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A Ticking Time Bomb?
On October 17, 2018, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) released its report on world population trends. Titled “The Power of Choice: Reproductive Rights and the Demographic Transition,” the report suggests that the world population is growing at an exponential rate and it is highly likely that this growth will outstrip its development gains. The report has also revealed that Pakistan is the fifth most populous country in the world, with 208 million people and an annual population growth rate of 2.4 percent. It is flabbergasting that the country’s population is projected to increase to 285 million by 2030 and, at the present rate, will be doubled in the next 30 years, when compared with the normal time of 60 years for other South Asian countries.
Pakistan is the fifth most populous country in the world with 208 million people and a population growth rate of 2.4 percent per year. The growing population is likely to outstrip developmental gains and continue to adversely affect the economy, environment, health, education and quality of life of all citizens.
This is the crux of the report titled “The State of World Population 2018,” published by the UNFPA. The report warns that Pakistan’s population annual growth rate of 2.4 percent could overtake any developmental gains the country is able to make.
For Pakistan, population growth at the rate of 2.4 percent has eroded fruits of higher economic growth. In a ‘capital poor’ and technologically backward country, rapid growth of population reduces output by lowering the per capita availability of capital and diminishes the availability of capital per head which reduces the productivity of labour force. As a result, income is reduced and capacity to savings is diminished which, in turn, adversely affects capital formation. Due to higher population growth rate, investment requirements are beyond the investing capacity in the country. Rapid growth in population increases the requirements of demographic investment which at the same time reduces the capacity of the people to save. This creates a serious imbalance between investment requirements and the availability of investible funds, hence the entire investment is absorbed by demographic investment and nothing is left for economic development.
In 1950, Pakistan was a nation of 33 million people and it was 14th in the world. Today, the population has touched the 208 million mark and continues to grow at an exponential rate of 2.4 percent. We are now the 5th most populous country after China, India, USA and Indonesia.
As to why Pakistan has come to such a sorry pass there are multiple causes, the most telling being poverty, poor contraceptive use, high unmet need of family planning, high fertility and declining mortality, gender-based discrimination, son preference, early marriages and sociocultural and religious taboos.
Read More: THE POPULATION BOMB
Successive governments in Pakistan have failed to frame necessary policies and undertake pragmatic measures to educate the people in this respect, both in providing adequate health facilities to degrade infantile mortality rate and improve the chances of survival of newborn babies. There was a family planning programme as long ago as 1950. But it was only trickery then, as it is today. It was taboo to exhibit birth-control devices then and today the situation is even worse. The contraceptives were sold under the table then and so is the case now. Recall the indecent haste with which an ad on a television channel campaign supporting use of contraceptives was withdrawn. And since then such ads are taboo on public media. The opposition to the use of contraceptives stems from the misperception that has been put forward by religious circles that the said device is programmed by anti-Islam forces who want to keep a check on growth of Muslim population in the world.
A Security Threat
The higher rate of population growth is fast outstripping our national resources, a sorry state which tends to promote among the masses a sense of deprivation and provokes them to change the system by use of force.
Since high population growth is a major destabilising factor in the least developed countries, there are many examples to show that tensions leading up to conflict may have been heightened by demographic pressures. A study conducted by Population Action International shows that about 80 percent of the world’s civil conflicts since the 1970s have occurred in countries with young, fast-growing populations.
High population growth rate and a huge youth bulge have created an extremely dangerous situation for Pakistan. We could have used our demographic power to turn around the country’s economy, but with little investment in education and slow economic growth, the youth bulge is fast becoming a liability and serious threat to the country’s internal security.
The inability of the state to productively utilise a large young generation has already turned the country into a breeding ground for violent extremism, and could cause further social dislocation and conflict. This runaway population growth has created vast ranks of restless young men with few prospects and little to lose. Their frustrated ambitions can be an explosive force. More troubling is that there is no realisation about this lurking threat.
The gravity of the situation can be assessed by the fact that 32 percent of our young generation is illiterate and the majority of the others are school dropouts. Pakistan’s spending on education is around 2 percent of the GDP. The poor quality of education hardly equips the youth to face the challenges of the globalised world they live in, further pushing them towards isolation.
Furthermore, the widening social, cultural and economic divide has made the less advantaged youth receptive to extremism and violence. It has created a mindset that facilitates a militant agenda. Many studies have shown that there is a direct link between religious extremism and social and economic marginalisation.
It is a nightmare scenario fast unfolding. Firm and decisive action is needed to contain the population explosion before it is too late.
An oversized population generates pressure on existing resources. The resource-constraint subsequently results in the joblessness of the youth. From unemployment emanates despondency and unrest leading to social problems including family distress. Stressful life more often than not renders one criminally deviant. This is how a multidirectional degeneration takes place in society.
Given that in Pakistan today more than half of the population is under 20, meeting their need for job and work would be a huge challenge for any future government.
Required Structural Changes
Amartya Sen points out that economic and social development is associated with smaller families and indeed, global evidence shows that if both parents are earning stable livelihoods with prospects of upward social mobility, they tend to have fewer children to enhance household savings and living standards. The government must, therefore, invest in a nationwide skills development programme, targeting a variety of vocations to enhance employability and also encourage women through soft loans to earn livelihoods both within and outside their homes. In addition, rural uplift schemes may be considered to reduce rural poverty through such approaches as the One Village, One Product scheme adopted in Japan and Thailand that helped rural communities to manufacture unique products with a strong market appeal.
Fertility rates tend to be high in agrarian societies such as ours, where entire families earn their livelihood by contributing labour. For a lasting boost to our economy and alleviation of poverty, we must plan for diversifying our economic base to introduce value addition to our agricultural produce through industrialisation and a shift towards manufacturing.
Apart from economic measures, an important sector for action is education, especially girls’ education, which exerts a potent influence on demand for family planning. The provincial governments must ensure that Article 25A of the Constitution, which stipulates free and compulsory education, is fully enforced by providing the infrastructure for affordable education for both boys and girls. It is also important to fully implement the anti-child labour laws, because as long as it is possible for children to be employed, they will remain economically lucrative to poorer families.
The Way Forward
The best time to undertake the task of educating people in family planning was the early years of our national independence; the second best is now. The consequences of further delay will be disastrous. Economic and social problems faced by the country cannot be dealt with effectively unless population growth is brought under control.
While reproductive health has improved dramatically across the world since 1994 and the International Conference on Population and Development, Pakistan still lags behind. It has been suggested that making far greater efforts to provide universal access to healthcare, ensuring better education, raising awareness at all levels and advocating for a change in attitudes may help Pakistan meet its population goals. At present, statistics show that women are eager to have greater control over family size and also access to affordable childcare and education for their children. This is a dilemma Pakistan has been struggling with for a very long time. Nations all around us have been able to push down population growth and thereby create for themselves the possibility of a better future. Our failure in this respect has potentially grave consequences and needs to be addressed on a priority basis.
The PTI government seems committed to improving the quality of life of the ordinary people. One big step in that direction is the birth control, both by creating public awareness on the need to plan the family and by putting in place real, effective and easily accessible wherewithal to achieve that objective. And no less crucially the government should initiate a dialogue with the religious leadership and the so-called custodians of our traditional and cultural norms to concede space to various governmental and non-governmental agencies to popularize use of family planning devices.
Population Growth and Poverty
Pakistan’s exploding population, like its sharply declining water resources, is a red flag that can turn into an existential threat in the future, but the approach of successive governments, political parties and a myriad of concerned departments has been, and still remains. one of ‘seeing but not perceiving’, and ‘hearing but not heeding’, resulting in the present gravity of the situation. The CJP has already highlighted the water scarcity issue, which has raised public awareness, if not so far redoubled government efforts for building dams and reservoirs for storage of the precious life-bestowing liquid. Now the same crusading spirit has been carried over to the country’s population boom, or rather ‘bust’, in a suo moto case taken up by a three-member Supreme Court bench, in which major stakeholders duly participate, to reduce the galloping birth rate which practically wipes out the positive impact of any economic gains, and adversely affects human development indicators, particularly in the education, employment and health sectors.
The apex court’s primary concerns are government’s formulation of a uniform and effective population control policy encompassing the entire country, tackling the uphill task on a war-footing, and so on a hearing, a list of recommendations for Council of Common Interests approval within 10 days was presented, which included establishment of provincial/federal task force, family planning initiatives, apart from holding a public awareness seminar soon. Muslim countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh and Iran have successfully curbed their populations by emphasising the economic and social benefits of a small family from mosque pulpits. Pakistan, too, needs to invest in educating the parents, starting right down from the welfare and health centres. Pakistan’s present population of 208 million and annual growth rate of 2.4 percent will turn it into the world’s fourth populous country by 2030, a dubious distinction considering its lack of resources, its 147th ranking in Human Development Index, abysmal literacy rate of 58 percent and fear of mass unemployment among youth, which now constitutes 60 percent of the population. An interesting aspect of the equation is that economic prosperity often tends to bring about a corresponding decline in fertility rates, while China’s extreme One-Child Policy (from 1980-2016) has played a not inconsiderable role in its rapid economic rise.