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The elephant in the room

July 22, 2011

FOR the last few years, ever since I began spending more time in the UK, I have been using taxis during my frequent and extended visits to Karachi.

Most of my conversations with the drivers are about the problems they face. Invariably, they are centred round the many shortages the working class has to put up with.

On my recent visit, every driver expressed his frustration with the interminable power cuts, most of them imposed by an out-of-control KESC union. Many also talked about the shortage of water in their neighbourhoods, as well as soaring food prices.

To all of them, my reply was consistent: when the population rises at the rate it has been doing in Pakistan over the last 50 years, then we are bound to suffer from shortages. After all, I argued, if the country’s population has risen from 40 million in 1950 to some 190 million now — a nearly five-fold increase — water availability has obviously not gone up by the same rate.

Also, the urbanisation rate has been even higher than the overall rate of population increase, especially in Karachi. So what else can we expect but shortages?

Mostly, demographic statistics are just numbers: it is hard to visualise a five-fold increase in our population over 60 years.

But as a six-year-old in Karachi in 1950, I recall what seemed like vast open spaces in the Napier Barracks of my childhood; compared with the teeming multitudes and the traffic jams of today, the area I grew up in was a haven of peace and cleanliness. What’s true of Karachi is equally true for much of the country. Even in the countryside, people seem to be everywhere. Above all, most of them are very young: 42 per cent of all Pakistanis are below 14 years old, and therefore not contributing to the economy, unless they are forced to work. We are adding between four and five million to our numbers every year at the rate of around eight babies a minute.

By 2020, there will be 300 million happy Pakistanis, most of them going on to make yet more babies. At 30 per cent, Pakistan has the lowest use of contraception in South Asia. Some of these statistics emerged during a recent conference in Karachi to mark the World Population Day, and make sobering reading.

This was one of the few occasions our demographic time bomb was discussed at a public forum recently. For our politicians and much of our media, the issue has simply been swept under the carpet. But it remains the elephant in the room.

One problem is that although there is a growing demand for family planning advice among a large number of women, many of our doctors and other healthcare providers are reluctant to give proper information. They are probably motivated by religious concerns, although there is little to indicate that Islam prohibits contraception. Nevertheless, there is a powerful lobby of ignorant clerics who insist that the more Muslims there are, the better. Never mind that the vast majority of these believers are malnourished, poorly housed and illiterate.

Each time I have asked somebody requesting or demanding my help to feed his or her small tribe of children why they had so many in the first place, I have been told: “It is Allah’s will.” It is hard to respond adequately to this expression of faith and fatalism, but surely we must take responsibility for our own actions, rather than passing the buck on to the Maker for every aspect of our lives.

In the UK, there are now voices being raised for placing population at the heart of efforts to help developing countries. Some politicians have questioned the effectiveness of aid when the recipients are breeding away, thereby diluting the impact of foreign assistance. The ongoing famines and droughts in parts of Africa can be attributed to rapidly growing populations, and the resulting deforestation and desertification caused by intensive farming and grazing.

Thus far, population has been a largely taboo subject, with politicians maintaining that family sizes are about personal choices. But now that the fiscal cuts are beginning to bite, people are asking why they should support social security to large families. Rod Liddle, an acerbic critic of liberal policies, asked in a recent column why he, as a taxpayer, should pay for young, unwed mothers who produce several children and live on the dole. He questioned the state’s role in supporting such a dependent culture.

Taking this line of argument to a global level, the public and politicians in developed countries could well ask why their taxes should underwrite the unchecked fecundity of countries like Pakistan. Surely governments and the media have a role to play in reducing our persistently high population growth rate.

But while endlessly discussing the government’s many failings, I have yet to hear a single chat show on our many TV channels criticising Zardari and his government for not having an effective population planning policy. It seems this issue has simply passed below the radar of our TV anchors. I suppose a discussion on demography would require a bit of research.

More importantly, it would need courage and honesty. To my mind, most of the political and economic problems we face today can be traced directly to our unchecked population increase. With some three million Pakistanis reaching working age every year, there is no way our economy can absorb them. Nor can our creaking education system cater to them. The result is a burgeoning population of young, uneducated people with no prospects and no opportunities. This has produced a growing number of frustrated Pakistanis with few options other than drugs, crime or extremism.

And yet, despite the seriousness of the issue, it is almost completely ignored in Pakistan. Faced with a small but vocal minority of clerics and religious parties, successive governments have shied away from a public discussion and properly resourced policies. The result is there for all of us to see in the form of teeming numbers and resulting shortages: the Indus Basin Treaty with India does not entitle us to a greater share of water just because we insist on breeding like rabbits.

So next time there’s a power cut, or there’s no water from the mains, just remember who to blame.