Is population our elephant in the room?

Published: April 7, 2012
The writer is a development consultant and a PhD student at the University of Melbourne

The writer is a development consultant and a PhD student at the University of Melbourne [email protected]

According to the preliminary findings of Pakistan’s latest census, the country’s population has increased by 46.9 per cent between the period of 1998 and 2011, from about 130 million in 1998 to over 192 million, with Balochistan having recorded the highest growth amongst all our provinces.

These findings, undoubtedly, have serious implications meriting attention by our policymakers as well as the citizenry at large. But what has prompted me to write this article is perhaps, an email sent out to several Pakistani journalists and analysts, by a rather enthusiastic Indian based in London, complaining about how Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders are ignoring this major problem. Discounting the fact that his own country is now the second most populous in the world, he claimed that India has done a much better job of managing its population, given that it has just quadrupled from over 300 million in 1947 to about 1.2 billion, while Pakistan’s population has gone up from 30 million to 192 million over the same period which implies over a 6 times increase. Furthermore, he advocated that Pakistan needs to take drastic action, such as adopting a coercive one child policy to significantly curb our population or else it will become even more ungovernable.

A more assertive rebuttal to such an assertion requires no more than pointing towards the hapless state of development indicators in India itself, or to describe this unsolicited assertion as a malicious attempt to fuel western fears concerning Pakistani fragility. Instead of indulging in such unconstructive arguments, however, let us try to reconsider existing possibilities of contending with our population growth rate more effectively.

Although optimists at home and abroad point to the potential demographic dividend of our burgeoning young population, they are also cautioning that immediate measures are needed to constructively harness this potential or it could turn into exacerbating social unrest instead of increased productivity. But doing so requires reshuffling our current spending priorities with an increased emphasis on human development goals. Yet, many donors and neo-liberal planners continue placing trust in market-led growth policies instead and avoid the contention of trying to redirect existing resource allocations patterns.

Conversely, it has also been argued that if our black/informal economy is taken into account, the Pakistani middle class accounts for about 40 per cent of our population, which is similar to the situation in India. The underlying argument here was that if our middle class is large enough, the existing paranoia concerning Pakistan’s fragility or growing radicalisation would prove unfounded, since a larger middle class will invariably keep Pakistan moving on a relatively liberal path in terms of its economic and political development.

While income assessments remain contested, it is hard to deny that poverty is not a severe problem for our country. Unsustainable population growth has already outstripped the capacity of the state to provide even basic amenities to a vast majority of the masses. Due to cultural and belief-based preferences, many poor people continue to have large families to help ensure household survival by putting their children to work. However, due to insufficient education their productive capacity is not adequately developed. Provision of better social services, including emphasis on female education, can help overcome such trends.

It is not impossible to alter societal preferences for family sizes either. For instance, there have been earlier attempts to use religious principles to highlight the need for a manageable family by local family planning organisations. However, limited outreach coupled with lack of continued re-emphasis, implies that many uneducated mullahs still frown upon family planning attempts. Despite the fact that religion itself places emphasis on breast feeding children for about two years, which would inherently necessitate birth spacing and help lessen mother and child mortality significantly.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 7th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (19)

    Apr 7, 2012 - 12:54AM


    According to the figures released recently, population of Pakistan areas including Pakistan occupied Kashmir (AJK and GB) and FATA area, had reached 197,361,691 in 2011. This figure does not include population of 4 districts of Balochistan and 3 million Afghan refugees.

    In short, population of Pakistan must have crossed the magic figure of 200 million by now which one of the highest growth rates in south Asia.

    Highest growth in Balochistan and next highest in GB with lowest growth in Punjab in last 14 years is a clear indication of “changing demography” of the areas by the army under Musharraf and bureaucrats from establishment with vast majority from Punjab.


  • mr. righty rightist
    Apr 7, 2012 - 1:21AM

    If only Muslims contain their population growth, India would much better at all human development indicators.

    With such a large Muslim population, India is bound to limp. In fact any country with a significant presence of Islam is bound to limp. Including the oil rich Arab world, wait for their oil to be gone in the next few decades and see how these rich Arab countries crumble. They would be reduced to deserts that they actually are.Recommend

  • Falcon
    Apr 7, 2012 - 1:43AM

    Good article. It is to be noted here that most observers of Pakistan’s growth pattern would agree that a key reason for lack of sustainable growth pattern has been under-allocation of resources towards human development. Secondly, just like you have mentioned unless conservatives buy in to and propagate the benefits of appropriate family planning, population control will continue to face hurdles in Pakistan.


  • yousaf
    Apr 7, 2012 - 1:46AM

    A very big YES and without any doubt


  • Apr 7, 2012 - 5:42AM

    The proper approach is to ignore the Mullah. What can he do if a person can have one child only.It is scientific knowledge about birth process that is missing.


  • Apr 7, 2012 - 6:16AM

    It is apparent that exploding population of Pakistan with limited resources available for education, health and social development leaves no hope for any progress. If this trend is not checked there is just no future for Pakistan. Any reasonable analysis must discuss the issue with its pros and cons based on merit, not just to counter an argument if it is from an Indian.Recommend

  • Arijit Sharma
    Apr 7, 2012 - 10:09AM

    It may already be too late for Pakistan. The increased sectarianism, load shedding, killings in Karachi ( and elsewhere ), etc are not purely a political phenomenon. These are signs that the Malthusian catastrophe is stating to unfold.

    ( My Muslim friend very angrily says that Mullahs for their own selfish gains have mislead the people by insisting on the need for a higher quantity of Muslims rather than the need for higher quality of Muslims. )


  • vasan
    Apr 7, 2012 - 10:18AM

    Infant health care will also pose a huge problem, Polio for instance. Demographic dividends will o topsy turvy if the children’s health and education are not attended to. FYI India scores lot better on this esp education in most of the northern, southern and western states, It is the Bihar/Wbengal/Orissa/Jharkhand which are problematic. The entire IT industry is due to demographic dividend.


  • Apr 7, 2012 - 12:10PM

    Poverty leads to higher population growth is a general rule of the thumb. But, what makes it even more complicated is if Mullahs join in and declare birth control policies unislamic.

    This is a problem in India too.

    But, you cannot hide from this fact. Religion in Pakistan and other Muslim states makes it hard for them to implement any effect birth control programs.


  • adeel759
    Apr 7, 2012 - 3:17PM

    This is disastrous that we grew 46% in mere 13-14 years. Speaking of demographic dividend; its only possible if there is proportionate investment in human development. But in Pakistan for more than a decade, capital flight is in course, factories are moving off shore, jobs continue to dry and FDI depleting Qtr on Qtr. This is totally unsustainable. Pakistan needs sustained FDI of more than $5B per year to cope with current demographics let alone the 40% growth registering each decade. There is no other way but to strictly formulate a policy of one or two child at best. Thanks to the Indian friend because of whom this article was authored.


  • BlackJack
    Apr 7, 2012 - 5:27PM

    It appears that you decided to approach this issue negatively because some smart alec Indian was presumptuous enough to advise such an advanced nation. First, India’s population at independence was around 350 mn (you just reduced it by double the present population of Australia). Our growth rate has been declining over the last couple of decades, and there is a parallel that you can find in declining birth rates and increasing income levels and HDI due to larger disposable income per family – the trickle down effect is yet to reach muslims. Second, there is no direct connection between the middle class and liberal values. Third, the family sizes of muslims in India is significantly higher than other minorities, their growth rate is the highest (30% in the last 10 years) their literacy rates are the lowest (60% – still better than Pakistan), and work participation is the lowest (31.3% vs 39.7% for Christians/ 37% for Sikhs/ 40% for Hindus) – they are at the bottom of the heap. You can mention social discrimination (a popular bugbear) but the figures above are comparing minorities, and Christians perform better than Hindus in most parameters except work participation. The same conditions that impact muslims in India (unwillingness to practice birth control/ modern methods of contraception) coupled with permanent denial mode – as borne out by this article.


  • Baba Ji
    Apr 7, 2012 - 5:35PM

    Barra Khandaan
    Jihad Asaan !!!! ( as scribbled on a rock with white chalk in Swat back in 90’s )

    i.e. big family … easy to fight in Crusades !!!

    now go ahead and try to convince the Graffiti writer …


  • andleeb
    Apr 7, 2012 - 6:45PM

    If you are a true believer of Islam, then I don’t see where the problem is. Every Muslim child born comes with his quota of food provided by Allah. Look at European populations declining.The excess Pakistanis will emigrate to Europe and with them will carry the message of Islam to Europe. That is the will of Allah.


  • gp65
    Apr 7, 2012 - 8:32PM

    @BruteForce: “Religion in Pakistan and other Muslim states makes it hard for them to implement any effect birth control programs”.

    I would submit that it is not religion but religiosity that can be problematic for Pakistan. Bangladesh and Indonesia have doen a better job than India at controlling their populations.


  • Mir Agha
    Apr 7, 2012 - 9:21PM

    The ONLY issue in Pakistan. Solving the others will mean jack all if the population is not brought under control. Population increases in less inhabitated regions such as Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan, and Balochistan are okay (but not preferred), while population decreases in Punjab, Sindh, and KP are paramount to the survival of Pakistan. Take Iran for example, it is a religious state and yet has the done a very good job of population control, marriage/parental counseling, birth control, contraception etc. Much better than any of the South Asian states, including the non-muslim ones. But to ET (entertainment tonight), leftist memes, secularism, appeasement is more important…


  • true_blue_pakistani
    Apr 7, 2012 - 9:57PM

    Maulanas should encourage people to have small families in every Friday sermons. Else we endup having scrap-population then more misery (as it is already happened)


  • Vijay K
    Apr 8, 2012 - 6:07AM

    @truebluepakistani: You are joking, right? The Maulanas are part of the problem, not part of the solution


  • Wazir
    Apr 8, 2012 - 9:06PM

    What is your source of this estimates?


  • yousaf
    Apr 9, 2012 - 12:00PM

    @Wazir–For such evident facts do you seriously think you still need to know of the “source”


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