IN 1968, a professor from Stanford and his wife wrote a book warning about overpopulation. The book is criticised for its repetition of the Malthusian theory, and rightly so. Since its publication, the global population has doubled, and food productivity has increased. Numbers confirm that the world produces enough calories; they are just not equally distributed.
However, developed and developing countries often face different population challenges. For instance, while many lower-middle- and lower-income countries struggle to control their populations, the developed world is now concerned with decreasing fertility. A 2019 book Empty Planet documents the concerns about falling fertility rates in the rich world.
Pakistan remains stuck in its overpopulation crisis. By 2050, it is predicted to have 338m people and is expected to be fourth out of the nine countries that are set to account for half the world’s projected population. While official documents repeatedly view the youth bulge as an economic dividend, it is often forgotten that Pakistan is practically last in all development and social indicators.
Pakistan has not only avoided its population debate but also indirectly incentivised population growth. Before restructuring the National Finance Commission, 2009, the division of the resource pool was solely based on population numbers. The recklessness in not recognising population growth as a security threat is also reflected in the National Security Policy. The latter recognises migration, health, climate and food as threats to human security but misses population growth, except for a mere reference.
Pakistan has no future if it continues to grow at this pace.
It took Britain 130 years to reduce its fertility rate from five to two and India 25 years to bring it down from six to five. Reducing fertility rates is particularly difficult in places which are poor because without safety nets, having more children means investment and insurance. As the proverb goes: “a child comes with two hands and only one mouth.”
Secondly, in places where women are celebrated for their biological roles, childbearing brings more value. As families without children are seen as incomplete and childless women are subjected to social stigma, having children means higher acceptability in society.
In its tiny fiscal space and repeated economic crises, Pakistan has no future if it continues to grow at the same pace. There is a need to learn from countries where fertility rates dropped much faster. For instance, it took Britain 130 years, but Iran 22 and South Korea 20 to reduce fertility rates. Even if one accounts for cultural differences, Pakistan can look at its once poor part, Bangladesh. According to the 1951 census, West Pakistan had a population of 33.7m while East Pakistan had 42m people. Today, Bangladesh is a country of 164m, and Pakistan of 220m. India has also grown at a slower pace than both Pakistan and Bangladesh despite being the second-most populous country. Pakistan’s population rate has declined but more due to natural reasons and less due to the success of the population policy.
Nature has endowed childbearing abilities only to women, but the decision to bear a child is often not her own. Decreasing fertility will not only mean less stress on scarce resources such as land and water but will also have a positive spillover effect on democracy and growth. The solution lies in directing education, jobs and credit to women. For instance, Iranian women went from having seven children in 1980 to less than two in 2006 when a big rise in female education was noted. Advice can help too. For example, in Bangladesh, from the early days BRAC and the government jointly distributed advice and contraceptives. This was one reason why Bangladesh was able to bring down its fertility rate from 6.1 in 1980 to 2.3 in 2010.
Secondly, for families to be smaller, they will need to be healthy. Pakistan has one of the highest infant mortality rates (higher than sub-Saharan Africa). Unless services such as pre- and postnatal care, potable water, healthcare and nutrition for mother and child, and disease control get better, survival rates for children will not improve.
Thirdly, there is a need to implement laws on child labour and early marriages. The recent turmoil when a father pleaded that his daughter was a minor and therefore unfit for marriage is an example of how non-seriously the legal age of marriage is taken. For a long-term change in attitudes, the curriculum needs to be designed to address the obsession with male children.
Lastly, Pakistan as a nation needs to acknowledge women outside their biological roles and as human resources. While the nation is obsessed with discussing IMF plans, early elections, corruption etc, it is time to remind the policymakers that there are several issues of grave importance needing immediate attention — and that the population clock is still ticking.
The writer is a research fellow at IBA, Karachi.
Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2022