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POPULATION: Youth Bulge Adds to Pakistan’s Woes

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Oct 26 2011 (IPS) - Pakistan’s population explosion is posing a greater danger than militancy and religious intolerance, says noted medical doctor and demographer Farid Midhet.

“It is the burgeoning population that poses a serious threat to Pakistan’s existence,” Midhet told IPS. “Imagine a Pakistan with a population of 300 million by 2030!”

A week before the world prepares to welcome its seven billionth child, on Oct. 31, a jobless Raja Khan, father of two, succumbed to burn injuries sustained when he set himself ablaze in front of parliament house in Islamabad.

Khan who had travelled all the way to the national capital from a village near Naushero Feroz, Sindh province, to carry out an act of extreme desperation left behind a letter saying: “I’m fed up with my financial condition.”

Khan’s gruesome death appeared to bear out warnings by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), that the seven billion people milestone will be marked not only by achievements but also “setbacks and paradoxes.”

UNFPA country representative in Pakistan, Rabbi Royan, said the Fund’s report, ‘State of World Population 2011’, provides “policy ideas” as well as a “brush stroke of broad population issues”.

“Every country has its own set of peculiar population issues. The report provides ideas to these countries how to address issues related to population,” Royan said.

“There is a strong link between poverty, inequality and population, and the UNFPA believes sound planning is needed to overcome these glitches,” Royan told IPS

Where Pakistan is concerned, Royan recommends “investing in the young population and managing their expectations.” Two-thirds of Pakistan’s population is under 30 years old.

Noting that providing education and employment is the “foremost challenge faced by Pakistan,” Royan warns that if young people do not find their expectations met, “their energies may be directed towards undesirable activities, like radicalisation.”

Midhet explains that when birth rates suddenly decline, the number of young children (a liability) decreases and the number of elderly people (also a liability) is yet not too high, resulting in a bulge in the working population.

This, he said, is what contributed to the unprecedented industrial growth in countries like South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand.

“There is only one condition – the population has to be highly educated,” Midhet told IPS, adding: “Unfortunately, Pakistan does not meet this condition.”

In the last 64 years, he lamented, if those at the helm had given attention to population control and education, it would have resulted in a very different Pakistan today. “Imagine an active media and an effective, powerful judiciary in a country having 100 percent literacy!”

Economist Kaiser Bengali is also concerned about the huge “youth population bulge that will enter the labour force at an accelerated rate”. “It means the rate of labour force growth will be higher than the population growth rate,” he explained to IPS.

“Efforts must be made to adopt economic policies that create jobs at an accelerated rate and prevent an Algeria-like situation developing,” Bengali said.

“In Algeria, a significant part of the 15-40 aged male population was killed in the seven-year war of independence. Subsequently, the under-15s began to enter the labour market in hordes, creating mass unemployment – and radicalisation,” he explained. “Overpopulation in Pakistan has already led to unemployment of gigantic proportions – unemployed youth are sucked into militancy and religious extremism as well as into crime,” said Midhet.

With its current population estimated officially at 175 million (the United Nations believes it to be 185 million), Pakistan is well on the way to becoming the world’s fourth most populous country after China, India and the United States.

In 1950, Pakistan had a population of 37 million and was the world’s 13th most populous country. By 2007, it had moved to the sixth position with 164 million people.

Pakistan has the highest population growth, birth and fertility rates among the South Asian countries, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

“All hopes of development and economic prosperity would flounder if we as a nation lose the focus and do not keep (the) population issue in the spotlight,” Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani declared on World Population Day on Jul. 11, designating 2011 to be “Population Year” in Pakistan.

This troubling population narrative can be corrected by lowering the fertility rate, says Zeba Sathar, country director of Population Council, the New York-based non-profit.

“The most glaring disconnect even today is that most educated Pakistanis, economists, planners and politicians remain unaware of how important the achievement of fertility transition is for Pakistan’s development,” Sathar told IPS.

Sathar emphasised the importance of family planning services “for achieving improvements in the health of women and children who are at the cornerstone of population policy.”

According to Sathar, Pakistan has one of the highest “unmet” needs for family planning services. “Seven million women have declared that they do not want more children or want to space births, but are unable to do so,” she said.

“Over four million more Pakistanis are added to the population annually, 2.7 pregnancies are unintended and one million pregnancies end in abortions. We could easily reduce our annual births by at least 1.5 million,” Sathar said.

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