WEB DESK: Pakistan may be lagging behind many other countries in terms of human development but certainly not in terms of human numbers – it is going to add some 3.5 million annually over the next five years to its already bloated body count of 191 million.
Growing at an annual rate of 1.9 percent it outperforms almost every other country; is presently the world’s sixth most populous country.
Should this ‘performance’ remain unchecked, which is quite likely, it is going to steal the march over quite a few others. How to feed this number of mouths there is not much on the nation’s plate, but what in plain sight is that whittling down that rate of population growth remains a challenge, as it has been for almost half a century. In fact, over this period the population control policies of successive governments have been retrogressive, both in commitment and action.
The result is: even the idiom used to sell the family planning programme is now a hush-hush social taboo on the mass media. If the present dispensation can turn the page on this monumental national failure, it seems determined. It has hosted an international conference under the rubric of National Population Summit 2015, which was inaugurated by President Mamnoon Hussain on Thursday.
The idea behind the summit, in the words of concerned minister Saira Afzal Tarar, is to firm up ‘a strong policy statement from top leadership as well as political and religious leaders’ on the need to draw down the rate of population growth, hoping such a move would greatly help make up for the ‘lost time’.
The question whether the hurdles responsible for the ‘lost time’ have been removed has no easy answer. Were it so what she said in her curtain-raiser on the moot and then by the president could have been more direct, if not confessional, and couched in ambiguity that richly laced their addresses on both the occasions. The president did call for following the Bangladesh model, a fellow Muslim country which has achieved remarkable success in controlling the population growth.
But how does it fit in his rather vague hark that we should tackle issue of population growth “on scientific basis in coherence with Islamic teachings”. (Perhaps, his message would have been a bit more intelligible if the non-official media had been allowed to cover the summit proceedings and not barred after having invited to it.) Saira was opaque too; whatever that means, she promised ‘a change in the narrative for explaining the population issue’.
Conceding that population explosion is more dangerous for Pakistan than terrorism and knowing full well that half of the population being illiterate would be receptive only to a direct message she was expected to be talking in their frame of reference. In fact, the population control issue is not as complicated as it was presented at the summit. It is quite simple, in that the religious leadership in the country, barring a few exceptions, is opposed to the misperceived notion that the Christian West wants to reduce the size of Muslim Ummah, and therefore it is not acceptable.
The anti-polio drive in conservative sections of society also stems from the same misperception. And that misperception entails a stunning amount of volatility, as we see anti-polio workers being gunned down every other day and total blackout of family planning devices by mass media.
Successive governments owe an explanation why they have failed to create adequate support for family planning when many other Muslim countries have made a number of successes in this area. Saira says: “now we are shifting focus from economic benefit of birth control to improvement of family health and well-being and saving mothers from premature pregnancy-related deaths”.
Let it be so, but it should not be at the cost of direct action in support of family planning by use of contraceptives and other devices. Given no big hope of sudden discovery of huge oil reserves or gold mines in the foreseeable future Pakistan is expected to walk between the raindrops of successes and failures. If population keeps growing at its present rate there would be huger marches and violent street demonstrations by the unemployed.
Long time back, confronted with such a menacing challenge China enforced, by laws, one-child family. Now that it has recovered its ‘lost time’ it has conceded two-child permission. Time has come that in Pakistan too there should be strong, ready for instant application, legal sanctions in support of family planning. Maybe it attracts stiff rejection by powerful religious lobbies, but at the end it would succeed.