The explosion we ignore

Published November 25, 2009

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The explosive situation in which Pakistan finds itself, chiefly as a consequence of its own initiatives over recent decades, means that attention inevitably tends to be centred on Islamist militancy and political dysfunction.

Various other aspects of the bigger picture that ought to provide plenty of cause for alarm are relegated to the periphery.

For instance, there weren't too many expressions of concern when a United Nations report predicted back in July that if present trends of population growth persist, Pakistan will be the fourth largest country in the world by 2050. Perversely, the idea of Pakistan trailing behind only China, India and the United States in this respect may even have struck some as a cause for pride.

The warning of a looming demographical disaster was repeated last Saturday in a report commissioned by the British Council and based primarily on an opinion survey focused on the younger generation.

Back when Pakistan came into existence in 1947, it did not figure in the topmost echelons of the world's most populous countries. Twenty years later, it was in sixth or seventh place. At the time, mind you, it consisted of two wings.

East Pakistan subsequently became Bangladesh as the consequence of a genocidal military operation mounted by the very institution that today's Pakistani youngsters, according to the British Council survey, appear to trust most. At the time, its population was marginally higher than that of West Pakistan.

In the intervening decades, the order has been reversed. Pakistan and Bangladesh are today sixth and seventh respectively on the world population chart. A study published last year in the medical journal Lancet helps to explain why Bangladesh has been more successful than Pakistan at curbing population growth.

According to John Cleland, the lead author of the study, an innovative approach by the government in Dhaka made all the difference. Shortly after winning its war of independence, Bangladesh adopted a community-based approach whereby literate village women trained in basic medicine and family planning were recruited to go from door to door, handing out condoms and contraceptive pills, as well as referring women for clinical contraception.

'Because they were literate,' according to Cleland, 'they were part of the elite, and as villagers they had credibility among a suspicious and very religious population.' Fertility rates in Bangladesh have consequently halved from six to three children per woman — a phenomenal achievement.

In Pakistan, on the other hand, only one form of contraception was promoted by paying doctors and midwives intra-uterine devices (IUDs). 'All that money meant vast corruption and falsified figures,' Cleland says, 'while there was not enough medical backup, so when women had problems with the IUDs, they had nowhere to go. When someone did an honest survey, they found that no one was using IUDs.'

As a result, by 2050 Pakistan's population is projected to be 62 million more than that of Bangladesh.

The British Council report suggests the population will swell by 85 million in the next two decades. Two-thirds of Pakistanis are at present under 30. The proportion will obviously increase. Thirty-six million new jobs a year are required to sustain this level of population growth. At the moment, only one million are being created per annum.

According to David Steven, a fellow at New York University's Centre for International Cooperation who served as an adviser for the report, 'you could get rapid social and economic change' if the youth bulge is properly harnessed, 'but the other route will lead to a nightmare that would unfold over 20 to 30 years'.

That's an optimistic opinion. The nightmare is already unfolding, and it is reflected in the opinions ascertained by the British Council survey.

Granted, the statistics that emerge from such reports ought to be taken with a pinch of salt; this particular one is based on interviews with 1,226 young Pakistanis, purportedly a representative sample of the country's youth. The latter claim can always be questioned. Yet that's insufficient cause for disregarding the survey, not least because its inferences and conclusion come across as a reasonably accurate reflection of the national mindset.

It is hardly surprising, for instance, that inflation — 23 per cent this year — trumps terrorism as the primary cause for concern. Or that only one-third of the respondents have any faith in democracy, which almost exactly echoes the proportion who favour whatever they consider to be Islamic modes of governance.

The ruling Pakistan People's Party's spokeswoman Farahnaz Ispahani sees faith in the army (60 per cent) rather than politicians (10 per cent) as a consequence of the fact that hardly any civilian government thus far has been permitted to complete its tenure.

Quite to the contrary, the relative lack of support for the democratic process reflects the nature and predilections of the leading political parties — not least the vagaries of a president who, in trying to posit himself as an indispensable weapon against terrorism, informed Britain's Daily Telegraph earlier this year that he had resisted the influence of 'extremism from Aung San Suu Kyi to the Taliban'.

Asif Ali Zardari isn't, of course, Pakistan's paramount problem. It's the dearth of alternatives that is alarming. As is the absence of role models for young Pakistanis.

It is more than obvious that, in terms of infrastructure and economic growth (or lack thereof), Pakistan is unable to sustain even its present population, let alone the explosion to come. It may not be too late for a concerted effort at population growth, combined with an attempt to provide the educational, healthcare and job opportunities that today's young people desperately require.

The likelihood of appropriate measures, however, remains minuscule. Pakistan, by overtaking Indonesia, will be the largest Muslim country in due course. Too many of its denizens may perceive this likelihood as a means of Pakistan positing itself as the epicentre of a possible caliphate. That's a demented dream with nightmarish consequences. But it's far from clear whether the existing political and military forces can prevent it from unfolding.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

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