Complexities of population issue

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

The world population day was observed on July 11 and all the leaders involved with the population programme in Pakistan one way or the other expressed their concern at the country’s demographic profile on this occasion. The official voices which were raised this year were somewhat louder than before.

The president sent a message calling for a balance between population and resources. More importantly, he emphasized a close link between population and the social development of the people especially in the areas of health, education and women’s development.

This was no revelation but coming from the highest quarters this message was most welcome for it indicated that they have at least begun to understand the complexities of the population question.

Barely a week later, the UNDP released its annual Human Development Report 2004. Its findings should have come as an eye-opener for our policy makers. It clearly confirmed the link President Musharraf had spoken about.

Significantly, Pakistan which showed quite a phenomenal growth in its population, also saw its HDI value fall from 0.499 in the 2003 report to 0.497 this year.

But its rank rose to 142 from 144 in 2003 in the human development index. The social sectors that are the key determinants in the demographic growth of a country were also in poor shape.

With an annual population growth rate of 2.4 per cent the number of people living in this country was 149.9 million in 2002 – more than double of what it was in 1975 – and is expected to jump up to 204.5 million in another eleven years when Pakistan will be the fifth most populous state in the world after China, India, the US and Indonesia.

But the quality of life of the majority of the 150 million or so souls in this country is appalling. Only 41.5 per cent are literate, less than half have access to affordable essential drugs and the status of women is so poor that the country ranks a low 120 out of 144 in the gender development index.

What does one make out of this big mass of statistics which runs into 112 pages of the UNDP report and is a mine of information on 177 countries? A major characteristic of the “low human development countries” – 36 in all beginning with Pakistan – is that they have a relatively high population growth rate, low contraceptive prevalence, low literacy rate especially for women, gender imbalance in every sector of life, and rampant poverty.

In such conditions the small family norm doesn’t make much sense. The male offspring provide economic security in more ways than one. Even before they outgrow their childhood they can be sent to work to earn for the family – swelling the ranks of child labour in Pakistan.

And when the parents grow old, they find their sons to be a source of economic security for them. For the poor, the call for a balance between resources and population in the macro context is meaningless.

If the argument once was that a burgeoning population adds to the government’s education and health budgets, and upsets its planning, this no longer holds true now. After all, the government has been shedding its responsibility of educating the citizens and providing them much health care, irrespective of their numbers.

The private sector has stepped in to fill the vacuum created and the people themselves, including the poor, have been required to pay for their children’s education. They pay to get them treated when they fall ill and they find a job for them – even if it is on exploitative terms – when they are ready to join the workforce.

At the individual level, a small family norm should technically appeal to the poor. It should cut down the wage earner’s household expenditure with fewer mouths to feed.

But the logic doesn’t always work that way. There are many factors that work in favour of having many children who also add to the family income once they are old enough to go out and work..

Hence, it is plain that social development will have to be taken care of and the curse of poverty alleviated simultaneously if the population growth rate has to be radically scaled down.

There is also a political dimension to the population problem, which is generally overlooked. A rapidly growing population pre-empts the development of a stable society which successfully manages and mitigates conflict over religion, language, culture and ethnicity.

This defeats the purpose of a modern civilized state – to protect human rights and deepen democracy. The UNDP administrator lists these as major goals of development in the 2004 report, which focuses on cultural liberty in today’s diverse world.

The report says: “If the world is to reach the millennium development goals and ultimately eradicate poverty, it must first successfully confront the challenge of how to build inclusive culturally diverse societies.”

It may be added here that this is not possible in states with galloping population growth rates. If the growth is also uneven, that is, one ethnic/racial group is growing faster than the others, it can destabilize the state. Massive numbers lacking an awareness of their rights and unequipped with education to use the tools of power do not go into the making of a democratic culture

Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate, who has contributed the first chapter of the 2004 report stresses the importance of equity in the pursuit of freedom. He writes, “The freedoms of different people are involved, and focusing on freedom requires that attention be paid to the freedoms of all – and this connects with consideration of equity.”

The fact is that all these aspects – political and economic freedom, equity, social development, stable and moderate population growth rate, alleviation of poverty – are interrelated. One is not possible without the other. When the state fails to provide one, it creates a vicious cycle which negatively affects all the others.

Hence the need is to work on all fronts. If the recognition of this fact has dawned on our policy makers, one can hope that they will now move to translate their words into actions before the next world population day comes along.

A state, where the majority of population is mired in backwardness, ill-health, ignorance and poverty and its number keeps growing rapidly, possesses all the ingredients of social and political conflict, crime and instability. Regrettably, Pakistan has them all.

Tags: Population, Social issues