Jewish Journal

Pakistan’s youth bulge and how size matters

by Mahim Maher

August 5, 2012 | 5:02 am

These rides cost 5 cents in Karachi and just sum up for me the entire irony of moving but staying in the same place. PHOTO: ONLINE NEWS AGENCY

Size matters, as I am keen on pointing out much to the irritation of friends outside the newsroom and reporters in it. Their snickers indicate to me that they are having non-Shariah compliant thoughts. What I am usually referring to is the size of cities, especially Karachi, which is an estimated 20 million souls spread over 3,600 sq km. This worries me.

I found out this last week that it happens to worry other people as well. I met this group of worriers in Italy at the Urban Land Institute and Citistates Group (of Neal Peirce of the Washington Post writers group) summit for four days of brainstorming on how to tackle the challenge of fast growing cities. The sexy line-up included Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, who could talk me out of my burqa and into a nun’s habit any day. He makes BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) systems sound like the highway to heaven. Except that he doesn’t like highways.

The challenge for these urban planners, CEOs, real estate managers, scholars, thinkers, innovators was how do we think about creating prosperous, opportunity-rich, sustainable cities through the lens of four critical building blocks: transportation, water, energy and public space. America is learning from its mistakes and now China is making them all over again (for eg, the Superblock).

As is usually the case, I was the least experienced person in the room, which is why I learnt more than I could contribute, but boy am I grateful. I saw that there were solutions. The crime is that Pakistani policymakers, planners and politicians are too taken up with the power struggle to actually look beyond their noses and into the faces of the people of Pakistan. Listening to these experts in Italy freed me from the despair that had grown over the last decade from trying to cover a city like Karachi with all its attendant horrors.

While not all solutions can be easily applied to Karachi, it became more and more clear to me that unless we start acting now, we will be looking at another wave of crisis in the next 50 years. And this will matter beyond our borders.

For example, the Election Commission of Pakistan released data on Saturday about the country’s electoral rolls and while we sort of always knew this, it was still a wake-up call to see that almost half of all registered voters (84.3million) are below the age of 35 years. A research group just said that 60% of Pakistan’s population is under 30 years old and if we don’t make sure jobs are there for them, “anarchy” could be unleashed. We are facing a youth bulge.

The numbers are there, staring us in the face and they are translating into rapid growth of cities such as Karachi. To give you an idea of an emerging problem, 600 cars are added to Karachi’s roads each day thanks to population growth and the ever so helpful banks whose new religion is consumer financing. (Although this is, I am told, waning). If we don’t need mass transit, then I don’t know who qualifies.

ULI/Citistates gave me hope because real practitioners explained how they did it in their cities. So for example, Penalosa explained that in Bogota they went to the existing bus drivers and owners and invited them to run the new BRT buses so they wouldn’t be rendered unemployed. In Karachi our mass transit has been pretty much held hostage to the private minibus network or transport mafia (union says we have 18,000 buses). What if we went to them and said they dump their old buses and come to buy and run the new BRT ones? This would involve a government subsidy and the existing drivers (most of who fall in the youth bulge) would need a massive reeducation and training retrofit. But we should be able to do it because Japan is footing the bill for
the new BRT system and Rs500m has been set aside by the provincial government. A World Bank expert, Ellen Hamilton, a Lead Land and Housing specialist, explained to me that in some of their projects the capacity building was the cheapest part.

I do believe that the youth bulge is strongly linked to extremism but understand that this can be a tenuous argument. I was reading Khaled Ahmed today in The Express Tribune’s opinion pages and he pointed out something quite basic: Violence is known to spring in primitive societies. This has compelled some sociologist to say that extremist personalities are usually possessed of low IQs. Pakistan has some level of literacy but here one must note that in 1947, when literacy was 17%, people were more tolerant; today, with literacy at over 60%, Pakistanis have embraced extremist views.

As our cities grow and our youth bulge manifests itself, Pakistan will have to spend more time focusing on the education of its young people, not just for jobs but for the welfare of society. As our population grows are we going to be able to provide an education system that leads to healthy and prosperous development? In a story this week in The News, it was pointed out that our education system is skewed towards the rich. So the average labourer is not able to afford an English-medium school for his children (if this is a benchmark). I’m not sure that O’ and A’ Level schools that run on the GCE/UK system and charge Rs10,000/month in tuition ($100) are creating better citizens than a madrassa that charges nothing and in fact provides room and board along with a religious education. But I do know that NOT ENOUGH of our youth are getting a good high school education in any of the systems. The ones who are privileged to make it to top notch universities usually leave the country. This brain drain means that we don’t have enough new leaders to help us cope with urban growth.

I realize this blog is a little all over the place but I myself am on a journey of discovery these days. When I read back up the page I see that I started off in a happy mood and by the time I reached the bottom the old despair had crept up again. Perhaps what I need is to do what a lot of privileged young women are doing here instead of using their brains; just decide that size doesn’t matter unless it’s of the diamond on your finger and that it’s better to just sit at home, not read the newspaper and pretend that everything will be ok. Perhaps I need to just sit back and hope that the millions of youth (40m of 18-35 year olds) who have registered to vote will show that their future matters.

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I am a 33-year-old journalist in Karachi, Pakistan where I work as the city or metropolitan editor for The Express Tribune, a daily national newspaper in English affiliated...

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