‘Missing’ threat

Published March 27, 2021
The writer is country director, Population Council, Islamabad.
The writer is country director, Population Council, Islamabad.

THE national security dialogue last week renewed hope that finally Pakistan plans to focus on its own issues and rising internal non-traditional threats. Included in the agenda were climate change, water security, food security and a host of other challenges.

However, it did not go unnoticed that there was no reference to concerns regarding our unabated population growth rate or planning for projected population numbers. Once again in a policy shift that stressed greater introspection for national security issues, the conversation on population is missing. Clearly, 220 million people, growing at twice the level of others in the region, with threats to their livelihood and survival, were not deemed an important topic.

I am now convinced that this is deliberate. Country after country in this region, and even in Sub-Saharan Africa, focus on the population-resources balance to make choices to lower fertility rates. They do so with the intent to secure the basic rights of their current and future generations.

In response to a direct question about why the subject was not included, I was told that not all issues can be addressed at such a high-level three-day dialogue.

There is no conversation on population growth.

If Bangladesh had taken the same position in 1971, if its leadership had not seen the danger of unbridled population growth and focused on population quality, it would not be celebrating its golden jubilee brimming with pride at its socioeconomic progress. Bangladesh made population planning its number one priority in order to address its poverty, weak geopolitical situation and the risks posed by cyclones and rising sea levels.

Fifty years ago, a consensus was developed on population and development policies, with the religious and political parties on board. Political parties were in and out of power with successive elections, but the position did not change. Policy was matched with priority and resources. Their family planning programme involved all government departments, service delivery sectors, NGOS for providing information and services across the country, and widespread advocacy and communication including announcements for family planning teams from mosques.

Bangladesh is now posting statistics showing that child mortality is half the levels in Pakistan and its citizens will live five years longer on average, while female literacy has gone up to 72 per cent (compared to 47pc in Pakistan). If we do not care about these statistics, we certainly should when other figures that do matter to our powerful leaders are presented. Our per capita income today is approximately $1,400 while that of Bangladesh is above $2,000; their foreign exchange reserve is $42 billion, ours is half that at about $21bn; their economic growth during the pandemic last year was 5.2pc compared to our -0.4pc or so.

Bangladesh has achieved replacement fertility of 2.1 children allowing them to make investments in people and their education and health. Our fertility today is 3.6 children per woman. Bangladesh will stabilise at 200m, implying its population size will level off at that maximum for many years while we leap beyond the 350 million-plus mark in a few decades. Who is more likely to prosper, combat pandemics, improve health systems, maximise exports and become more prominent as a nation?

As I wrote this piece on Pakistan Day, I imagined what the Quaid would have envisioned for the Muslims of the subcontinent. Surely he and the leaders of that time never imagined that the more prosperous western wing would neglect the basic rights of millions and have 17m who do not see a school, millions of others who get substandard schooling and millions of girls and women who are not considered for school, or cannot earn their own living due to threats to their security outside the home.

There is evidence that in the 1990s Pakistan did focus on the social sector and made huge gains. Sadly, the last few decades exemplify cruel neglect. Gone are all the excuses of religion and religious backlash, of our people resisting family planning and wanting large families. These have fallen like straw men in today’s world. Even Saudi Arabia grants its women the ability and security to enter the labour force, and access family planning as part of healthcare.

The choice is between two paths: we can focus on one of the largest non-traditional threats or on ‘big boy’ issues. I fear I know which path Pakistan will take. So, let us be prepared for the consequences for internal security and viability as the threat implodes with all the pressure exerted by 340m Pakistanis by 2050.

It is not a question of not raising these concerns, because there is sufficient evidence of the fallout of a large and fast-growing population. It is simply a question of selective deafness, where the status quo suits many people in power who rule over a large army of devoted countrymen and women ready to accept their fate without protest.

The writer is country director, Population Council, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2021

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