Published On: Thu, Sep 11th, 2014

Population, not politics, threatens Pakistan

Population, not politics, threatens Pakistan

Explosion in number of inhabitants could have dire consequences

While the politicians fight each other in Islamabad for control of Pakistan, they make no mention in their fiery speeches of the real crisis likely to stunt prosperity for generations. According to economists and demographers, the explosion that endangers Pakistan is not political but demographic.

At independence in 1947, there were 33m Pakistanis. Today there are about 200m, making the nation the sixth most populous in the world. By 2050, the population will reach 302m, if the standard projection of the Population Council, a non-government group based in New York, proves correct.

However, the number of inhabitants in 2050 could be as high as 395m or as low as 266m, depending on whether the fertility rate remains stable or declines rapidly from the current level of 3.8 children per woman. The gap between the highest and lowest forecasts is huge, exceeding the population of most countries.

The strain on natural resources (especially water), government services, infrastructure and families is already immense and will worsen – even if Islamabad suddenly boosts family-planning programmes to meet popular demand for contraception and so ensures the population grows at the lowest of the predicted rates.

Karachi, one of the world’s biggest cities, is plagued by severe water shortages and is now so crowded that people live a dozen or more to an apartment. Bus passengers routinely travel on the roof for lack of room inside.

David Bloom, an economics and demography professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, describes rapid population growth and the need to provide for the young as a “crushing burden” on the economy.

“If, in 10 or 20 years, Pakistan still has a large number of unemployed or underemployed people, including tens of millions of young people, the country may face crises that dwarf those it has experienced to date,” he writes in a foreword to a Population Council study.

While politicians in Islamabad vie for control of Pakistan, they do little to tackle the country’s population explosion – a problem that is likely to stunt prosperity for future generations. Victor Mallet, FT Asia Bureau Chief, spoke to Fiona Symon about the looming crisis.

Sakib Sherani, an economist, says: “Politicians are not thinking long-term. They are not thinking beyond an election cycle.” He notes the workforce has nearly doubled in the past two decades to 60m and the labour market needs to provide 3m jobs a year for new entrants. “That’s just not happening.”

Decades of neglect by successive governments have left Pakistan lagging behind other heavily populated nations such as Bangladesh and Iran when it comes to managing fertility downwards.

In Asia, only Afghanistan and Timor-Leste are doing worse. Pakistan instead resembles many African countries undergoing economically disastrous population explosions – except that its population is already bigger than any of theirs.

For outsiders wary of Islamist extremism and Pakistani rivalry with India, it is tempting to assume that the population is exploding as part of a deliberate policy of religious chauvinism or nationalism.

It is a bit like the terrorism issue. It affects everyone but no one wants to talk about it

– Zeba Sathar, country director, Population Council

But the evidence shows that both men and women want fewer children, and they put religious concerns near the bottom of their list of reasons for having more. More than 43 per cent of pregnancies are calculated by one study to be “unintended”, and an estimated 1m abortions are performed each year in Pakistan.

Zeba Sathar, the Population Council’s country director, says this “unmet demand” for family planning and advice on the spacing of children – ideas publicly supported by religious leaders – represents a chance that should be seized by governments to slow the population growth rate and ultimately improve the wellbeing of Pakistanis.

“There is no strong coalition of people or parties that are promoting this as an important issue. It is really affecting everything, and we could have been further along,” she says. “It is a bit like the terrorism issue. It affects everyone but no one wants to talk about it.”

If campaigners such as Ms Sathar fail in their mission, the poverty, bad schooling, rising religious militancy and growing population in nuclear-armed Pakistan could become a lethally unstable mixture.

Unless the tens of millions entering the workforce in the next two decades are well educated and able to earn a living, writes economist Akmal Hussain, then “the present tendency towards extremism, intolerance and violence could acquire an explosive potential”.

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