It is simple economics: resources are scarce and wants are unlimited. The problem of allocation gets more serious when population growth is unchecked- as is the case in Pakistan. It is confusing hence, that no one has taken the pains to voice the issue in the mainstream media; no political party mentioned it in its rallies; no slogans or chants went further than the usual clichés. While the future leaders and the public busy themselves with the task of wooing and being wooed, the population bomb ticks away. The promises and plans, albeit optimistic and hopeful, evade the population issue almost strategically. It is as if the fact that the unrestrained population growth will have an undesirable impact on the distribution of resources like food has gone unnoticed. Or more so perhaps, the problem has been brushed under the carpet for fear that it may give rise to an uncomfortable debate?
Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world. According to estimates, the population of Pakistan is representative of 2.56% of the world´s total population. Hence, it can be said that 1 person in every 39 people in the world lives in Pakistan. In Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus stated that human populations grew exponentially while food production grew at an arithmetic rate. This led him to suggest that controls be exercised on population growth. Though his chief preventive measure: ‘moral restraint’ (getting married at a later period in life) was something that does not fit into our cultural setting, we can understand from his theory is that he underlined a valid problem that an increasing population could pose to limited natural resources. The UN projections also show that if fertility rates remain constant, Pakistan’s population will be nearly 380 million by 2050 leading to a disturbing scarcity of resources.
A joint analysis by the Planning Commission of Pakistan and UNICEF brought attention to the fact that the total fertility rate (TFR) was about 3.2% and the population grew at an estimated 1.57% a year. Furthermore, it stated that two-thirds of Pakistanis were below 30 years of age where one in three Pakistanis was estimated to be 14 years old or younger. It is expected that the number of people in 15 to 24 year age-bracket would increase by 20% by 2020, the segment of the population under 24 years would be overwhelming by 2030 and the medium age would be only 33 years by 2050.
The majority of the population will be young so one should also expect unemployment statistics to worsen if Pakistan is unable to generate more jobs. Competition for limited economic rewards will spark tensions between the better and the worse-off. The stakes will be high. Internal stability and law and order situation might be affected. Besides this, with the GDP growth rate (3.7%) unable to match the population growth rate, Pakistan’s future is surely in the doldrums.
Extreme regulations such as the Chinese “one child policy” while fiercely criticized, reinforce faith in the possibilities of paving way for economic development by controlling population growth. Closer to hearts than home- Bangladesh, with more than 55% of the country’s population as the former East Pakistan stands firmly at 150 million years after separation. As the eighth most populous country with a TFR of 2.2%, its GDP growth rate is a laudable 6.1%. Comparisons, however, are insignificant in a country where the population census is not an important concern. The seriousness in this regard can be judged from the fact that the former Prime Minister referred to Pakistan as a nation of 180 million while at the same time the President referred to the country as being home to 200 million people. It is bizarre that a quantitative fact is subject to speculation and the difference between the two estimates by those who ran the government was so pronounced. It is apparent that the issue has not been on the government’s checklist, so to speak. Abandon hope all ye who enter here!
Much like the statistic, the severity of the problem is also underestimated. Pakistan’s helpless battles against shortages vis-à-vis energy supply or foreign reserves too cannot be viewed in isolation: the mounting pressure is accredited to rising demand due to overpopulation. Therefore, situation-specific measures may alleviate the problems temporarily but will fail to serve as long-term solutions. Unfortunately, political parties ignore the issue and pay more attention to the rhetoric that wins them votes with the masses reducing politics to mere demagoguery.
Moreover, the idea of having larger families is deeply entrenched within the culture of Pakistan- especially rural Pakistan where every additional member is seen as a ‘hand to earn’ rather than a ‘mouth to feed’ and the realization that this is not only a burden on the family but one on the economy is absent. In an ironic twist, Pakistan has one of the worst food security conditions in the world.
Ours’ is a conservative society rooted in ancient tradition. While it is true that there has been a great deal of urbanization in the country, it also holds that people still attach negative meanings to family planning and birth control. It does not help that the rightists do not endorse these campaigns when they are launched- in fact it is the greatest challenge to any progress on winning the support of the masses.
There is a dire need to look into the matter and take all stakeholders on board. There is an even greater need to drive the debate on popular media to understand different points of view on the topic and to help educate the masses. Sure, the show ratings might not be as high as for political talk shows with attention-grabbing and scandalous topics under debate like corruption but at least the political parties will learn to give the issue due importance when framing manifestos and the masses will learn to question their policies or any lack thereof.
Overpopulation is at the heart of every problem that Pakistan faces today and it will remain the case if governments and the media continue to shy away from it. There is only one way of emerging from the quandary that Pakistan is in today and that is by nipping this evil in the bud. Neglecting this problem is akin to playing hot potato with a ticking time bomb. The only question is that will the next government armed with the people’s mandate be bold enough to diffuse it or will the issue continue to fight for a spot on the list of ‘national’ priorities?
By Abid Basheer
For Pakistan Analysis