The fast-growing population of Pakistan poses the most potent threat to the well-being of its people and the integrity of the state. Despite the lurking danger, there is hardly any realisation of this non-conventional threat. At the individual level and in meetings and conferences or in articles this danger is being raised by sane voices. Among the most articulate and forceful voice on the subject is that of Dr Zeba Sathar, the country director of the Population Council. Dr Sania Nishtar is another powerful voice that has passionately promoted healthcare and the importance of population control. There have been a few other prominent figures mostly among women. It is not surprising that there are relatively fewer names of men that have contributed to the cause of population control in the civil society or from among politicians, apart from a few exceptions.
As evidence demonstrates politicians’ nonchalant attitude towards this vital subject has more to do with our masculine culture. Consequently, population control is not receiving the attention it deserves. This indifference is also linked to weak institutional capacity and insufficient commitment of the government. It is reflected in the unprofessional posting of bureaucrats to the Population Division more as punishment rather than on the basis of suitability or performance. Lack of commitment and inadequate capacity have been the general pattern while dealing with this fundamental government responsibility. To achieve results the government has to market population control to its people, but so far successive governments have been at best half-hearted in their endeavour. Lately, the government involved eminent Ulema, realising that religion plays a pivotal role in influencing people on this subject. They enumerated the benefits of a small family and tried to convey on the electronic media that Islam does not stand in any way in healthy family planning. It was a good initiative but cannot be a one-off. For it has to be more consistent, at frequent intervals and especially during the Friday sermons. Self-example by leaders of all hues having small families would be ideal in motivating the masses.
There is poor coordination between the federal and provincial governments and there is a tendency to work in compartments. Population should be the high priority item on the agenda of Council of Common Interests where the body should periodically appraise progress and facilitate coordination. Moreover, the government should change its strategy by focusing on outcomes rather than inputs.
Experts suggest that provincial allocations for population control should be on the basis of results. The proposal may not be that easy to implement but is certainly worth examining. Parliament also needs to look at the fact that provinces in which population has decreased do not suffer by reduction in their representation in the National Assembly. There should be a grace period of five to 10 years so that this does not act as a disincentive and a reward for those who keep on increasing their population. Nonetheless, there is a better return in reducing population in the longer term in fighting poverty and improving quality of life. Politicisation of the census is clearly not in the interest of the country, which can be avoided provided the political parties adhere to a higher value system.
Population control is a cross-sectorial and cross-institutional subject and to effectively reduce the population the government will have to create a different environment. More importantly, population control has to be devolved to the district level and local governments should play a major role in cities.
Even if Pakistan was able to take effective measures for population control it would still take years before we could see the results. Meanwhile, the government should have a comprehensive plan to deal with this challenge by educating our youth on modern lines and creating skills that are relevant in this technological world. This will prepare them for finding jobs abroad for Pakistan’s economy even at an enhanced growth rate will not be able to absorb the ballooning population.
The government’s commitment to spread literacy and improve standards of education will provide the greatest fillip to population control. In this the education of girls should receive a higher priority. The impact of an educated mother extends to a far larger circle of the family than that of the father with obvious gains in controlling population and achieving other social benefits. There is a correlation between spread and quality of education and population reduction as is evident from the experience of South Korea and Singapore. By contrast, in underdeveloped countries such as ours, children especially boys are considered a resource. With introduction of mechanised farming and higher level of technological and scientific base this motivation could subside. Furthermore, the current food and agricultural systems are depleting that demand better resource mobilisation.
Considering the quality of discourse of the politicians, it is unlikely that serious issues like population control or climate change that have a long-term impact will be raised during electioneering. Probably, these will end up merely in the form of few paragraphs in their respective election manifestos. Although there is no better time than the election time when people are the focus and centre stage to spread the message of population control.
While looking at population trends of various countries, I found that those countries that recently had a troubled internal security situation like Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and East Timor experienced the highest increase in population. This raises the question that anarchic conditions probably do indirectly influence population trends as governments and individuals have other priorities. Millions of displaced persons living in refugee camps and influx of people from other troubled regions could be another contributing factor. Absence of entertainment facilities and their impact on population trends needs to be examined.
For Pakistan an unchecked population growth that specialists’ project will reach over 400 million in the next 25 years poses the greatest security threat apart from its other deleterious effects. Our leaders can only be oblivious to this challenge at the peril of future generations.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 25th, 2018.