FeaturedInternationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 23

Population growth is both a challenge and an opportunity

According to a new research report, an unchecked growth in the population is posing insurmountable challenges to the national economy. It is estimated that without urgent measures to arrest the present growth rate, Pakistan’s population would rise to about 400 million by 2050. The number will be more than the projected population of Brazil and Indonesia. It will make Pakistan the fourth most populous country in the world, making adequate food and water availability a serious problem.

Some time back, the Population Council worked out three scenarios of the population growth on the basis of high, medium and low rates of the total fertility rate (TFR). Thus, the population is presumed to rise to 344 million, 299 million and 235 million respectively in the three scenarios. The government is making efforts to keep to the lowest projection growth. The hopeful signs in this regard are that demand for birth-spacing among people is gradually increasing. Religious scholars too are supporting the practice of birth spacing for the purpose of raising and maintaining small families.

But there are hurdles in the way. The current rate of contraceptive prevalence (CPR) is only 35 percent which needs to be doubled for effective short and long-term family planning. The need is to create new groups of lady health visitors to popularize contraceptive use among pockets of the population not yet covered. We need to keep in mind that the cost of achieving a decline in fertility is quite modest.

The last census was conducted in 2017, showing a population of 208 million while the figures of the 1998 census stood at 132 million. The question is: With such pace of population growth, can we achieve balanced socioeconomic development necessary for the welfare of the people?

It is time for the government to be proactive and focus on population planning. A long-term birth control policy should be devised and effectively implemented. As suggested by many experts, one way is to extend incentives to parents for having fewer children. The incentives could be in the form of tax relief or concessional tickets through the Ehsaas programme. Empowerment of women and education is another step to control the birth rate, as reproductive healthcare education for mothers is key to effective population planning. Side by side, we should conduct a sustained public awareness campaign through the media, including the print, electronic and social media to sensitize the people to the need for family planning.

While planning to control population growth, we need to look at the phenomenon of population growth from another angle. The population upswing of the last four decades is not without its positive side. The growth rate in the age group of 15-64 – the productive group – is higher than in other groups. Nearly 50 percent of our population is less than 15 years of age. This is an asset which has great potential for the future of the country. Also important is the fact that the dependency ratio will be declining with smaller families. Household consumption will also decline and more savings and investment possibilities would emerge.

This is what is called the demographic dividend. The trend in the demographic transition began in the early 2000s and is likely to continue until 2040. But we have not yet been able to translate the democratic dividend into an economic dividend. To make the best of our youth potential, there is a need for a complete overhaul of our economic policies with more emphasis on human development. Without the needed reform, the demographic dividend may turn into a nightmare as the rising tide of frustrated youths may result in a social upheaval of uncontrollable dimensions.

For decades, we have failed to invest in human capital and make it the centre-piece of our development planning. To this end, we need to increase our spending in the social sector – education and health. Our topmost priority should be the achievement of universal primary education. We have net enrolment rates of not more than 50 percent, which is one of the lowest in the world. More than 20 million children are out of school. According to the Bureau of Statistics, during the period 2006-16, the number of schools increased by 6,000, but the number of teachers declined by 24,000, making the teacher-to-school ratio less than four.

Above all, we need to strengthen and upgrade technical and vocational education at the secondary level. There has to be a suitable mix of education and skills at all levels to improve the employability of new entrants into the labour market. Our labour force (40 percent in the age group of 15-64)) is inadequately trained; it is mostly illiterate and has never attended school. The new entrants in the age group of 15-24 are also illiterate and uneducated. The figures are alarming and augur ill for the future of the country.

To make the best of our population dividend, an urgent need is to improve the status of women, who make up half of our population. The economic and social conditions facing our women, especially in the rural areas, are deplorable. Figures relating to women’s education, health and population welfare are alarming. There is a need to promote education among women because educated women are more likely to have small families – a basic requirement for slowing down the population growth.

Our social sector is badly neglected. The consolidated spending of the federal and provincial governments on health and population welfare is about one percent of GDP, which is extremely low as compared to countries in a similar situation. Needless to say, if we do not plan right now to control our population, all our grandiose economic plans will fail to achieve their targets.