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The most lethal bomb

June 27, 2011

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ON May 3, while Pakistanis were reeling from the immediate aftermath of the Abbottabad affair, the United Nations Population Division was releasing its updated demographic projections for the country.

Understandably, these new estimates garnered little, if any, attention in Pakistan. Yet they bear mentioning here, given how drastically they differ from previous projections. According to the revised medium-variant estimates, Pakistan will have 275 million people by 2050 — significantly less than the 335 million forecast previously. If fertility rates remain constant, the country will hold about 380 million people by that year — not the 450 million estimated earlier.

What to make of these lowered projections? Has the population bomb, in effect, been defused?

Far from it. Even if the estimates have been downgraded, Pakistan’s population growth is still soaring. The country’s total fertility rate (TFR) is currently about 3.6, significantly higher than the replacement level rate (2.1) now registering across much of the world. A quarter of Pakistan’s women wish for, but do not use, some form of contraception, which is due in part to the fact that many rural Pakistani women must travel, on average, 50 to 100 kilometres to receive family planning services. Unsurprisingly, the country’s contraception prevalence rate (CPR) registers at only 30 per cent. Little wonder Pakistan has the highest population growth, birth, and fertility rates in South Asia.

Ultimately, however, one must not let the UN estimates about future population growth detract from an essential point:

Pakistan can barely support its existing population. As much as a third of Pakistanis may lack access to safe drinking water.

Seventy-seven million are food-insecure. Forty million out of the country’s 70 million 5-to-19 year-olds do not attend school.

Half the population is not fully active in the labour force, while women’s labour participation rates barely crack 20 per cent.

Such statistics have a silencing effect on all the happy talk about the country’s potential to experience a “demographic dividend” in which a young, growing workforce helps usher in national prosperity and development. So does the observation of Nadeem ul Haque, the deputy chair of the Planning Commission, that Pakistan will require nine per cent GDP growth (it is now 2.4pc) to employ its nearly 100-million-strong under-20 population.

From this silence emerges a drumbeat of demographic doom. It warns of cities overflowing with the hungry and the homeless, nationwide natural resource scarcities, and youth radicalisation — all scenarios becoming more realistic than remote by the day.

Pakistan’s demographic conundrum arguably constitutes the country’s greatest development challenge. This is because of its sheer magnitude, but also because there is no supply-side quick-fix. Policymakers can erect dams to generate more water, or authorise more grain production to increase food supply, but (short of a China-style one-child policy) they cannot flick a switch to produce fewer people. Nor, presumably, would they wish to do so.

As a result, Pakistan’s population policies effectively boil down to a plethora of vague promises (rarely kept) about making future progress toward improving an alphabet soup of demographic indicators. While one day achieving targets for lower TFRs and higher CPRs would be lovely, the need of the moment is to devise concrete, actionable policies that ease the plight of today’s population.

These may include convening a high-level task force to oversee the development of a universal education plan; generating incentives for the private sector to ramp up investment in urban housing, jobs, and basic services; and better educating Pakistani clergy and men — groups that often oppose women’s contraception use in Pakistan — about the merits of family planning services.

To be sure, all this takes time and political will, both of which are in short supply, given Pakistan’s multitude of real-time challenges and the extreme caution prevailing in policymaking circles during such volatile times.

Admittedly, in an era of deep public scepticism toward the government, it is difficult for Islamabad to convince the Pakistani people that population policies are genuinely meant to bolster the country’s economic development and social well-being, and not to control population growth and meddle in their personal lives.

The highly politicised process of conducting this year’s national census (the first since 1998) is also problematic. The Sindh Census Monitoring Committee recently accused census workers of committing “large-scale malpractices.” How can Pakistan be in a better position to allocate scarce resources equitably among its masses if, as alleged by the committee, washrooms and electric poles are counted as houses?

Pakistan’s politicians, however, have not exactly treated the census with solemnity and respect. Last year, according to media reports, the census commissioner had to delay his announcement that the census would occur in 2011 because members of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Economic Affairs and Statistics failed to show up. Then, once the commissioner finally began speaking, another MP left the room.

This lack of interest is as disturbing as the allegations of improprieties. In fact, discussions about broader demographics are rare in Pakistan. Other than periodic recitations of distressing statistics, occasional conferences, and an obligatory speech on World Population Day, little debate transpires. Zeba Sathar, one of Pakistan’s top demographers, has lamented how demographic issues are effectively “sidelined” by matters perceived as more pressing.

As Pakistan’s population continues to rise, as the strain on natural resources and basic services intensifies, and as the masses grow more and more restless, one shudders at the long-term implications of such inattention and inaction.

The writer is the South Asia programme associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and lead editor of Reaping the Dividend: Overcoming Pakistan’s Demographic Challenges.

michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org