A finite world with finite resources can only support a finite population. Amidst intense political wrangling and a plethora of national issues, a more important concern affecting the future of this country has almost gone unheeded. The population time bomb that had long been ticking is now exploding.
Pakistan being one of the high fertility countries with a large proportion of young adults and children had a population of 33 million in 1951. Today, the population has risen to nearly 210 million making Pakistan the 6th most populous country in the world after China, India, United States, Indonesia and Brazil.
In terms of land, Pakistan is 0.6% of the world area and home to 2.65% of the global population. Every 40th person on the planet is a Pakistani. Population has soared across the globe since the start of the 19th century from 1 billion in 1800 to 7.5 billion in 2018. But while the growth rate globally is 1.2%, it is 1.90% in Pakistan where on average each family has 3 children. The South Asian country is tipped to become the 4th largest country in terms of population by 2050.
With abysmal human development indicators – ranked 150 out of 189 countries by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), 60% of the population under the age of 30 and a national median age of 22 coupled with fewer employment opportunities, population explosion presents the most serious challenge to the stability and security of the country. Despite the gravity of the situation, this issue has hardly figured in the national discourse.
Major factors responsible for high population growth in Pakistan are high fertility, low contraceptive prevalence rate, high unmet need of family planning, declining mortality due to improved healthcare, custom of early marriages, male child preference, poverty, illiteracy, patriarchy, religious constraints, beliefs, customs, traditions and lack of recreational activities. Add to that the failure of government to plan and implement population control measures. Pakistan had its first population census after 1998 in 2017 – a gap of 19 years.
Pakistan’s bulging population and its unrestricted rise presents real dangers to political stability, economy, national security and the state’s plans to achieve self-sufficiency is various human development indicators.
Agriculture is a key contributor to Pakistan’s national GDP. With rising population, lands that were used for agrarian purposes are now being turned into villages, towns, suburbs and housing societies. If this trend continues unhindered for long, the country might face severe food shortage in the years to come. There has been a rapid rise in urbanization over the past few decades. People have moved in millions from rural areas in search of employment which has put further strain on the existing infrastructure of urban centers. More than 20% of Pakistan’s population lives in 10 major cities.
Shrinking forest and farm space to make way for infrastructure development to facilitate growing population needs will cause environmental degradation through anthropogenic activity, contributing to global warming. Pakistan is the 7th most vulnerable country to climate change according to the UN.
Resources are scarce, and Pakistan has suffered from acute water and energy crisis since the dawn of the 21st century, which has had an adverse effect on the business industry. Shortage of electricity and gas has forced many to shut down and go out of business. With limited job opportunities in the market and academic institutions churning out degrees, a major chunk of the youth may grow restless and turn to crime, including militancy. Population threat will also affect Pakistan’s ability to meet United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Right since independence in 1947, Pakistan’s provinces have wrangled over resources. Water being one, that has often strained relations between Punjab and Sindh. On the other hand, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa complains about not receiving its share in electricity as much as it should since the province is the major producer of hydel power. Balochistan has had its own share of grievances, mixed with on-off insurgencies since the 1950s. Limited resources and ever growing demand to meet the needs of a bulging population could trigger further inter-provincial competition and rivalry. Recent trends show that those countries facing internal security problems currently, including Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, also experienced high increase in population leading up to the turmoil.
Family planning programs were initiated in Pakistan in the 1950s, and have greatly helped reduce the birth rate from 4.5% in 1947 at the time of independence to 2.9% in the 1990. The figure has further come down to 1.90% now, but still a lot remains to be done as it is much higher than the global rate of population growth which stands at 1.2%.
The government requires to develop a comprehensive and cohesive strategy to deal with the population dilemma involving all federating units, as well as have a mechanism to review progress. Awareness about the ills associated with population explosion should be promoted through educational programs, awareness seminars, celebrity endorsements, and media campaigns.
Though China’s one-child and two-child policies that prevented 400 million births might be deemed as harsh, Pakistan can take a leaf out of its Muslim neighbor Iran’s book on population control measures. The southwest Asian country’s population grew at over 3% between 1950 and 1980. The government in Tehran in the 1990s introduced a comprehensive population control strategy, where the clergy declared that Islam favors families with two children only. Government launched a nationwide campaign and promoted contraceptives, vasectomies and sterilization. Men and women were required to take birth control courses before getting married. Food coupons, paid maternity leaves and other social welfare subsidies were abolished for the third child. As a result, Iran’s population growth rate shrank to 0.7% in 2007. It stands at 1.1% now after the government led by former president Ahmadinejad decided to curb control measures.
The problem of overpopulation is very serious, and has the potential to cause chaos and anarchy in the coming years as Pakistan faces depleting national resources, including water. If not curtailed now, it may go on to haunt the country in the future. To become a progressive, prosperous and stable state, it is the need of the hour for Pakistan’s leadership to devise a sound and dynamic strategy to deal with this peril before it is late.