Idle & unemployed

Published July 11, 2023
The writer is a Karachi-based independent journalist.
The writer is a Karachi-based independent journalist.

OUR chief census commissioner Naeemuz Zafar’s words failed to cause a stir when he said recently that there were 249,566,743 of us in the country. That we are too many is stating the obvious. But maybe if he had said it, it may have sunk in. Or maybe if ‘we are too many’ becomes a mantra of sorts, and is repeated from different platforms, we may hear it. We need to hear it from the pulpit, on television and radio, social media, in the national and provincial assemblies and the Senate. We need to hear it in schools and universities. Maybe, Hasan Raheem could come up with a song, maybe Coke Studio could devote a whole season to the population explosion we just witnessed, and maybe then we will stop breeding like rabbits.

Pakistan’s population has doubled twice since 1951, when the first census was held, and is estimated to double again within four years, ie, 2027, registering an eightfold increase since 1951, which is “unacceptably high” if you ask demographer Dr Farid Midhet.

For years, our leaders have been telling us that our youth bulge (currently 58.7 million) is our demographic boom. They are not telling the truth. The government needs to abandon spinning this tale about the population dividend. According to economist Dr Hafiz A. Pasha’s calculations, 17m youth in Pakistan are either ‘idle’ or unemployed; of these almost 7m are young men. Does the government have a plan for the uneducated, malnourished, stunted, unhealthy and unskilled cohort of this country? Because that is what Pakistan will eventually be left with.

The young educated cream, tired of wading through chest-deep corruption, is fleeing the country at the first opportunity. In 2022, more than 800,000 people left the country to work abroad. These are the recorded numbers; the real figures could be manifold. Many from the same educated fraternity, using both legal (on the pretext of pursuing a higher degree, never to return) and illegal (such as last month’s Greek boat tragedy) channels, could be far more.

Pakistan’s population has doubled twice since 1951.

Then there is the frustrated brigade of graduates stuck in Pakistan but unable to find work matching their skillset and education. A 2022 Pakistan Institute of Development Economics study revealed that the unemployment rate among university graduates in Pakistan was over 31 pc.

The government can continue building more schools, universities, hospitals, even dams to store water. It can plan youth development programmes too, but will these ever be enough?

Dr Midhet wants to set up a ‘Population and Development Research Centre’, a kind of a think tank, where new knowledge is generated around population, specially the youth bulge. This knowledge, he says, can then be shared with stakeholders to channel the unemployed (even uneducated) and idle towards more productive use. While there is some donor interest in establishing the centre, he says, it needs to be set up in a government academic institution.

At the same time, policymakers must now look at the 249m figure through the lens of family planning. One does not have to be a demographer like Dr Midhet to understand that the country’s total fertility rate — the average number of births a woman would have in her lifetime and which currently stands at 3.32 — is still quite high. Although India became the most populous country this year, its TFR stands at 2.0 (even below the replacement level of 2.1) and its use of family planning methods is 66.7pc. Pakistan’s stands at 34pc. The Indian government has attributed the decline in its TFR to the increase in the use of contraceptives and rising education among girls.

It is time to stop exploiting the population issue for political one-upmanship as this may only lead us down a rabbit hole. Dr Sabina Durrani, director general of the population programme wing at the Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination, finds such formulas rather skewed. Giving the example of each province using its population numbers to influence the NFC award, or to gain more seats in parliament or a larger share in the civil services quota, she asks that if population is given so much weightage why would provinces want to invest in reducing the size of their respective populations.

UNFPA’s representative in Pakistan says population issues need to be tackled in novel ways to uproot current biases. One way could be to set up an agency like the National Command and Operation Centre (created during the Covid-19 pandemic) for population matters and to safeguard the health and rights of Pakistan’s women and girls, which is the theme of this year’s July 11 World Population Day.

The writer is a Karachi-based independent journalist.

Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2023

Opinion

Editorial

Noshki killings
Updated 14 Apr, 2024

Noshki killings

It must be asked why Baloch separatists continue to target civilians as well as security men despite large deployment.
Upholding the law
14 Apr, 2024

Upholding the law

THE recent discord in Bahawalnagar offers a chance to reflect on the sanctity of the law and its enforcement across...
Tragic travels
14 Apr, 2024

Tragic travels

FOR those embarking on road and boat journeys, the probability of fatal accidents has seen a steady rise. The recent...
Security lapses
Updated 13 Apr, 2024

Security lapses

Ensuring the safety of foreign citizens is paramount, not just for diplomatic relations but for our economic future.
An eventful season
13 Apr, 2024

An eventful season

THE Senate chairman and deputy chairman were elected unopposed, and 41 new senators were sworn in on Tuesday,...
Living rough
13 Apr, 2024

Living rough

WE either don’t see them or don’t want to see them — not even when they are actively trying to get our...