Home Lightbox The Three Ps: Pakistan, Population, Poverty

The Three Ps: Pakistan, Population, Poverty

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo. Tauseef Mustafa—AFP

Without sustained efforts to introduce population control, Pakistan is unlikely to prosper along the lines envisioned by P.M. Imran Khan

Writing in daily Dawn on Feb. 2, columnist Zahid Husain connected Pakistan’s population with security, meaning that the state may not last if the people living in it are allowed to proliferate at the rate they are doing now.

Pakistan’s population has one of the highest growth rates in the world with a youth bulge that creates an extra dimension that Pakistanis don’t pay heed to because they think that threats are only external and for that having a big, well-armed Army is enough. According to Hussain, “Pakistan is now the fifth most populous nation in the world. With a disturbingly high growth rate of 2.4 percent per annum—compared to Bangladesh’s 1 percent—four to five million children are added to the existing numbers every year. At this pace, we are likely to have around 300 million people by 2030 … Our literacy rate has stagnated at 60 percent, 32 percent of our young generation cannot read or write; most of the others drop out of school; the enrolment rate is one of the lowest in South Asia. And we spend a mere 2 percent of GDP on education that is of poor quality, pushing us further into isolation in an increasingly interconnected world.”

The loss of rationality

There are steps Pakistan could take to forestall this coming undoing of the state because of overpopulation but its ideology and its political mindset will not allow it to hitch education to “rationality.” Most observers who warn Pakistan of what is coming ignore the changed nature of the Pakistani state, which by its very intellectual evolution has become incapable of heeding any rational discourse. The plaint that it spend only two percent of the budget on education ignores the fact that more spent on this kind of non-rational education will accelerate the death of the state instead of saving it.

There was a time of “ideological immaturity” when “birth control” was the mantra and you could see on large hoardings along the city roads giving out messages of security and prosperity through a small family. All that is now “ideologically” impossible because the Pakistani mind has come full circle. Now the solution is “free kitchens” and their related economic malpractices rather than education when it meant something else in bygone days. Today it too has been overwhelmed by ideology. There was a time in 1947 when East Pakistan was more populous than West Pakistan; today a non-ideological Bangladesh is no longer threatened by the size of its population and has $40 billion in its kitty compared to Pakistan’s borrowed dollars.

Getting China wrong

When Prime Minister Imran Khan appeared on the scene in 2018, his heartfelt statements about eliminating poverty in Pakistan were loud and clear. But his pointer to how China had managed to bring 700 million out of poverty was blind to one of the most obvious levers of change—reduction in population growth rates. And China had controlled the rate of population growth Khan couldn’t even think of: through contraception and strict penalties for any violators. And his view of education—a dimension of the state that needs a scientific-rational approach—can actually lead to a fertility rate that Pakistan’s wobbly economy simply can’t sustain. The year he came to power, Bangladesh’s GDP per capita income surpassed that of Pakistan, reaching around $1,700. The solution is not “health card” but a rational orientation of state behavior orienting the popular mind towards restraint. Perversely, a health card in an ideological environment can only lead to proliferation rather than restraint of population.

A big population is exposed to poverty because the state’s means of sustenance are always limited. Low, non-ideological literacy actually encourages the fallacy among poor families that they need more members for better breadwinning. However, this strategy is flawed in an economy that is generating inadequate opportunities for employment, even for those young people who do have education and skills, and where real wages are dwindling. More population composed of unskilled individuals actually leads to a lowering of the wages. It may not appeal to today’s Pakistani mind but the fact on the ground is that a controlled population through contraception leads to higher wages.

Overpopulated utopia

Was the Riyasat-e-Madina to which Prime Minister Imran Khan refers to when talking of governance based only on divine guidance and not on rationality, which too is a gift of Allah? He thinks of charity and welfare when opening free kitchens for the poor but there is space here for rationality too. In the developed world, with economies that produce wealth, free kitchens are carefully operated but not without attention to the growth of population that might get out of control. In Riyasat-e-Madina there were no prisons and hands were cut for theft; but that doesn’t mean that the Riyasat would have refused to evolve its system of punishments in time. What we have to look at is the proliferation in the big cities:

In 1947, only 10 percent of the population lived in urban areas; today the figure is about 50 percent. This means that the size of the urban population has increased 26.5 times, again one of the highest rates of growth—5.4 percent a year. Life has become tougher for under-privileged families and the state has to approach the problem rationally; solutions have to be found through thought than through the politically powerful clerical community, which opposes contraception as a part of religious belief.

Khan, the odd educationist

The prime minister has repeatedly criticized the system of education in Pakistan, saying there were “three different systems of education, an English-medium system for the elite of the country, Urdu medium and the religious seminaries for the rest of the country.” He expressed his opposition to the English-medium schools because they distanced students from “Pakistani culture” and recommended that “education should be imparted in the English language only at the higher levels and even then the syllabus should be in line with the culture in Pakistan.”

Khan’s opposition to “English-medium” schools is quite clear. He is neither critical nor clear about the other two systems probably because he thinks they don’t need improvement. He is certain that the English-medium schools inculcate culture that is not Pakistani. By implication the other two systems inculcate Pakistani culture. What is important is that his statement implies a change in the country’s education but this change must be brought about in the English-medium schools. They might have to close down because he is not in favor of starting English from class one. His objection boils down to just one point: don’t teach English from class one because that prevents the inculcation of Pakistani culture.

It is clear that education is not going help Pakistan in controlling its population. Yet, the myth that P.M. Khan has to break first is that the poor want more children: that poverty creates over-population rather than the other way around. Country director of the Population Council in Pakistan, Zeba Sathar, wrote in Dawn in 2017, pointing to the internalization of the ideological edict: “Having engaged with religious leaders, politicians and media for over three years to raise awareness about population facts, the Population Council and UNFPA have found that it is those closest to policy implementation—bureaucrats and politicians—who are farthest from recognizing the urgency of tackling the issue. Especially in denial are health practitioners who still contest whether the poor really want fewer children; they are missing opportunities to make a difference when they do not regard dispensing family planning advice and services to those they interact with as part of their duties.”

Related Articles

Leave a Comment