‘Let them eat cake’

26 Oct 2020


The writer is country director, Population Council, Islamabad.
The writer is country director, Population Council, Islamabad.

WE recently saw a postmortem of the crushing shortage of wheat across the country — a heartbreaking, but avoidable, crisis that has left millions of households without access or means to access our staple atta (wheat flour). The many explanations proffered about mafias, hoarding, mismanagement, etc won’t fill empty stomachs. A litany of lame excuses has been cited for this tragedy. It would not be surprising if, already pushed against this wall of hunger, people are told to eat cake, as Marie Antoinette recommended.

Something that appeared to be Malthusian pessimism about population numbers outstripping food and other essential resources leading to famine and other catastrophes may in fact be unfolding in Pakistan. The callous disregard of clear warning signs has already proven costly. There have been more than enough warnings of impending food shortages in the last few years. Last year’s State Bank report warned about food shortages, climate change and rapid, unchecked population growth reaching alarming levels.

More recently, we have seen a slew of reports from international agencies including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the IMF predicting all-time low economic growth at one per cent for the next year! The lowest economic growth in the region, coupled with the highest population growth of more than 2pc forecasts further outstripping of all resources, most importantly food. A situation which could have been avoided can now exacerbate regional and ethnic inequalities and tensions.

International banks (which appear to be more concerned about the situation than our own Pakistani economists) have also sounded a warning about the spiralling numbers of unemployed people. According to demographic projections, we were entering an unprecedented 3pc labour growth rate per annum as far back as 2010. It is almost certain that the labour force will more than double in size between 2020 and 2050, and this will mainly be reflected in the youth population. This potential good news was highlighted for political mileage, but not for planning for the rapidly growing job demand.

A situation which could have been avoided can now exacerbate regional and ethnic inequalities and tensions.

While we can tell the masses to eat cake, what will we say to our millions of youth about the lack of livelihoods? In effect, we are telling them to go fly a kite. Given the shrinking opportunities and the limited skill sets being taught especially to the lower middle class, that may indeed be the only option left for them. It is very ominous when millions of young people become increasingly hopeless; they eventually turn violent. The ripple effects of the Arab Spring should be heeded. Similar developments would affect the economy and political stability and unleash discontent that would be hard to stop.

Recognising the many tasks ahead for the government, certainly controlling food inflation and ensuring the supply of wheat is foremost. Increasing economic growth may require more painful reforms and stricter economic management. But rapid population growth, which has huge implications for the food, employment, housing, education and health situation, can actually be addressed relatively easily and with rapid impact on many sectors, especially economic growth and income per capita.

A suo motu case on behalf of the people addressed the responsibility of the state to provide advocacy, information and services for the unsustainable high population growth rate measured in the 2017 census. The opportunity to address the population crisis was given to the PTI government by the then outgoing chief justice in 2018.

Behind it is the distress of millions of women and families who face a minimum of 4m unwanted and mistimed pregnancies every year. Tangible actionable measures that were submitted to the Supreme Court and endorsed by the Council of Common Interests could bring the growth rate down to 1.5pc by 2024 and 1.1pc by 2030 without coercive or draconian steps. The state has only to honour human rights for the provision of family planning information and services, a responsibility carried out by almost all other countries in the region and across the Muslim world.

In December 2018, Prime Minister Imran Khan appeared at a 700-people packed Supreme Court auditorium endorsing the CCI decisions. Sadly, the signs do not look hopeful two years later. The provinces and regions are struggling to meet their mandates of increasing expenditure and reforms, but the federal role is particularly lacking. There is still time for the federal government to regain the moral authority over a national problem with unity of approach. A population fund providing additional funding (Rs10 billion for the public health sector to provide additional services) is yet to be set up. The federal government should at least contribute half the amount and the corporate sector should contribute its share to a national problem which it too has stakes high in.

This is a call for action in an area that does not require much to be done. This is because the people are ahead of the state in heralding change. It is an area where the government can get results quickly. Most importantly, it will signal change for the very areas that PTI says it cares about — welfare of the people, reduced stunting, reduced maternal deaths and resilience to climate change.

Pakistan is facing urban flooding, electricity power outages in Karachi and other metropolises, locusts destroying crops and the crushing toll of Covid-19. No one would have predicted that the food shortages creeping up on us would escalate with such intensity. Let the brewing storm of rapid population growth due to high unwanted fertility, food shortages and other spiralling costs not shatter the fragile comfort of our elites. But, at the very least, we should not remain complacent and fool ourselves by suggesting that the masses eat cake.

The writer is country director, Population Council, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2020