Recently I saw an excellent article “Missing Threat” by Zeba Sathar in the press. This was about our population predicament. Actually overpopulation is never seen as a ‘threat’ as such. How can it be regarded as a threat when it appears as adorable babies, a gift of God of inconceivable beauty? How can the miracle of birth be a threat? But it only takes a few years when these beautiful babies grow up to become an unbearable burden on the society, ie if we do not have matching development and opportunities for them. The more alarming part however of the article was that ‘population’ was not considered a priority in a recent high level conference on National Security Dialogue. My contention is that - can we be secure with a ‘bomb’ strapped around our bodies?
The first person to use ‘bomb’ terminology for humans was Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford biologist, with his seminal books ‘The Population Bomb’ (70’s) and ‘The Population Explosion’ (90’s). Since then the issue of numbers and their welfare has triggered an interesting debate. Some feel that birth control is part of neo-liberal policies with its elitist self-interest. A decent social justice with planned development could actually turn numbers into potential assets for progress. The edict was that high population growth is not the cause but a consequence of poverty, but some see this the other way around. The teeming masses see children as an investment, helping hands in younger days and caring hands in older age.
The population ‘threat’ scare dates back to a 19th century cleric named Thomas Malthus who prophesied that population doubles in 25 years and if it remains unchecked it will cause food shortage, mass hunger, disease, plagues and wars. An amazing prediction that fits well with most of the under-developed world coinciding with the recent global corona pandemic. Countries with higher Human Development Index have proved Malthusian theories wrong with dramatic decline in the fertility rate. The under developed countries continue to suffer with a burden of teeming millions because they are unable to provide matching infrastructure, development and social justice.
Clearly, in the last 70 years our leadership has miserably failed to achieve even the lowest of standards of social justice and matching development goals for a population that grows more than double in 25 years. The spectre of poverty, disease, ignorance, crime, filth, squalor, hunger and malnutrition stalk the land, with only tiny islands of affluence. Our society has become a classic example of inequality and injustice. Politicians of every colour have had a go at our plummeting fate, but nothing seems to work. From 32 million in 1947 we almost doubled to 61.38 million, in 1972. In the next 25 years, in 1999 we reached 138.64 million, beating the Malthusian theory of doubling. One can easily guess what will happen in 2024 when the population does not even find a place in the priority list. President Ayub was the only leader who instituted a clear agenda for birth control, but with his departure a decent population programme for the country just fizzled out and put the country in crisis management mode, one after another.
The relationship between poverty and overpopulation is paradoxical but the answer to both is one ie investment in social objectives accompanied by systematic reduction of population by scientific methods. The population reduction can never be left out of developmental goals. The two go hand in hand for economic development.
There is no dearth of population experts, we just need to appreciate the importance of birth control. Look at our planet, it took all the history to come to one billion in the 1800s, another billion was added in a century, and it took merely 30 years to add another billion. End of 20th century we scored 6 billion marks. In just two decades we are approaching 8 billion. Ask a layperson and he will spell it out; if you have prepared 10 loaves of bread while the starving mouths are 100, there are chances that things will get ugly. Uglier, if we equate this metaphor on a mega scale of a city. Add housing, energy and livelihood. There is an unprecedented migration of millions towards the cities. It is estimated that soon 60 percent of the world population will be urbanised. Then there are horrific problems of densification in urban centres which are already over-crowded and turning into death traps. The food and energy production for a burgeoning population has proved to be a disaster for the planet's resources and ecology. All environmental problems of waste disposal, air and ocean pollution, deforestation, desertification, global warming and climate crises, low agricultural production are directly related to the growing numbers and an imminent global threat.
I feel that unprecedented overpopulation is a fundamental problem underlying all ills of the society, therefore I would urge the present government to re-prioritise its agenda. I feel that family planning efforts should run parallel with all programmes for social-justice, health-care and education, and a solid programme of birth control should become a first priority along with food-water security and climate change. It seems that all economic wizards who have had a go at our economic well-being are afraid to tackle the numbers. It has become a cliché to quote Bangladesh’s economic prosperity in just a few decades, achieving fertility rate from 6.9 to 2.1 (global threshold), allowing them to make investments in their economy and welfare of the people! Voila. Can we really continue with a fertility rate of 3.6? One of the several reasons that China has become a wonder workshop of the world is because of strict enforcement of its ‘one child policy’. Quoting examples and statistics can fill the page. But nothing works if our planning is flawed. God has been magnanimous with our country. Let’s do the right thing for future generations.
The writer is a freelance contributor