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EDITORIAL: Prime Minister Imran Khan while speaking at the inaugural ceremony of the Pakistan Digital City Special Technology Zone in Haripur acknowledged that the fast growing population challenges the capacity of the government to provide jobs. He then proceeded to argue that investment and technology were vital to creating employment for the youth and improve performance of key macroeconomic indicators.

A few home truths about the population growth rate in Pakistan are, however, necessary: (i) the census exercise envisaged every 10 years has been held hostage to political considerations. The last census of 2017, particularly with reference to Karachi and Hyderabad, was rejected by the Sindh-based parties, including the MQM and the PPP; however, an agreement was reached in the Council of Common Interests (CCI) meeting held in the second week of April 2021 wherein it was decided that a nose-count would be held by the end of 2021.

Asad Umar, the Minister for Planning, Development and Reforms, announced the same day that “by the end of this year probably September or November the process to hold a new census will start and it will take around 18 months to complete. Results of the new census would be made public by 2023…so that delineation process can take place before the general elections.” Needless to add, there are no reports that this exercise has commenced; (ii) Economic Survey 2020-21 cites the National Institute of Population Studies estimate of total population of 215.25 million with a growth rate of 1.8 percent in 2020 and density of 270 per kilometers.

According to the International Monetary Fund website, Pakistan’s population is 216.467 million. Pakistan’s population represents 2.56 percent of the world’s total population which implies that one person in every 39 is a Pakistani; and (iii) subsequent to the passage of the 18th Constitutional Amendment the Ministry of Population Planning ceased to exist — the same treatment was not meted out to other devolved ministries and its functions were devolved to the provinces under Population Welfare Departments. While these departments’ terms of reference cannot be faulted yet their implementation remains suspect. A look at the Punjab Population Welfare Department’s website shows no data update post-2017 (207.8 million Pakistan population with Punjab accounting for 110 million) and an unmet contraception need of 17.5 percent (against the national average of 20 percent). Sindh data too is dated — from 2017 with a growth rate of 2.4 percent and unmet contraception need of 17.7 percent.

Population planning is a key contributor to economic development and while in several West European countries the replacement level fertility is below what is required to sustain the population — an average of 2.1 children per woman leading to the state giving monetary incentives to have more children — yet populous countries like China and India undertook severe measures to cut the rate to enable their governments to achieve a level of economic development that is evident today.

Granted that Pakistan’s continuing poor performance in the Human Development Index (HDI) can be sourced to poor resources, a fact belaboured by successive administrations, including the Khan’s, with constant reference made to tax-evaders though there is silence on reforming the tax structure skewed heavily in favour of indirect taxes, whose incidence on the poor is greater than on the rich.

However, there is an urgent need to look at population growth as a contributing factor and policies together with adequate resources must be channeled into population planning than has been evident in recent years. In 2019, for which HDI data is available Pakistan was ranked lower than Bangladesh and India with the lowest life expectancy at birth (67.3 against South Asian average of 69.9), expected years of schooling of 8.3 (against the South Asian average of 11.7) and Gross National Income 2017 Purchasing Power Parity in US dollars of 5,005 with the regional average of 6,532. Inequality coefficient was the highest in Pakistan (30.2 percent against the regional average of 25.4 percent), inequality in life expectancy at birth at 29.9 percent with the regional average of 20.2 percent. As per the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), for which the most recent survey data available is in 2017-18, 38.3 percent are vulnerable to MPI in Pakistan, while an additional 12.9 percent are classified as vulnerable to MPI and the breadth of deprivation (intensity) in Pakistan (average deprivation score experienced by people in MPI poverty) was calculated at 51.7 percent. The MPI (share of population that is MPI adjusted by intensity of deprivations) was 0.198 in Pakistan against 0.104 in Bangladesh and 0.123 in India. There has been a visible lack of focus on population planning during the tenure of the incumbent government and the acknowledgement by the Prime Minister in Haripur is perhaps the only instance that comes to mind when he acknowledged that population growth is a challenge for the government. One would hope that he instructs the provincial administrations where the PTI is in government to proactively take mitigating measures in this regard.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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