Monday September 26, 2022

Political economy of demographics

September 01, 2017

I asked the producer of a TV show why we couln’t have a question regarding the provisional results of the 6th population census on the show. Her answer was curt and prompt, as would have been of any other producer: “People don’t have any interest in it”.

She was perhaps waiting for the issue to become a political controversy between the provinces. To her delight, and almost of the whole of the media, it has now become a hot issue among various protagonists – not for any concern for the population explosion, but for the politics of entitlement that requires a higher growth of headcounts at the ‘expense’ of others.

My nationalist friend Nisar Khuhro, senior minister in the PPP government in Sindh, took the lead in lambasting what he called ‘a conspiracy against Sindh’ due to the province being under-numerated – despite a 2.41 percent growth. He was joined by Dr Farooq Sattar of the MQM (P) for the adversarial reason of urban under-representation of Karachi, even though Sindh has uniquely become over 52.2 percent urban. Joining the MQM chorus, even our worthy Karachiite sociologists are totally unhappy with the understatement of the “administrative” definition of urbanisation which, perhaps, excludes what they call “peri-urban” or urban periphery, although covered by some tier of local council.

Since rural Sindh is going to lose some representation and urban Sindh is increasingly becoming non-Urdu speaking, both the PPP and the Sindhi nationalists will fight the ‘bias’ against Sindhis and all factions of the MQM will protest against the not expected rise of Karachi’s population (which rose by 60 percent). The Mohajir exclusionists forget that the greater the growth of population in Karachi, the worse will be the loss of the numerical strength of Mohajirs. Yet, the provisional results of census give all adversaries in Sindh an ‘opportunity’ to fuel their ethnic incompatibility, even though the fact is that Sindh has grown a little above the national average and its share in the overall population remains the same (23 percent). Indeed Karachi’s population growth has been stymied by bloody ethnic politics, lawlessness and the prolonged Rangers’ operations. In fact, a reverse migration could be observed during all these bloody years that made the lives of so many miserable.

Except for Fata – a victim of torturous displacement – the Pakhtuns of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (with a 2.89 percent increase) and the Quetta division, almost tripling (from 1.72 million to 4.2 million people), seemed to be more than satisfied with their much higher population growth rate than the national average. The highest growth in KP is due to both internally displaced tribals and the Afghan refugees who have added huge numbers in both Balochistan and KP. It is not yet clear how far Fata’s enumeration is close to reality in a most disturbing environment. But it still grew by 57 percent, according to provisional estimates. The Pakhtuns stand to gain in both KP and Balochistan and they may have six additional seats plus double the size of their representation from Fata – making them the second largest community that has been moving towards Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi.

But the numerical losers in their own province are the Baloch due to the phenomenal decease in their proportion in Balochistan, from a 2.1 percent decrease in Zhob and Nasirabad to 1.6 percent in Kalat division, 1.6 percent in Sibi and 0.6 percent in Makran as compared to the geometrical rise of Pashtuns with the inclusion of the Afghan refugees. The Baloch nationalist parties were first to express their apprehensions against the probable inclusion of Afghan refugees in the census as Pakistani citizens. This could become a major bone of contention that may give birth to a demand for a Baloch province minus what was once called British Balochistan.

For once, big brother Punjab is a loser – by dropping from 55.6 percent to 52.9 percent in the total population – and has fatefully stood below the national average at 2.13 percent. This may result in the reduction of four to six National Assembly seats and a 3.3 percent reduction of share in the NFC Award, the consequent benefits in terms of seats and divisible pool going to KP and Balochistan. Lahore has grown from 5.11 million to 11.1 million and is expanding with sprawling satellite towns – connecting Lahore with Gujranwala, Sialkot, Sheikhupura, Faisalabad, Okara and Faisalabad. This makes the core of central Punjab that has emerged as the primary locus of growth as Karachi – despite being in the lead as a commercial hub – gives way to Lahore as a better attraction for business.

On the other hand, a lower growth in the Seraiki belt, due to out-migration, will raise the issues of underdevelopment and marginalisation at the hands of the hegemony of the seat of power – Takht-e-Lahore. Like the Baloch, the Seraikis are also protesting neglect and deprivation due to a relatively lower rate of growth due to migration towards Lahore. The Seraikis of Multan, Bahawalpur and Dera Ghazi Khan are now 31.56 percent of Punjab and, with the inclusion of Sargodha division with 14.65 percent, they become 46.71 of the dominant province. Given the sharp disparity between central Punjab and the Seraiki region, the issue of a new province is going to become a rallying point for the deprived region.

More than the ethnic fissures the new census may create, the real challenge that has come is a higher rate of growth (207.8 million at 2.40 percent) than estimated. In 19 years, we have jumped from 130 million in 1998 to 207.8 million – a 57 percent increase. This glaringly reflects the failure of population planning in this country. Even when we were 130 million, a vast majority of people were excluded from the benefits of the inverted growth that favours the two cores of Karachi and Lahore at the hands of appropriation of resources from the periphery and an elitist-militarist development model that suited the dominant elites and a parasitic establishment. Now Pakistan is clearly divided between the elitist private and defence housing societies and a huge mass of hapless people without any amenities and services.

The all-sided neglect of the people has resulted in: over two-thirds living under or close to the poverty line with no access to education and health services, including family planning; 25 million children being out of school; 44 percent children stunted and 55 percent anaemic; 84 percent people without safe drinking water and staggering rates of unemployment and under-employment. What is most glaring is the continuing reduction in female population at the hands of patriarchal practices and gender discrimination from the time of birth. There are now 48.8 percent women as compared to 51.2 percent men – or 100 women as compared to 105 men; that, at least, limits the scope for polygamy.

In the absence of quality education and appropriate training, the empty talk about the youth bulge is an inverse dividend that may create a storm of dissatisfaction against the current exclusionary and unsustainable elitist and militarist model that it may not afford to deal with in a not too distant a future. But the dominant elites, instead of addressing the vital socio-economic concerns of the absolute majority of the population, are either playing games of musical-chairs for power or dividing the people on ethno-sectarian lines. While the dominant elites and the powerful establishment are neither ready to cut their non-productive consumption nor alleviate the suffering of the toiling masses, the people are increasingly becoming alienated and marginalised.

No political party or media house has taken a serious look at the population explosion, which requires reversal of the policies of revenue generation and expenditure while focusing on people-centric development. An inclusive and sustainable growth model needs to be evolved to primarily engage people in a productive process while overcoming regional inequalities. Pakistan also cannot afford to remain a national security state that is at war with all its neighbours. Most of the national resources will have to be addressed to alleviate poverty and provide social services to the people, the youth in particular.

Without alleviating poverty, and promoting quality education and health for all, we cannot defuse the population bomb that is ticking before our eyes. But what can one hope for when various leaders from different socio-ethnic backgrounds are demanding a greater rate of population growth while they cannot address the needs of the existing lot?

Note: The observations given in this article are tentative due to only provisional census data being available as of now.

The writer is a senior journalist.


Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA