Population and security

By Zahid Hussain
Published in DAWN on February 02, 2022

IT is a nightmare scenario that is fast unfolding. Yet the threat that population explosion presents to national security is missing from our policy discourse. Aside from a fleeting reference to population management, there is not enough recognition of the gravity of the problem in the recently launched integrated National Security Policy (NSP). There is no clear strategy on how to deal with the exponential population growth that continues to have a destabilising effect on our society.

A dangerous situation has been created on account of Pakistan’s having one of the highest population growth rates globally and an increasing youth bulge. The latter poses a grave threat to internal security considering the poor investment in education over the years and low economic growth. These two factors have spawned economic and social problems that cannot be dealt with adequately, unless the spiralling population numbers are brought under control.

Yet there is a tendency, as apparent in the NSP, to treat the increasing numbers as an ‘asset’. A productive population can contribute to growth and prosperity but our policymakers don’t seem to understand the extent to which the economy and population growth are intertwined. The NSP has rightly prioritised economic development as being most critical to human security. But can we achieve economic sustainability with such a high population growth rate?

Pakistan is now the fifth most populous nation in the world. With a disturbingly high growth rate of 2.4 per cent per annum, four to five million children are added to the existing numbers every year. At this pace, we are likely to have around 300m people by 2030.

The implications of the population explosion seem to be lost on our political leadership.

This would mean a huge drain on resources and leave the country struggling to provide for a rapidly expanding populace. An economic growth rate of at least 6pc to 7pc is needed for Pakistan to absorb the millions of young adults who enter the job market every year. With a rapidly increasing population and low economic growth rate, the country faces a catastrophic situation.

In fact, we have already crossed sustainable numbers. Unchecked population growth is the main reason behind our poor social indicators. It also resulted in Pakistan meeting the targets of only 10 out of 34 MDG performance indicators. Pakistan has committed to achieving the 17 SDGs related to poverty reduction, quality school education for all children and a decrease in inequality. But it is nowhere close to attaining even these minimum goals. Lack of proper healthcare services and quality education as well as deep-rooted gender inequality is directly linked to the high population growth. Our literacy rate has stagnated at 60pc. Pakistan has the dubious distinction of having the world’s second highest number of out-of-school children.

A cursory glance at figures should convince us of the seriousness of the situation: 32pc 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 2pc of GDP on education that is of poor quality, pushing us further into isolation in an increasingly interconnected world.

Editorial: Population emergency

Not unsurprisingly, Pakistan lags far behind even most underdeveloped countries in human welfare. We are practically at the bottom in human development indicators. A major reason for other countries’ progress is attributed to their success in reducing the population growth rate. Compared to Pakistan’s 2.4pc, Bangladesh managed to bring down its own growth rate to a mere 1pc, and today, it is one of the fastest-growing economies.

The pressure exerted by the growing population has led to a rapid increase in migration to urban areas. According to some studies, by 2030 the majority of the population will be concentrated in urban centres. Such rapid urbanisation can aggravate the already crumbling civic infrastructure in our cities and towns. How can the state with its meagre resources provide housing and other civic amenities such as sewerage networks, water supply, schools and hospitals to overcrowded urban centres?

So why has the issue barely figured in our security discourse? The implications of the population explosion seem to be lost on our political leadership. And although the PTI government has often claimed to be committed to the goal of human development, it is ignoring one of the biggest threats to national security.

Human development and economic progress are not possible without dealing with the problem of high population growth. But unfortunately, the state has abdicated its responsibility to educate the people about population management. Largely missing are services to accompany the few sporadic messages that do appear. Programmes to alleviate poverty or correct income disparities do not even acknowledge that there is a correlation between family size and poverty.

Prime Minister Imran Khan is impressed by the phenomenal economic progress made by China and its success in eliminating poverty. But what he fails to understand is that it was China’s population management policy that led to that country’s economic miracle and helped alleviate poverty. For our political leadership, population can automatically be turned into an asset for the state — apparently without investing in education, healthcare or livelihoods.

Not able to tap the true potential of our youth and use their talents effectively, the state has turned the country into a breeding ground for violent extremism, where restless and jobless young men have little to lose. But the state does not seem to realise the danger that such frustrated ambitions can pose.

Pakistan is caught in an explosive situation with a looming demographic disaster staring it in the face. The prospects of the young generation as they become adults are uncertain. The inequality, in all spheres, makes the less advantaged receptive to ideas that promote extremism and violence. Unchecked population growth could cause more social dislocation and conflict. The state must realise that immediate action is necessary and serious debate must begin on the topic otherwise the consequences will be disastrous for the internal security of this country.

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