By Zubeida Mustafa
OUR politicians — whether in office or in the opposition or on the streets — have a bizarre mindset. They think of their personal and family’s concerns first rather than the country’s interests when it faces a grave problem.
Look at the issue of the census and the lurking crisis of population explosion which seems to worry no one. The census is mandated by the Constitution and is to be held every 10 years. Its results form the basis of the number of seats in the national and provincial assemblies and also how the federal divisible pool is distributed among the provinces.
It is only these considerations that interest our lawmakers and politicians as they could potentially affect their political fortunes. That also explains why our censuses have not been without controversy. Only six censuses have been held in Pakistan since its inception 74 years ago. The head count has been politicised as a result of which our planning has been lopsided since correct data is not available.
The ruckus surrounding the 2017 head count that won the cabinet’s approval recently, ran into trouble at the Council of Common Interests where the PPP rejected it.
A high population growth rate has a disastrous impact.
What should really be worrying the politicians and leaders, but is not, is our population growth rate and its impact on the country’s governance and pace of development as well as its human dimension. With 18,000 children being born every day and the total fertility rate 3.3 (according to UN sources) one can imagine what an average woman’s life would be like. These figures translate into a heavy workload for the mother who also has to cope with her own poor health. It also ensures the family’s slide below the poverty line.
For the country, a high population growth rate (2pc) has a disastrous impact on the national economy and planning in the social sectors. In 2017, Pakistan’s population stood at 208 million. In 2021, it has shot up to 225m. At this rate, the rapid rise in numbers will neutralise all progress made over the years. In fact, this could drag us back to the brink of disaster.
There are multiple factors that account for this gigantic problem that has grave implications for every sector of our national life. While the government as well as the political parties are responsible in a major way for neglecting the issue, the people cannot be condoned for their failure to cooperate and understand the gravity of a problem that also affects them directly.
Here too the political and military establishment is responsible for fanning the fires of religiosity and fundamentalism that create a patriarchal mindset and an environment that opposes family planning. Many religious orators publicly advocate large families to enhance the strength of their followers. It is not surprising that the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2018-19 records a higher number of women with a fatalistic approach, who justified their big family size saying it was so destined. Such an approach blocks progress in the uplift of the status of women, a major factor in a population programme.
The fact of the matter is that the complexity of this issue has not been understood. A holistic strategy towards gender relations in human development has the greatest impact on population matters. Thus it is well known that uplifting the status of women by empowering them through education and inducting them into the labour force and giving them a role in decision-making brings down fertility rates.
But clinical intervention is also important. In this context, the administration is to be squarely blamed for the corruption and inefficiency that are said to riddle the population sector. Doctors in public hospitals often complain of contraceptives not being available on many occasions when the government is obliged to supply them free of charge. The biggest evidence of mismanagement are the statistics. The low contraceptive prevalence rate in Pakistan (a stagnating 26pc) and worse still, the huge unmet need (17pc) speak volumes for the government’s inability to enforce accountability.
One just has to look around to see how others have managed where we have failed. Bangladesh is a case for us to study. In 1971, when we parted ways the country had a bigger population than Pakistan’s. Now Bangladesh is way down with 160 million while Pakistan is way ahead. Although women there also complain about not being provided the treatment they deserve the statistics relating to women are definitely better than ours.
So much has lately been said about the status of women that there is not much left to say. What needs to be emphasised, however, is that in matters of reproductive health at least women should be given a free choice in the matter of birth control rather than be treated as chattel. ‘Mera jism meri marzi’ is, after all, not an unreasonable demand.