Anatomy of numbers

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

The population factor has become quite an enigma in Pakistan. Given the widespread realization that the population growth rate of a country is closely related to its economic prosperity, social advancement and political stability, the government has been inclined to project a rosy demographic picture.

Unsurprisingly, this leads to many contradictions as various government functionaries are at times talking at cross purposes. Take the case of the newly-installed chief minister of Sindh, Dr Arbab Ghulam Rahim, who was the chief guest at the concluding session of the population welfare department’s seminar held in Karachi last week.

He expressed great “concern” at the population growth rate “in view of the economic problems” the country faces. Dr Rahim was informed by the population welfare department that a target of 1.9 per cent population growth rate had now been fixed by the government.

Less than a week earlier, the government had released the Economic Survey, 2003-2004, and the chapter on population has a different story to tell. All the demographic indicators given there are generally so good that one wonders why the need for this profuse expression of concern by the chief minister.

If the Economic Survey is to be believed, Pakistan has already achieved a population growth rate of 1.9 per cent with a total fertility rate (TFR) of 4.07 (that is the average number of children a woman can be expected to have in her reproductive life).

But the UNFPA, one of whose jobs is to monitor the population scene, puts the growth rate in Pakistan at 2.4 per cent and the TFR at 5.04 (State of the World Population, 2003). There is also a wide discrepancy in the size of the population quoted in the two documents.

The government puts it at 148.7 million. The UNFPA says it is 153.6 million. One might say this amounts to quibbling over figures. But when these percentages translate into millions in absolute numbers, one has to sit up and take notice.

It is equally worrying that the leaders who make policies do not have a very clear conception of the factors that have caused the population explosion, the repercussions of which we are still suffering.

Neither do they appear to be in touch with the realities on the ground. Thus, the chief minister spoke of the need to create awareness among the masses. The fact is that this awareness has already been created.

Numerous surveys have conclusively established that over 95 per cent of the respondents are knowledgeable about family planning. There is, however, an unmet need of 33 per cent – that is the people who don’t want any more children but do not have the contraceptive means available to avert births.

The fact is that the population growth rate can be checked to a considerable extent if the family planning services are made readily accessible and freely available. It is in this respect that our programme has lagged behind. Contraceptive prevalence is only 20 per cent according to the UNFPA, though the government of Pakistan claims a higher figure (37 per cent).

The existence of an unmet need, be it large or small, in itself indicates that something is amiss. Since the Economic Survey no more gives the statistics for the various categories of contraceptives dispensed, there is no way of ascertaining how the population programme’s service outlets are doing.

Another major factor contributing to the high fertility rate is the poor status of women in the country. Since they are relegated to a secondary position in society, quite a large number of parents consider their families to be incomplete until they have at least one or two sons.

That would explain why in many of the big families the older children are girls. Only when the boys come along that the parents feel they do not want any more children. This factor has not been given sufficient attention by those who formulate population policies.

The other factor militating against a progressive approach to population welfare is the low literacy rate and our failure to impart enlightened education to our children.

Education and population growth rate are interrelated. Societies where literacy is low, people tend to have large families. A rapid increase in the size of the population puts pressure on the education facilities, causing the backlog of illiteracy to grow.

As the number of uneducated people grows, they tend to have bigger families. And thus the vicious circle goes on. Hence the need for a holistic approach to the family planning programme if it is to be a success.

It is not surprising that all the evils which plague our society – poverty, illiteracy, poor health and a rapidly growing population – cannot be treated in isolation. They interact with each other. Improvement in one area has a beneficial effect on the others.

Neglect of one sector has a negative impact on the others as well. This would explain why it is necessary to treat the social sectors as a composite whole which has a direct bearing on the population programme.

The chief minister of Sindh spoke of the population welfare programme in the economic context. It is true that a rapid rate of population growth has a negative impact on economic policies, since more mouths have to be fed, more children have to be sent to school, more medical facilities are needed to provide the burgeoning population a modicum of health care and the labour force expands much faster than job creation with resultant unemployment.

It is strange that leaders tend to ignore the social dimensions of the population problem. It is as grim as the economic implications. A population comprising a big ratio of under-19s – more than 53 per cent of Pakistan’s population falls in that category – leads to social instability, especially at a time when the family structure is changing and the state provides no social support in the form of education, health care and eventually employment.

Is it surprising that a large number of these youths are disturbed and maladjusted and fall victim to social evils of all kinds? To prevent such a situation, there is need to popularize the small family norm so that the population size and structure remains manageable.