Hoor Asrar looks at a crucial subject
Population pressure – Population increase in Pakistan has reached alarming stage and it is eating out any prospects for attaining material benefits for the country. It could be said without contradiction that over the last four decades successive governments have sidestepped the issue of population control and have preferred to hide behind a plethora of poverty alleviation and social development schemes. With a national growth rate of around 1.9 per cent, at least 4.4 million people are added to the existing numbers every year and this addition alone is equal to the combined population of 40 of the world’s smallest countries. The most cogent reason given for ignoring this serious issue is that Pakistani political leadership and establishment are simply not courageous enough to irk the religious right by bringing up the issue to the national mainstream.
The world reached the population mark of 8 billion that is certainly unprecedented in the annals of human evolution and this mark was reached primarily due to momentous strides in science particularly biological sciences. The global population reached the seven billion mark in 2011 and it is expected to grow to around 8.5 billion in 2030; 9.7 billion in 2050 and 10.9 billion in 2100. Pakistan has actually spearheaded the population growth with its population growing from 33 million to 230 million in 75 years. This growth has proved highly untenable for the overall welfare of the country though most of Pakistani leadership insists that Pakistan is edging to become the fifth largest country in terms of population yet this may be an advantage provided Pakistan’s economy were thriving and its natural resources infinite that were fully capable to support the burgeoning population. If this issue is weighed in the backdrop of the fact that the multiple crises facing the country are almost all directly related to unabated population growth, it is a matter of grave concern once this rapid increase adds another 110 million by 2050.
If a country requires urgent family planning that is Pakistan as this mode gives family choices and by denying such choices what is exhibited is an extreme callousness in national collective attitude. Pakistani mindset has become so convoluted that its leading policy makers loudly celebrate the fact that Pakistani growth rate has declined this year to 1.9 per cent but this is a meagre decimal point decline achieved over several years. Above all, Pakistan’s growth rate is double that of Bangladesh, Malawi, Kenya, India, and Iran, all of which stridently pursue national agendas that aspire to rise from poverty, to provide jobs to the youth and to ensure universal health coverage and universal primary education. Pakistani policy makers find it very cumbersome to concede that there has hardly been any change in Pakistani fertility and family planning indicators since 2007 and that this is not just worrying but alarming.
Pakistan has a lot to learn from countries such as Nepal, Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Laos that determinedly went about empowering communities, men, women and families to have fewer better-spaced children in order to give them a better future. The most important eye-opener is the heart-rending spectacle of 33 million people from the poorest districts of Pakistan getting swept out of their homes to live as animals with women and children suffering the most. And the biggest tragedy was that the scale of the disaster could have been vastly reduced if these underserved, climate-vulnerable districts had received family planning, maternal and childcare services. This unprecedented tragedy has brought to fore the fact that family planning and balancing population and resources must be ensured as part of climate rehabilitation and rebuilding strategy.
The main worry for Pakistani policy makers is that 61 per cent of Pakistan’s population is in the age bracket of 15 to 64 years and its break-up is that 34.6 per cent are aged up to 14 years; 29.7 per cent are aged between 10 to 24 years while people aged 65 and above are estimated to be 4.4 per cent. This is the reason that Pakistan is widely dubbed as a young country though the majority of this young population has proved to be quite volatile as was witnessed during the long spate of agitation that has rocked the country since many years and caused serious instability. The youth has also given rise to an extreme form of polarisation that is often accompanied by violence that has further exacerbated the situation. It is also pointed out that life expectancy at birth is 67 years for males and 69 years for females while the population is growing at the average annual rate of 1.9 per cent.
It is also mentioned that the country has limited resources and the increasing population is putting more pressure on these resources. The government is trying to overcome the issue of high population growth and fertility rate through different programmes like family welfare centres, reproductive health services, regional training institutes and mobile service units. According to the latest government survey, an educated and skilled youth is needed to reap the benefits of demographic dividend. If this demographic dividend is harnessed and skilled to meet domestic and international market requirements, the youth bulge would yield increased industrial productivity and higher foreign remittances.
Many experts suggest that many methods are open for the policy planners to pursue family planning objectives and can emphasise on family health instead of banging about population control. Authorities may pursue doggedly a policy of upholding the crucial factor of maternal health in the context of religion and the nation’s social development. Currently, it is noted that Pakistan’s national fertility rate of 3.6 means that on average a mother has at least three children with one being unplanned and that this figure is higher than the whole of South Asia that is known to be 2.4 per cent though the region itself has the highest fertility rate in the world. This issue could be built upon into a solid campaign that may be difficult to be opposed.
There is plenty of juice in the emphasising and widely propagating that healthy mothers are the key to having healthy children and that birth spacing encourages healthier families. It should be highlighted that even in Saudi Arabia, women can access family planning as part of healthcare and this is a crucial fact to be brought to the knowledge of the people. It must also be pointed out that almost all other large Muslim countries, including Bangladesh, Iran, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia, have successfully implemented population reforms through broad consensus led by their respective governments in conjunction with all social groups and efforts are required to be made to ensure that cumulative societal opinion is weightier than any other singular opinion irrespective from which circle it emanates from.
The government needs to involve the media in creatively furthering the narrative about the benefits of limiting family size. That must be backed up with access to dependable family planning services through the public healthcare system. It was recently brought to fore that women in Pakistan have an estimated 3.8 million unintended pregnancies each year most resulting from unmet need for modern contraception. The data also showed that 52 per cent of married women of reproductive age who want to avoid pregnancy are not using a modern contraceptive method implying the need to make availability of contraceptives more readily available. The Weekender