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August 7, 2020

Right to life


August 7, 2020

Thomas L Friedman, Pulitzer Prize Winner, in his famous book ‘The world is flat’, warned us that “rapid population growth have converged in a way that could make our planet dangerously unstable” and the task of allowing the world to grow sustainably “is going to be the biggest challenge of our lifetime”

During the period of the interim government (2018), in addition to the portfolios of law and information, I was also entrusted with charge of the ministries of energy, petroleum and water, and having closely studied the facts and figures, I too concluded that Pakistan will be unable to achieve its goals and meet aspirations of its people if this one ever-expanding crippling crisis – the storm of unbridled population growth – is not addressed urgently.

If we do not do anything about population control now, I see another terrible storm ahead, which is the rising tide of ‘extremism’ resulting from forced migration from rural to urban centers. Even today more than 20 percent of Pakistanis live in 10 major cities and by 2025 nearly half of the country's population will live in urban areas. When cities become overpopulated they acquire the character of an ‘urban jungle’, in which disillusioned and unemployed youth can be easily led astray and fall prey to extremist elements. While today the youth bulge is an advantage for Pakistan, tomorrow if it continues unabated, it will become a liability which would be a serious threat to the country’s security.

Ironically, one of the first countries to recognize the importance of population control was Pakistan. In 1965 Leslie Corsa, who was appointed as the first family planning consultant, wrote that “Indeed Pakistan is lucky that its president has recognized early on in Pakistan’s young history (the importance of) checking population growth”. At that time, Pakistan’s population was slightly more than a hundred million.

Unfortunately, there has been a big gap between policy and its implementation. To add to the problems, after the 18th Amendment, family planning became a provincial subject. Many suggestions and lofty promises have been made since but they were never acted upon. The result is that today Pakistan’s population has increased at an annual average growth of more than 2.4 percent to 208 million people. If this trend continues, it is estimated that by the year 2050 Pakistan’s population will swell to 337 million. The country must be prepared to respond. What then should it do?

The world has tried different models to control birth rates. China succeeded to quite some extent through a forced ’one child, one family’ rule. They could do so because it was an authoritarian regime. India tried the concept of mandatory sterilization to stop large families during the time of Indira Gandhi’s government. This proved to be a disaster. Bangladesh adopted MATLAB and used clerics for this program to be acceptable to the population. They had limited success.

But it is Iran’s population control measures which have proved to be most humane and effective. Rural Iran has experienced world history’s most rapid reduction in birth rates (total fertility declined from 6.5 in 1996 to 1.6 births for women in 2012). Most amazing was the speed with which all this was achieved (the target set to be met by 2011 was met 11 years earlier by 2000). We would do well to study and follow the Iranian model.

How did Iran achieve this? First of all, Iran’s program was led by its clergy, and the catalyst for this was the fatwa issued by Imam Khomeini, followed by other high ranking clerics stating that “Contraception was not inconsistent with Islamic tenets as long as it did not jeopardize the health of the couple, and was used with the informed consent of the husband.”

This was immediately followed by creating a comprehensive health network in which government resources were pumped in for human and infrastructure resources. Educated women were hired, trained and employed as health workers to provide active service delivery in villages.

Side by side, the Iranian government concentrated on the empowerment of women, realizing that without this no policy for population control can succeed. The effect of this government initiative is obvious and today in public universities in Iran, female students outnumber males by 65 percent to 35 percent. The health houses and family planning programs in villages were trained to help empower women by changing historical norms.

The cultures of Iran and Pakistan are similar. We have a ready-made program which can be followed, if necessary, with some tweaking and further improvements. To start with, the entire clergy must be brought together to break the myth that contraception and health control is un-Islamic. At the same time, Pakistan needs to invest in health infrastructure.

Key to the success of Iran’s program of course was the effective way in which the information about the population and government’s policy was communicated to the people. In line with this principle, Pakistan too must run an effective nationwide awareness campaign on media and theatre, which is part of our culture and not only a source of entertainment but also offers a way to connect with the people. Through this, false propaganda amongst people that there is an ulterior motive underlying Pakistan’s family planning programme which is based on some foreign agenda can be countered and the social pressure on the poor can be eased.

Malthus, who warned us of the impending disaster of population control in his ‘An Essay of the Principle of Population’ published over two hundred years ago, argued that human population would “increase inexorably until it was halted by misery and vice.” Sir David Attenborough, one of the most well-known naturalists living today, in his lecture while talking about Malthus said “The fundamental truth that Malthus proclaimed remains the truth. There cannot be more people on this earth that can be fed.”

Population planning is included in the Millennium Development Goals and the Supreme Court has also decided it to be part of the ‘Right to Life’. Pakistan is on the verge of meeting developmental indicators because of CPEC and this is a golden opportunity for the federal government, in spite of the 18th Amendment, to turn the youth bulge from an asset to a liability by activating the CCI.

The writer is a Supreme Court advocate, former federal minister for law and former president of the SCBA.

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