There is a broad consensus amongst politicians, planners, and the intelligentsia in Pakistan on the need to achieve a sustainable population growth rate. However, we fail to recognise the centrality of this issue in most of the problems we face today. In 2018 that the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SC) took a suo motu notice of our alarming population growth rate and constituted a task force to come up with tangible recommendations to overcome this challenge. A key recommendation was to forge a national narrative to galvanise national action.
The idea of a national narrative on population is not new for Pakistan. We did have one in the past, and to some extent, it prevails even today despite being out of sync with the current realities. Past planners reasoned that if Pakistan was to prosper, the rate of population growth had to be curtailed. Reflecting this end, couples were exhorted to produce two children — a prescription later modified to have fewer children — in order to lead a prosperous life. By and large, this narrative was never well-received as it was seen to be a direct infringement of peoples’ private decision making space. The main problem was that it lacked broad-based national endorsement. To address this gap, the SC-appointed task force recommended a new narrative on population to be developed to reflect the aspirations of the people and compel us all to action.
To help implement this recommendation, a wide-ranging consultative process has been conducted to obtain inputs of government representatives, parliamentarians, academics, religious scholars, and media experts to develop a new narrative with the technical support of the Population Council and UNFPA. The narrative is in consonance with Pakistan’s socio-cultural ethos, religious teachings, values, and fundamental human rights. It aims to attain a balanced and sustainable population growth rate to ensure people’s wellbeing, prosperity, and security.
The narrative stipulates that, “Parents have the right to freely and responsibly decide the number and spacing of their children to fulfil the fundamental rights of their children and family by maintaining a balance (tawazun) between their family size and resources. The Government and society have the responsibility to facilitate parents to achieve this balance by providing universal access to family planning information and services.”
Also, three interrelated principles are inherent in this narrative. The first principle recognises that all citizens have fundamental rights (haqooq) which are enshrined in all religious teachings, the Constitution, and the international covenants Pakistan is a signatory of. All citizens and every child born have the right to shelter, nutrition, healthcare, education, parental attention, and a good quality of life. This also includes the right of parents to information and services they need in order to make free and informed choices while planning a family.
The second principle is the recognition that to provide these rights, individuals, parents, and the State have distinct responsibilities to fulfil. Parents ought to act responsibly and only have the number of children they can provide these basic rights to, while the State is responsible for providing the necessary services and resources, such as voluntary family planning and health services, quality education, housing, job opportunities, and gainful livelihoods.
The third principle acknowledges that the responsibilities of individuals and the State can only be fulfiled when there is balance (tawazun) between resources and responsibilities. At the State level, tawazun implies achieving a sustainable balance between population growth and available resources. At the individual level, it implies balancing family size with family resources.
It is now for the federal and provincial governments to embrace this narrative, develop it further, and widely disseminate its essential message so that it permeates every level of our society.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 6th, 2019.
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