to sleep after the night prayer (around 9pm) and wake up at the time of the morning prayer (around 4.30am), now they do all kinds of sinful things at night and sleep through the day”. Another notable person, Chaudhry sb* from Charrar village explained: “earlier the mosque used to be full of worshippers at the morning prayer. Young and old, all used to come there before going about their day. Now people are into all sorts of vices and only the very old can be spotted in the mosques even for the midday prayers”. “Life here has really transformed”, he sighed. An interesting thing to note here is that most of the people who expressed such concern were those who owned significant areas of land and hence, were comfortably well off even after the housing societies came in. Whether such a sentiment is due to/is rooted in class experience remains yet to be seen.
Charrar, another formerly Sikh village, is surrounded on all sides by DHA’s phase 1 to 4. In fact, it was on Charrar’s land that the development of DHA (then Civil and Defense Housing Society) started in 1973.
In this blog, I have attempted to map the different ways in which rural-urban transformation was experienced by our interlocutors in the three villages of Charrar, Sheikh Kot and Harpalke. Perusing these landscapes, we come across individuals situated across class and geographic boundaries navigating the transformation through their own frames of reference. In turning the lens to the actors themselves rather than seeing through ideological frameworks formulated elsewhere, it is hoped that a more grounded understanding of urbanization in the global south can be reached.
* All names have been changed due to privacy concerns.
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