Pakistan’s population conundrum

Published: October 6, 2019
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Rapid population growth is already exerting insurmountable pressure on the urban infrastructure. PHOTO: RIAZ AHMED/EXPRESS

Amidst all the politicking over economic recovery, a crucial element that is missing from the mainstream narrative is the uncontrolled population growth in Pakistan. The recent census revealed that Pakistan’s population has skyrocketed to approximately 208 million. This is an alarming situation because any effort to stir economic development will be undermined if the population keeps growing at this rate.

Realising the constraints overpopulation can have on a developing country’s socio-economic development, most countries in the region implemented policies that significantly decelerated population growth in a relatively short amount of time. As a result, Bangladesh currently has an annual population growth rate of 1.01%, while India’s annual population growth rate is 1%. Pakistan, on the other hand, continues to experience a population growth rate of 2.1% despite implementing its first family planning programme over half a century ago.

The biggest reason for Pakistan’s failure in this regard is the lack of commitment to make this issue a national priority. Consequently, it has not received the financial, technical, and political support it deserves. This is also evident from the fact that no significant efforts were made either at the federal or provincial level to put in place a comprehensive and integrated population control policy. This remained the case even after the ominous results of the sixth population census – which itself was conducted on the directive of the courts and after a gap of 19 years.

It is worrisome that the issue is still not receiving enough attention because the size and age structure of a population has an integral relationship with a country’s economic, social and environmental development. Therefore, for a country like Pakistan, which is already beset with issues such as macroeconomic instability, poverty; unemployment; poor human development indicators and climate change, a population explosion is likely to pose a challenge to the country’s development.

Since the rise in per capita income in Pakistan is slow, rapid growth in population will only lead to an increase in its woes. Not only will it test the state’s already stretched ability and resources to provide basic services to people but it will also result in a further decline in human development indicators since the state would be unable to adequately cater to everyone. Additionally, massive population growth also runs the risk of increasing the incidence and intensity of malnutrition along with eroding the country’s food security.

Rapid population growth is already exerting insurmountable pressure on the urban infrastructure as is evident in the megacities where the city administrations are struggling with service delivery. In lieu of low economic growth, additional population pressure will further widen the gap between the supply and demand of essential services and exacerbate systematic inequalities between different groups by concentrating access of resources in a few hands. This, in turn, could aggravate the situation of crime and urban violence. Urban congestion will also speed up the run-away issue of slum formation and its associated complications.

Pakistan is currently experiencing a bulge in the working age population. While this should be good news, the country’s inability to train and absorb youth in gainful employment adds fuel to the fire of social evils, such as militancy, extremism and use of unfair means to make ends meet. This situation cannot be automatically reversed by reducing the budget deficit. Mere economic growth is not the answer either as far as sustainable and equitable development is concerned. Instead, it would require a conscious effort to structure policies in a way that not only enhance the skill set of the youth but also allows them to engage in high return economic activities. However, an unchecked increase in population would divert the state’s attention and resources from formulating policies that help realise the advantage presented by this demographic window. The state would instead be occupied with merely keeping up with the increased demand for resources.

Uncontrolled rise in population is also an important factor in contributing towards environmental degradation. Population pressure has increased the processes of deforestation, air and water pollution, climate change and mismanagement of waste materials. Pakistan is already ranked as the eight most vulnerable country to climate change. With thousands of new-borns added to the population each day, the process of environmental degradation will accelerate on the one hand while on the other, the country’s weak environment management capacity will be unable to mitigate its risks. This situation will be especially detrimental for rural livelihood practices and will, therefore, plunge the affected families into deeper financial difficulties.

Unless population growth is brought under control, these disastrous scenarios will materialise and pose a threat to the country’s internal security situation. Pakistan is a few decades late, however, it can still avoid the impending doom if the state makes this problem a priority. To curb population growth, public policymakers should simultaneously work on increasing the demand and supply of contraceptives.

On the demand side, it is important to inculcate a preference for smaller families by bringing about a behavioural change. There is an urgent need to overcome the social and cultural barriers, which prevent the uptake of contraceptives, through culturally sensitive awareness campaigns about the social and economic benefits of smaller families. Currently, the contraceptive prevalence rate in Pakistan stands at a mere 35%. This is despite the fact there exists an unmet need in married women for family planning services. Therefore, along with ensuring the availability of good quality contraceptives, there needs to be a focus on creating a cultural acceptability for them as well. This will bring down the high fertility rate and its subsequent disastrous implications. For this purpose, the first step would be to collaborate with the clergy as no significant change can be brought without having them on board since religious leaders are considered to be an important authority in such matters. This step has ensured broad acceptance of the use of contraceptives in Bangladesh. Additionally, experiences and outreach of the local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) could be used to implement tailor-made policies to improve the demand for, and access to contraception.

On the supply side, public health planners should focus on ensuring continuity of contraceptive supplies to reduce the unmet need for contraception. In this regard, improving coordination between population welfare programmes and primary healthcare initiative or Lady Health Worker (LHW) programmes can play an important role. Campaigns at the community level, which raise awareness amongst women regarding family planning, will prove useful as they will also address the issue of female mobility and teach women how to use contraceptives. Moreover, the government should encourage the private sector and NGOs to expand their services outside of urban areas.

At a policy level, it is important to link population policies with other policies related to improvement in health, education and women empowerment. An integrated approach would ensure that the issue receives the attention it deserves.

Ayesha Majid

Ayesha Majid

The author is a development sector enthusiast who writes about social issues and policy reforms.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.