This year’s commemoration of World Population Day was particularly salient, given that the global population has just surpassed 7 billion. We are living in a period of unprecedented demographic change. After growing very slowly for most of human history, the world’s population more than doubled to reach 6 billion in late 1999, and is being projected to grow to around 9 billion by 2050.
Most of this growth is taking place in less developed countries, where there is already a dearth of adequate resources. Conversely, people in the developed world are living longer and healthier lives, and despite having more resources at their disposal, choose to have fewer children.
Pakistan’s population is estimated to have exceeded 177 million, yet we have the highest population growth rate (2.03 per cent) amongst Saarc countries. Although our population growth trend is headed downwards, it is still not comparable to the population control in Indonesia, Iran or Bangladesh (which are also predominantly Muslim countries). A major factor for our population growth is unwanted births due to lack of contraception prevalence. Actual utilisation of contraception has stagnated at just 30 per cent for several years. Underage marriage and lack of sufficient birth spacing are also major problems, which lead to alarmingly high maternal as well as child mortality rates.
It is unfortunate that countries like Pakistan, India and even China have not overcome a strong preference for sons. While female infanticide is not considered a problem in Pakistan itself, the desire to have a son often leads to having numerous children. Since large family are considered a sign of male virility, fatalistic attitudes readily overshadow practical considerations concerning the parents capacity to adequately meet the needs of large families.
Many poor households cannot afford to invest in their progeny’s future, and instead are compelled to turn children into extra earning hands just to ensure household survival. The numerous children found labouring across our country are trapped into exploitative work arrangements, and are being deprived of adequate education or training opportunities. In turn, early marriages, and continued lack of family planning further perpetuates the vicious cycle of poverty and population growth.
Although Pakistan was among the first countries in Asia to have initiated a family planning programme, its population has gone up unsustainably. Unless more attention is paid to this issue, our country could become the world’s fourth most populous country in 2050.
Around 50 per cent of our population is below 20 years, and 60 per cent is below 30, presenting us with a unique demographic dividend to significantly boost national productivity. However, this potential is being tragically lost due to illiteracy, poverty, poor health, and lack of economic opportunities. Pakistan’s unharnessed youth bulge threatens fuelling the counterproductive scourge of militancy and social unrest.
Other multidimensional impacts of our high population growth are plain enough to see. Untenable population density has led to growing pressure on land, overcrowded cities, transport and electricity hassles, civil strife, high unemployment, inflation, poverty and an overall grave economic scenario. Future challenges of climate change, environmental degradation and water shortages are soon expected to add to the burden of our unmet basic needs.
While there is a host of serious socioeconomic challenges confronting the country right now, it would be wise to give due attention to the looming threat of further population growth, which will otherwise compound all our other existing problems.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 12th, 2011.
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