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March 20, 2019

Bleak future ahead


March 20, 2019

Raw emotions aside, hopes for a prosperous Pakistan in the years ahead look rather bleak. We may continue to be allotted an identified space on the map but it will be quite a fall for a nuclear-armed country which once was thought to have much potential. Our fellow travellers Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and others have since surged ahead economically and socially. In Pakistan’s case, the galloping population growth will surely be its undoing.

Many serious issues bedevil the country yet the absence of vision and will on part of our leadership persists. Today we are gradually sinking because of our failure in ensuring decent education and technical skills, as well as poor primary healthcare, disregard of land use planning, limited industrialisation and employment generation. The country stands perilously close to a precipice. And this is not hyperbole.

However, by far the most threatening issue facing Pakistan is the massive growth of its population. This simply is unsustainable as the waters rise up to our chin. The fact that we are still breathing is because we are standing on our toes. And how long can one stand on one’s toes!

We number 208 million today and are growing at nearly two percent annually to add four million people to our finite space and resources. By 2050, the population is estimated at 307 million and with an approximate one percent growth rate then would still be adding three million mouths every year. Clearly, this growth is just not sustainable. (Imagine: China’s population of 1.4 billion increases by a mere five million each year and it is estimated that they have prevented over 200 million births during the past forty years).

An option is available to the leadership today. We can stabilise our population to replaceable levels in 10-15 years to around 240 million if the political leadership really means business. An effective family planning programme starting today could provide zero growth at 2.1 percent children per couple by 2035. This would pre-empt nearly 60 million births by 2050 with no increase, allowing only ‘replacement levels’ births. Most advanced countries have achieved these (minus immigration) while all progressive developing countries are moving steadily towards it.

There about nine million pregnancies in Pakistan annually; shockingly, nearly half of these are unintended. Since the state has failed to reach all couples, the ‘Contraception Prevalence Ratio’ is an alarmingly low 35 percent, among the lowest in the world. The result is an annual addition of four million people, simultaneously with two million dangerous abortions used as a family planning device every year and inflicting severe physical and mental trauma and work losses among women.

The World Food Programme estimates that nearly half of Pakistan’s population is food insecure and under-nourished. As adults, such children would not be economically or intellectually productive and would remain a perpetual burden on the state.

Our leadership shamelessly continues to ignore this critical issue only at our children’s peril. The wise leaders of Bangladesh and Iran understood the emerging threat early and largely neutralised it; we substituted rhetoric for reform. Today, Bangladesh has a steady 1.1 percent growth rate while India’s is 1.2 compared to nearly 2 percent in Pakistan. By 2050, both these countries will have near-zero growth rate while we would still be producing around one percent.

It is obvious that those who exercised political power over the past half a century showed no resolve towards addressing this issue. Ten general elections have only led to a marked deterioration in virtually every sphere. We could hold elections till ‘kingdom come’ but the promised fruits of real democracy would continue to elude us. Someone needs to provide the right direction and dynamic acceleration to our top priority matters. Who is that someone?

Since all civil and military rulers, barring President Ayub Khan, failed to handle the population growth problem boldly, the country is paying the price for the neglect. A novel and effective approach is now required. I believe every society has some individual and institutional ‘conscience-keepers’ and Pakistan should be no exception to the rule. Lenin, Mao and Park Chung Hee were the ‘conscience keepers’ of their times. Lee Kuan Yew and Mahatir Mohamad had political cohorts of their own. The common denominator was their dedication.

Pakistan’s ‘conscience keepers’, I imagine, would comprise some at the top tier of its security establishment, the superior judiciary in part and a few, very few, amongst journalists, lawyers and bureaucrats. All of these are basically middle class, well-educated and adhere to faith and family-based values. I am not advocating any deviation from representative governments through fair elections even if these do not deliver results. No formal political platform is required by the ‘conscience-keepers’, who should function informally through ‘advice and consent’. The ‘conscience-keepers’ would need to get the political leadership from all provinces to forge a consensus on family planning to ensure a replacement level population within ten years. The economic gains over time would be more than a hundred IMF packages.

The means would entail developing a ten-year operational action plan complete with resources, constraints and activities clearly identified. The operational target would be to reach all thirty-five million households in the country once every quarter to provide awareness, advice and the necessary supplies.

Since an effective family planning programme is inconceivable without full literacy, there is the necessity for enrolling hundred percent primary level school age children and providing an adult literacy programme as well. The constitution also demands this. Primary healthcare and focus on clean drinking water, toilets and sanitation must form part of the package. More incentives such as cash transfers through food vouchers for poor children, micro credit and employment/rewards for parents would complement the programme.

Admittedly, the country has in the past seen self-declared ‘conscience keepers’ but they approached the issues through direct wielding of formal power. Generals Akbar to Ayub and later Zia to Musharraf wished to cleanse the body politic but each foray left them and their institutions sullied. The judiciary and the media did try to bolster spirits for a period of time but the results fell short of the expectations. Today, the luxury of time is no longer available to us and therefore the influence-wielders would need to make their presence felt quickly.

Once the family planning objective is initiated, the country would need a national political and development consensus on the highest priority issues mentioned above as well and it would be for the ‘conscience keepers’ to nudge the fractious politicians to resolve these as well.

The writer has served as the chiefsecretary of GB, AJK, KP and Sindh and was the chairman of Wapda and thePakistan Railways.

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