Wednesday June 12, 2024

Ticking bomb

By Muhammad Ihtisham Akram
April 07, 2021

Population stabilization needs to have a national call for action. The more than 200 million population continues to haunt the development of Pakistan.

In 2018, the national policy attitude for addressing the high population growth in the country was jolted when the apex court of the country took suo-motu notice of the alarming population growth. While renewed commitment is a welcome move, the notice of the issue by SC was an outcome of the chronic policy gaps and lapses which have resulted into the long denial of family planning as a human right to the population of Pakistan. It is important to mention that the population control agenda in Pakistan is almost as old as Pakistan itself.

The population control program in the country started in the 1960s and since then has continued in various shapes, forms and institutions. However, in more than half a century of its journey, except in a couple of decades such as in the 1990s, most of the time the population agenda has either been mere lip service or been treated as business not par attention by the policymakers of the country. Many times our governments did not even have population ministers. In our administrative circles, the population welfare department is one of the least preferred choices for high positions.

The worst implication of the policy inattention towards the population issue has been lack of enough resources for addressing population as a development challenge. Not to mention that this is not unique to population only. In most of the departments the development budget is a meagre proportion vis-a-vis the current budget. The inconsistent and laissez faire policy attitude towards population not only results in a lack of resource availability but also wastes other investments. For the last several years, the national and provincial exchequers are paying the salaries of staff but the products and services which the staff has to deliver are missing.

Subjects such as health, population and education have mostly been treated as less preferred investment domains by the policymakers of the country. As a result, the government budget for these subjects are venues of easy cuts, delayed releases and less increases and population is no exception.

The Council of Common Interest (CCI) recommendations developed after the SC’s suo-motu notice for population stabilization included creation of a non-lapsable special fund by the federal government, and that the federal and provincial health and population budgets be doubled over the next two years. The recommendation inter alia also clearly states that the population and health budgets be protected from reallocation to other programs and departments while ensuring timely releases.

In the last two years, there appears to have been some advancement on the other CCI recommendations. However, progress lags behind the target in meeting the financial recommendations. There has been progress on the legislation front, the national task force meetings have been held in the presidency and there is also some progress on bringing the population and health departments together. However, the setting up of the special fund as recommended by the CCI is yet to occur.

There does not seem to be any progress on the doubling of the federal and provincial family planning and health budgets. Not to mention the implications that health and population welfare services facilities have been devoid of supplies for quite some time. The absence of concrete steps in making resources available to public sector population programs is also leading to a waste of external investments by donors. The technical assistance provided by donors will not bring any harvest unless that assistance is put to use by ensuring commodity security.

The population agenda has never ceased to exist since its inception but also has never been able to realize the desired outcomes. “A Ticking Bomb” has lately been used to describe the population situation in Pakistan. Besides the self-destructive nature of the population bomb, it breeds vulnerabilities that would amplify the loss when it explodes; and its destructive power increases exponentially as the time lapses.

Population has conventionally been described as a train which is difficult to stop at the same speed as that of a bicycle for the train’s mass increases incrementally at the micro level but exponentially at the macro level. With a 207 million population in 2017, 283 million projected by 2030 and double in the next 30 years, it appears that we have to stop a huge train with a ticking bomb.

We need to come out of this ostrich attitude and face the reality. We will need to increase investments in population programs to secure our other investments. As per analysts, for each dollar invested in contraceptive commodities and services, the government would save four dollars on average over 2019-2025 in direct healthcare costs.

Pakistan has set for itself the target of bringing down the population growth rate of 2.4 percent per annum to 1.5 percent per annum by 2024, and to 1.1 percent per annum by 2030. Without adequate financial resources the population programmes will fail to meet the current demand lest they address the increasing demand for family planning services and commodities.

The writer is a technical advisor with an Islamabad-based policy advocacy organization called Forum for Safe Motherhood.