Provincial Minister for Population Welfare, Punjab
Rapid population growth is, indubitably, the most daunting challenge Pakistan is faced with today. Since Punjab hosts near half the population of Pakistan, no policy and initiative can be successful unless the provincial government of Punjab spearheads all those efforts. Jahangir’s World Times (JWT) recently had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Lt Col (Retd) Muhammad Hashim Dogar, Provincial Minister for Population Welfare, Punjab. The honourable minister is a very dynamic personality and has some ingenious plans for converting the population of the province into a boon from a bane. Here are some snippets from the conversation we had with him:
Jahangir’s World Times (JWT): Since Punjab hosts almost half the population of Pakistan, what have been the government policies to control the population of the province? Why they failed to produce substantial results as we still see Punjab facing numerous problems in this sector?
Lt Col (Retd) Muhammad Hashim Dogar (MHD): The policies to control population have been formulated in the past, but on the front of their execution, no real efforts have been put in. It doesn’t sound good if I say the previous government didn’t give a damn care to this sector, but it is the reality, and I was really shocked that the issue of burgeoning population was not among the priorities of the previous government.
Second, I strongly believe that instead of wasting our resources and energies on carving out measures to control population, we should prioritize population management. And, I say it on the basis of evidence from countries like China. As you know, China adopted a strict one-child policy to control population. Although they were successful in achieving goals they had set, yet its ramifications have been detrimental in the long run. For instance, most of the Chinese people don’t harbour a desire anymore to produce more children. That is why a large chunk of Chinese population now consists of people in a ripe age of 50-60 years. It, in effect, means that they don’t have a large youth population which can play a critical role in a country’s development. That is the reason why the Chinese government had to review this policy, a few years ago, and to allow people to have more children. So, learning from the Chinese experience, I believe population management must be our top priority.
Actually, it is also important given the fact that people belonging in the age bracket of 18-60 years are counted as working-age population as only they are considered able to do some productive work and contribute toward national development. So, on our part, we are going to focus through our policies, and efforts thereupon, on harnessing the talents and skills of our youth as we, by the grace of Allah Almighty, are among the nations that have the highest ratio of young population. It must also be recognized and acknowledged that if we want to keep on making the most of this blessing, providing our children, right from the birth, with nutritious diet is inevitable. It is the only way we can ensure that they do not have stunted growth, and grow up with excellent physical as well as mental abilities.
We commonly observe that only those families have a greater number of children that are already living a life of poverty and want, and are, thus, unable to provide their children with proper, nutritious diet. Whereas the families that can afford that provision usually have 2-3 children. This has had huge implications on our society. So, keeping in view all these facts, right from the day I assumed charge as Minister for Population Welfare, I and my team have set our goals and we are vigorously working on formulating pragmatic policies with population management as their mainstay.
JWT: As you just mentioned that you will prioritize ‘population management’, how it is different from population control? And, what progress have you made on this front so far?
MHD: In order to explain both these terms, I would cite here again the China model of population control. As a result of China’s one-child policy, i.e. people can have only one child, the biggest challenge they are facing now is that they do not have a large young or working-age population that is indispensable to keeping China on the path of industrial development and socioeconomic growth. That is why they have reviewed this policy. This was population control. However, on the other hand, population management means properly channelling the capabilities and potentials of a growing population in the right direction; rather than forcing people to have fewer children. For that purpose, we are drafting a policy whereby we will put in all-out efforts to create awareness among the people that they may have as many children as they want but they should also keep a safe inter-pregnancey gap.
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You know, it has been ordained in the holy Quran that mothers should breastfeed their children for at least two years. And, when we will follow this Quranic injunction, which is full of wisdom and sagacity, in letter and spirit, the number of children will naturally remain limited and both the mother and the child will enjoy a healthy life. A bill to enhance the minimum age of marriage from the current sixteen years to eighteen years is also in the offing. Its implementation will result in fewer but healthy children, and parents will also be able to give their children as best parenting as they could. In this way, children will grow up in a healthy environment and, hence, will be better able in their future life to work more and more and contribute to national development in all spheres; ranging from economy to education to health and so on.
JWT: But, the most critical issue is the lack of awareness among our people as to what could be the consequences of getting their kids married early. What are some measures you will be actually taking to create that much-needed awareness in the society?
MHD: Very good and very pertinent question, indeed! Look, for that purpose, we are going to work on a three-pronged strategy.
First of all, we will make this issue a part of curriculum at school and college level. Since we have our own set of societal and religious values, wherein imparting such information to kids is considered inappropriate – rather a taboo – therefore, keeping these values in mind, we will indirectly teach them by illuminating them as to how important and crucial is good health to leading a healthy, prosperous life.
Secondly, we are taking noted ulema and religious scholars on board. They will enlighten people, from a religious viewpoint, on the importance of keeping a safe gap between the births of two children. We, as Muslims, have a profound belief that every child born on this earth brings its sustenance with itself. But, we unfortunately forget that Allah Almighty has ordained us also to bring up our children as best as we can. In this scenario, isn’t it baffling that an approximate 2.2 million children in Pakistan are born with various diseases and ailments? The growth of these children remains stunted and they become a liability not only for their parents but also for the state that has to spend huge amounts on providing them with medical care throughout their life. And, when these kids will grow up and marry, their own children will also be, just like them, a liability. So, we will organize seminars, conferences and other such activities at district level in which heads of educational institutions in that district, government officials, civil society representatives, in fine, people from all walks of life will participate. Revered scholars will apprise people of true spirit of Islamic teachings that are full of wisdom and sagacity. One such seminar has already been held in Sheikhupura district. In the near future, I will be personally visiting at least four districts of Punjab a week to monitor these activities.
JWT: Since there are different religious sects in our society and almost all of them have different interpretations of religious injunctions, taking known scholars and ulema on board will definitely create a good impact. So, why not rope in local prayer leaders and ulema and ask them to apprise people of true Islamic teachings after every prayer and in Friday sermons, because, they are the people who interact with common people the most ?
MHD: I am not in a position right now to divulge the details of our upcoming policies; however, I must tell you that I met the honourable Chief Minister Sardar Usman Buzdar a couple of days ago and presented him some plans. He has graciously assented to those. We have actually planned to engage and rope in more and more ulema and prayer leaders in this noble mission. As far as the issue of different inter-pretations is concerned, we have also held detailed discussions with notables of various sects and, quite encouragingly, none of them opposed our plans; rather they all assured their full support and cooperation in this regard. It is because we are not forcing people to have fewer children, we are instead emphasizing that it must be ensured that the child at the time of birth is completely healthy and gets proper upbringing in later life.
Here I would like to quote the example of a woman I met a few days back. She was emaciated and lean just like a skeleton. I was told that she had been married for twelve years. During this period, she gave birth to eight girls and was expecting the ninth child soon. She had an ultrasound which revealed that the next child will also be a girl. Would you believe that upon hearing this news, her husband not only beat her but also expelled her from his house along with her eight daughters? More distressing is the fact that none of those eight girls was enrolled at a school. What sin those innocent girls had committed? Actually they appear to be innocent little girls who, in the words of Shakespeare, “more sinned against than sinning.”
We have to educate our people on that, and for this purpose, we are bringing legislation under which the person who commits violence against his wife for bearing girls will be nabbed and put behind the bars. We will not, at all, tolerate this cruelty and inhumaneness in any circumstances.
JWT: Experts have a consensus opinion that no policy, howsoever strong and pragmatic it may be, can produce tangible results unless women are really empowered. The incident you quoted also points to this need. So what, in your opinion, are the basic ingredients of women empowerment in our typically patriarchal society?
MHD: The only panacea is the promotion of education! When women will be educated and empowered, they will definitely play a constructive role in socioeconomic development of the country. What actually happens in our society is that when a girl reaches the age of 16 years and her parents find a good match, they prefer to get her married, depriving her of the education she was getting. When this age limit will be enhanced to 18 years, girls will definitely get more chances to acquire higher education at least up to graduation level.
Secondly, there is no denying the fact that our women are blessed with excellent qualities and abilities of head and heart. For instance, the current Deputy Commissioner of my district is a woman – and a highly talented one. I have interacted with many of her male predecessors but I can assure you that the vigilance, honesty and skill with which she is performing her job is unprecedented.
So, it’s a good omen that the level of awareness is rising, and people now encourage their daughters to acquire education. That’s why we now see numerous women performing duties in all sectors, particularly in health and education with great devotion.
We are also going to introduce a bill whereby education of girls will be made obligatory and those who would not get their daughters enrolled at a school will be dealt with an iron hand and even FIRs will be lodged against them. As I said earlier, if we prioritize girls’ education, all problems will be solved within no time.
One thing I would like to especially add here is that our leader Imran Khan has become the Prime Minister of Pakistan only because of a high level of awareness among our youth. It is only the youth that has shaken the very basis of the two-party system that has been in place in Pakistan since decades. They have brought a revolution as we are among only those few countries where old, strongly embedded political systems have been rooted out. This all happened due to proliferation of education. So, I am absolutely confident that if we promote education in our country, our future will be bright and prosperous.
JWT: Another problem that has come to the fore with full force with population growth is that of unplanned urbanization which creates many more problems. What is Punjab government doing to counter this very critical issue?
MHD: Actually, cities grow and sprawl only when basic facilities are not provided to the people at their doorsteps, and it happens due to unequal distribution of public funds. I must say the biggest sin the previous provincial governments of Punjab committed is that they kept development limited only to a few cities and urban areas. Take, for instance, Lahore. A large number of development projects were executed in Lahore and many bridges and underpasses were built to facilitate people. But, if you go only a few kilometres from this city, you will find yourself in a place like the one during the Mughal period as the situation regarding the provision of basic civic facilities is perplexing.
In countries throughout the world, governments ensure equitable provision of basic civic facilities. There is no significant difference in rural and urban areas in these terms, and people have to move to big cities only in extraordinary circumstances.
Our government is fully cognizant of these facts and as a first step, we have planned to establish eight Education Cities in the province where medical colleges, engineering universities and other institutions of higher education will be built. Local students will have better educational facilities in their own districts and they will not be coming to big cities. People usually prefer to settle in big urban centres only because of two reasons: higher education and employment. But, when people will have these facilities in their own areas, they will, surely, prefer to stay there. It may also result in de-urbanization and it is the most pressing need of the hour. Although it’s a daunting challenge, we shall live up to it.
JWT: In the context of population management, what are some immediate steps that you will be undertaking in the near future?
MHD: I have already told you about most of them but one thing I, unfortunately, forgot is that we are working vigorously on organizing pre-marriage counselling at least for the would-be grooms. In these sessions, they will be made aware of the pros and cons of the married life and imparted various suggestions to manage financial and other issues they may face in future. They will be, then, issued a certificate that will be included as an annexure to the marriage certificate (Nikah Nama).