A s we celebrate independence and look ahead to a new government in place, there is time for reflection as to what really are the problems of our country. To some, corruption is the number one problem. Elections have been fought on this one point agenda. Elected governments have been toppled by unelected ones. And yet, are we ignoring bigger issues? Last week I was asked by the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) to give a talk to Sindh-based lecturers of public sector universities on the novel topic of Media and Democracy. In this, I was asked by one lecturer of what I thought were Pakistan’s five main challenges. In my humble opinion, I replied, I do not think corruption is one of them. Granted it is a problem, I think it is a symptom of a larger malaise – the lack of accountability, rule of law and proper governance. For me the five main challenges for Pakistan are population, poverty, education, health and our depleting natural resources. The biggest is population. The current population is over 200 million. This is 2.63% of the total world population. It ranks 6 worldwide. Density in Pakistan is 260 per Km2 (675 people per mi2). What is significant is that 39.5 % of the population is urban and the median age in Pakistan is 22.7 years. Pakistan currently has the largest percentage of young people ever recorded in its history. 64 per cent of the total population is below the age of 30 while 29 per cent is between the ages of 15 and 29 years. It is one of the youngest countries in the world and the second youngest in the South Asian region after Afghanistan. This youth bulge will critically impact Pakistan if not dealt with appropriately. We have to see how we invest in the youth by providing them with quality education, employment and meaningful engagement opportunities. So far, we have not seen this happening. We also see no effort by the government to control population growth. Our second challenge is poverty. Almost 30% of Pakistanis were living below poverty line of Rs3,030 per adult, per month set in 2013. This translates to roughly 59 million in absolute terms. The poverty line used by the government is absurd. A more reasonable poverty line can be the international poverty line of $2 per day. As per this poverty line, a whopping 60% of Pakistanis are poor. Pakistan has received a lot of money for fighting poverty from donor institutions. But it has not seen significant reduction in poverty levels. This is especially true when comparison is made with India and China. Both of these economies have experienced steep fall in their poverty levels. Our third challenge is education. According to Alif Ailaan, a local NGO, Pakistan today faces an education crisis of unprecedented proportions. There are 22.6 million boys and girls out of school. About half (44%) of all the children are in rural areas. Of those children who do go to school, the vast majority receives an education of poor quality. 43% of government schools are in a dangerous or dilapidated condition and lack basic facilities such as furniture, bathrooms, boundary walls, electricity and running water. 21% government primary schools are operating with single teacher and 14% with single classrooms. Budget allocations on education are insufficient and funds that are available are not spent effectively. Our fourth challenge is health. Pakistan is currently ranked at 122 out of 190 countries in terms of health care according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Despite significant improvements over the past decades, Pakistan has third highest rate in the world when it comes to infant mortality. And that is the tip of the iceberg. Finally, our fifth challenge is our depleting natural resources. Here the challenge is not just equitable distribution but also looking for alternates as local reserves deplete. Be it water or natural gas, there is no long term strategy in place to address shortages in the future. Our forest reserves are depleting. Our agricultural lands are not producing enough. We are an agriculture economy and yet our most important sector perhaps is the most neglected one. These challenges have to be met. We need to evolve strategies to deal with the problems. If we do not start doing this on a war footing, we will end up in a crisis-like situation in days to come.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 13th, 2018.