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The population question

July 28, 2011

IS overpopulation the root cause of all ills in Pakistan, such as poor governance, terrorism and shortages? So argue Mr Ardeshir Cowasjee and Mr Irfan Husain in recent articles in Dawn . Both have been towering intellectual figures on the Pakistani landscape for long. Thus, I dispute their viewpoint with reluctance and, of course, utmost respect.

An oft-mentioned fact is that Pakistan's population is growing much faster than India's and Bangladesh's. This fact is then presented as the cause of Pakistan's higher current affliction with complex problems. However, it is not its population growth rate (at least not in the present period) but a country's current ratio of population and available resources that can create problems. A higher population growth rate only means that this ratio is deteriorating faster in Pakistan and that it may ultimately become the worst among the three. It does not mean that it is already the worst.

Given that all three are rural countries, land is among their most crucial resources. Pakistan's land-population ratio is more favourable than India's and Bangladesh's, and will remain so for years. Consider arable land only and Pakistan is still better endowed than Bangladesh and similarly endowed as India. On economic resources available per person or per capita income, which affects the national availability of the physical and utility infrastructure, Pakistan matches India and exceeds Bangladesh by far.

Thus, if overpopulation was really the mother of all problems then Bangladesh and India should experience more problems than Pakistan. The fact that they do not suggests that the 'ultimate cause' is not overpopulation but the higher concentration of political and economic resources with elites (such as landlords, generals and businessmen) in Pakistan. This over-concentration leads to poorer governance and fewer resources for, and consequently severe resource competition among, the vast majority of the population despite the higher overall availability of critical resources in Pakistan.

Pinpointing overpopulation as the ultimate cause means blaming the marginalised for the sins of the powerful. Who contributes more to national power shortages: a poor family of 10 with two bulbs, a fan and a mule, or a rich family of four with ACs, blinding exterior flashlights and SUVs? If governed efficiently and equitably, Pakistan has adequate resources to ensure decent lives for its population for several decades (though obviously not indefinitely).

Nor are famines caused mainly by overpopulation. Amartya Sen, the renowned Indian economist, long ago demolished the central roles assigned earlier to overpopulation, laziness, fatalism and drought in understanding the causes of famines. His entitlement theory instead links famines mainly with the marginalisation of poor people. My own experiences while living in villages for several months during my doctoral dissertation work in the Horn of Africa (the epicentre of famines globally) and then in working in almost 30 food-insecure countries in Africa provided me with ample real-life evidence of Sen's brilliant theoretical insights. Similarly, climate change is being caused mainly by elite over-consumption rather than overpopulation.

This does not mean that population growth is a trivial issue for Pakistan. Clearly, the government must tackle it urgently, especially because of its dire implications for mothers' health and for the country's future resources-population ratio. However, moral exhortations alone will not do the trick, especially when published in English newspapers, whose readership contains hardly any of the poor, illiterate 'culprits' normally engaged in overzealous procreation. Nor is it helpful to describe the fertility patterns of the poor with insensitive phrases such as “breeding like rabbits”. The key lies in fully understanding the complex causes for the high population growth rate and developing sensible solutions.

Why do poor, uneducated people usually have so many children? Fatalism and traditional attitudes usually come to mind immediately. They definitely do make some contribution and must be dealt with, but through community-level awareness-raising. However, talk to poor people in detail, as I have had the good fortune of doing in almost 50 countries around the world as a development professional, and other, more important, reasons emerge.

These include the need for extra labour given the lack of physical and financial capital, and the anxiety to have sons as old-age security given the lack of government social security schemes. They also include women's low empowerment and the lack of access to contraceptives due to lack of government services. These factors are all linked to inequitable distribution of power and the attendant bad governance that emerges from it.

Ironically, even if the government miraculously awakens from its deep slumber immediately and adopts highly effective family planning programmes, Pakistan's population will continue to grow for years and will likely only taper off around the 300-million mark, much like an express train that travels far even after applying emergency brakes.

This cataclysmic-sounding future is unavoidable. However, inevitabilities must not breed desolation but creativity so as to convert threats into opportunities. Glancing through the annals of the rising economic stars of today, one is immediately struck by the fact that it is no longer the original four Asian Tigers (e.g. tiny Singapore) but large countries like China, India, Brazil and Russia (BRIC) that are being heralded as the main emerging economic powerhouses. These countries are becoming economic leaders even though their per capita incomes are much lower than Singapore's because their overall economic size is very large due to their enormous populations.

Even with the best of efforts, it is no longer possible for Pakistan to arrest its ultimate graduation to the rank of the fourth most populated country globally. However, it is possible to adopt policies that help convert this large population into a large economy. Pakistan must apply emergency brakes on its population express train and accelerate its meandering development train that currently calls at all possible stops and stations. Both tasks require tackling the real “ultimate cause” — over- concentration of power.

The writer is a research associate on political economy issues at the University of California, Berkeley.