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Exploding population bomb

Zahid Hussain

AMIDST intense political wrangling and a show of national indignation over President Donald Trump’s threatening words, a more important issue affecting the future of this country has gone almost unheeded. The population time bomb that had long been ticking is now exploding.

While in other underdeveloped countries, the population growth rate has slowed down significantly, it is a different story in Pakistan. The latest population census has shown that Pakistan has moved up the ladder becoming the fifth most populous nation only behind India, China, the United States and Indonesia. It is an alarming situation, especially considering the extent of poverty in the country.

With a staggering growth rate of 2.4 per cent per annum, the country’s population is around 208 million. That marks an increase of more than 57pc since the last population census in 1998, and is higher than what had been projected.

With abysmal human development indicators, this population explosion presents a most serious challenge to the socioeconomic stability and security of this country. With 60pc of the population under the age of 30 and fewer job opportunities, it is a disaster in the making. What is most worrisome is that this population explosion and its implications have drawn little attention from the political leadership that is engaged in a fierce power struggle.

Despite the gravity of the situation, the issue has hardly figured in the national discourse. It is not surprising that the decennial population count, a constitutional obligation, was delayed by almost two decades and was held only on the intervention of the apex court. Not surprisingly, the provisional results of the latest census too are being disputed.

There are some questions regarding the methodology used and how the urban and rural divide is defined. It is Sindh that is up in arms over what is described by its government as a deliberate attempt to understate the population of the province. The fact that Karachi’s population is less than what estimates showed gives some credence to Sindh’s objections. Meanwhile, the population of Lahore has more than doubled in the same period of time, causing some eyebrows to be raised.

Indeed, there is some explanation to these discrepancies. While part of Karachi falls in the rural category, the Punjab government eliminated the distinction between rural and urban areas in its capital. Then there are also questions about the unexpected rise in the population of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Similarly, the higher than average national growth of the population in Balochistan has also been questioned. Some believe it is largely due to the influx of Afghans in the province and that this could alter the ethnic balance between the Baloch and Pakhtun populations. But while this may sound plausible, there is still an urgent need for coming up with all the details and findings of the census. Surely, these are political problems that have arisen after each census.

Notwithstanding the political controversies, the point that is being missed in the entire discourse is the challenge that this uncontrolled population growth poses to our society and how to defuse this exploding bomb. It just shows what little priority we attach to population planning.

Remarkably, while so many parts of the world have seen a reduction in fertility rates and population growth, Pakistan’s growth rate has increased. Pakistan’s fertility rate is among the highest in the region. Indeed, this is a scary situation. But is anyone bothered?

Interestingly, other Muslim countries like Bangladesh and Iran have successfully controlled their population; that is also reflected in their improved human development indicators. With few efforts going into family planning, there is no sign of the population growth rate coming down significantly. At this rate, Pakistan may well become the world’s fourth most populous nation by 2030, surpassing Indonesia.

Not surprisingly, Pakistan is ranked 147th in the Human Development Index with close to 30pc of the population living below the poverty line. Literacy rate remains dismally low at 58pc, though many dispute even this figure as too high. With thousands of newborns added to the population each day, even this ranking on the development index would be hard to sustain.

One other alarming development is rapid urbanisation testing the fragile infrastructure of megacities. Census data shows explosive growth in urban centres since the last census. The fact that Pakistan is witnessing one of the fastest urbanisation rates is not fully reflected in the census because of the skewed definition of urban and rural areas. Hence the urban population at 36.4pc of the total population appears unrealistic.

This massive population growth is one of the factors contributing to environmental degradation. Major environmental challenges currently confronting Pakistan such as climate change, deforestation, pollution and waste management are rightly attributed to rising population density.

Pakistan, being one of the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, has to bear the consequences of the increasing population. The existing environment management capacity cannot sustain such a large population if it is to provide a good quality of life.

Meanwhile, for a country confronting violent extremism, such a high population growth rate and huge youth bulge with apparently shrinking economic opportunities make it far more difficult to deal with the rising menace of militancy. There may not be a direct link between radicalisation and poverty but some studies show illiteracy as one of the major causes of youth being attracted to extremist religious groups. An illiterate and unemployed population provides readymade volunteers for militant groups of all hues.

All these problems faced by the country cannot be dealt with effectively unless the population growth is brought under control. It may be late but the situation can still be salvaged with the state taking the issue more seriously. The exploding population bomb has put the country’s future in jeopardy. But is anyone paying heed to the approaching catastrophe?

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