Pakistan is one of the two countries in the western part of the Muslim world where positive change is taking place and it is coming reasonably fast. The other is Turkey. The two countries are moving towards creating inclusive political and economic orders. They are being pushed towards these goals by the young in their populations. Of the two, Pakistan in terms of the size of its population, is larger and is also considerably younger. The median age of the population is only 23 years. This means that some 100 million people out of a total of 200 million in the country are below that age. Where do the young people live; what are their aspirations; what will be their likely response if these aspirations are not satisfied; how can they be satisfied and who in the country is capable of addressing them are some of the important questions that need to be asked and answered.
Pakistan has not held a population census for 17 years. Almost all countries around the world hold them every 10 years, mostly on the first year of the start of a new decade. Had the country followed that practice — which India, for instance, did — it should have conducted seven counts by now. Instead only four were carried out — in 1951, 1972, 1981 and 1998. Consequently, there is not enough data available to make reliable estimates of the size and age-distribution of the population, its male-female composition and its geographical dispersal. Guesswork will have to do and that is what I will attempt in order to underscore the main theme of this article.
The proportion of the urban population in the total is much higher than the estimates made in 1998 when the last official count was made. Official estimates continue to place the proportion much lower than is most probably the case. This is being done basically for political reasons. The lower share of the urban population makes it possible for the landed class to maintain its grip on the political system. This is also the reason why no government in the past decade and a half had the political will to count the number of people resident in the country and how they were distributed across the land.
It is my guess that one-half of the population resides in urban areas. Of this 100 million people, 70 million are in large cities — those with more than two million people. Karachi and Lahore, the country’s two megacities, have a combined population of 33 million, almost half of the total living in urban areas. Medium-sized cities have another 20 million people while the remaining 10 million are scattered in thousands of towns across the country.
The proportion of the youth is highly skewed in favour of urban areas in general and large cities in particular. Rural-urban migration is the reason for the increase in the share of the urban population in the total. There are more job opportunities in large cities. There are also better education, health and entertainment facilities available in urban areas. About 70 per cent of the population of large cities is made up of the young, those below the age of 23. Their share in the population of the megacities is even larger — perhaps about 75 per cent. A youth-oriented economic and social development programme, therefore, must focus on large cities, in particular on Karachi and Lahore.
What do the young people want from the economy and the social system? There are several ways of answering this question. One of them is to look at some inter-country comparisons. A group of researchers have developed what they call the “Youthonomics Global Index”, which ranks on a scale of zero to 100, economic prospects for young people in 64 countries. The index is based on 59 indicators that measure how the young feel about their current situation. This is done by looking at some of the obvious measures. These include employment opportunities and incomes at the entry level; access to educational and health facilities; availability of entertainment facilities; and perceptions about the future. The index ranks both the feelings about the present and also those about the future.
In so far as the present is concerned, it is not surprising that Norway, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands rank at the top as the world’s youth-friendlier countries. However, the researchers were surprised by one finding: China ranks higher than all emerging nations. It has become particularly attractive to young people, outranking several European nations such as Spain, Croatia and Italy.
Pakistan, not surprisingly, is among the countries in the bottom of the group. It ranks 58th, lower than Bangladesh and India. It belongs to the group that includes Mali, Egypt and Kenya. Why is the Pakistani youth unhappy with its present situation and how is it likely to act? For an answer to the second question, we should look at the work done by the economist Albert O Hirschman who, in his book, Exit, Voice and Loyalty, discussed the options available for distressed people. He discussed in particular the options of raising voice to indicate unhappiness or exit from the system in which they live. In Pakistan’s case, these two options are already being tested and both will result in retarding social, political and economic progress.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 9th, 2015.