Saturday, 25 January 2014

Make Way for Cars: No Room for Khokhas

When I grew up there were small kiosks (khokhas) all over Lahore. Vendors on bicycles and on foot used to hang around our houses and schools. As kids they offered us many delights from spicy concoctions (chooran, Chaat) to wore puzzles and other toys such as tops. Craftsmanship was on offer. A spirit of entrepreneurship was displayed.

This was when the city was compact and most of us walked or biked and as a result were somewhat lean. Roads and sidewalk were lined with khokhas. The sidewalk indeed was a public space where community interaction happened. People walked, haggled and interacted.

Then came our romance with garden city suburbia. Bureaucrats, both civilian and military learnt that plotting was profitable and began a horizontal expansion of the city. To them distance did not matter since their car expense was picked up by the public sector. Besides, downtown development was theirs to stifle so that suburban values would go up. And they got those suburban plots for a song. So they could pocket huge capital gains. And tax free too!

Suburban expansion and stifled downtown development eventually fueled the demand for cars. A rent-seeking domestic industry developed to provide cars with yesterday's technology. But the people were forced to buy them as policy gave them no choice.

But cars are such a necessity in this suburban model of development that any one who can afford one has to keep one no matter how old or beat up. Or at least u need a motorbike.

As cars grew in number and suburbs spread, more and more money was spent on making roads and broadening them.

This resulted in 3 negatives for Pakistan.
  1. Valuable agricultural land developed though harnessing rivers at a huge price is being converted to housing colonies.
  2. The spread of the city has increased our car-dependence. In turn our car dependence has increased our oil bill and is rapidly increasing our environmental cost.
  3. Most importantly the car has displaced the sidewalk and the khokha.

In addition since all policymakers have free cars with chauffeurs, they have absolutely no incentive to develop public transport. Only a political leader like Shahbaz Sharif forced the issue and developed Pakistan's first post-indepcdnce public transport system in Lahore. (we used to have public transport in colonial days.

Through 3 governments, I have tried to put together a policy for khokhas and sidewalks but with little success. The bureaucrats are totally opposed to this. Unless perk/plot/protocol culture is removed they will remain wedded to cars and plots. After all they benefit directly from these.

Whenever, I go overseas, I am amazed at the opportunities that khokhas offer. Constitution avenue, the heart of Washington DC has khokhas some of them operated by Pakistanis. Right next to white house there are khokhas. Manhattan is full of them and Wall Streeters frequent some of these for a quick lunch on a nice sunny day.

The far eastern cities are littered with khokhas everywhere and shopping and eating there is a tourist attraction. They even have dedicated building with khokhas in them small stalls where poor entrepreneurs work hard to climb up the social ladder.

None of these khokhas are unattractive or filthy. The government has a regulatory and licensing framework that ensures certain quality standards. This makes visiting khokhas attractive and offers the poor opportunities for entrepreneurship.

All governments give us the usual youth and poor incentive schemes based on handouts or loans. Microcredit has mushroomed. But no one has given thought to opportunities for poor entrepreneurship. Without space to invest, what with do with an incentive or a loan.

Cities become inclusive and humane when policies like this are adopted. This is why the Framework of Economic Growth (FEG) of the Planning commission of 2011 highlighted city development.

However, this reform is quite unlikely to happen unless our city planning paradigm based on plots/perks/protocol is changed. Following the FEG, we must discontinue our suburban garden city approach to city development. But unless the system of rewarding through plots is discontinued, this will not happen. This is one of the reasons that the FEG linked civil service reform with city development.

Politicians see the vision because they know that this is a vote-getter. However, they are unable to push this bureaucracy into making the change. Now do you see why change must begin with the elimination of perks/plots/protocol.