When Pakistan finally conducted a census in 2017 after almost two decades of extrapolations and wild guesses, the total official number had reached 207 million. Bear in mind that owing to the highly polarized environment in the country these numbers are also disputed by more than one party. It was primarily because of such discord that the country kept deferring the census year after year. And a look at the 2016-17 Economic Survey of Pakistan reveals that the government's highest estimate stood at 199.7 million before the census. In the political discourse policymakers used even smaller numbers. This reveals a serious disconnect between policy planning and the ground realities. When a government does not know and often wildly underestimates the total number of its citizens it is unlikely to plan judiciously for the welfare of the people.
As per the UN Population Fund Report 2017, about 63 percent of the country's population was between the ages of 15 and 33, making it one of the youngest populations in the world. In the four years since, the lowest age bracket in this group has entered into adulthood. This youth bulge could be referred to as the potential demographic dividend but for the following reasons it is not. One, the literacy rate by the very liberal standards used in the country stands at around 59 percent. Decades of poor planning and wrong priorities have shown that the world's ninth-largest workforce is ill-equipped in terms of the skillsets needed to face the work pressures of today. Then comes the challenge of unemployment in the country and the situation starts looking dire. Given that in the previous fiscal year the economy shrank for the first time in history, the unemployment numbers are climbing up steadily. In such a situation this youth bulge becomes a recipe for disaster. Consider the potential threats. This young population remains prone to being recruited by militant outfits, criminal gangs or can fall into other criminal or regressive patterns. Meanwhile, the local administrative and policing structures remain constantly under pressure due to population growth. Even if these fears are somehow discounted, for a country with depleting resources and infrastructure the mere task of feeding, clothing, sheltering, and keeping this population healthy seems an unimaginably large challenge. The incumbent government has introduced some creative youth self-employment initiatives as did the previous government, but the pace of the positive change seems insufficient to meet the growing challenges.
For any researcher and analyst, a big traditional problem faced has been the paucity of data available. For a long time, the datasets obtained were kept in a very inaccessible fashion. The incumbent government has tried to solve this problem by reforming the system. But an unfortunate fallout of the way things were kept before the government took charge is visible in the shape of the academic discourse around the subject. Consequently, you can still find academic papers which neither take into account the gravity of the situation nor see the population explosion as a cause for concern.
In the early 2000s when China and India's populations were being construed as the sources of their economic growth a discourse grew in Pakistan which sought to see population growth not as a problem but as an asset. The developments in India since then are enough to disabuse anyone of such notions. China on the other hand is a unique miracle of history. With a mostly homogenous population, a boisterous administrative structure of state evolved out of seven decades of uninterrupted and mostly smooth experiment of the socialist model and a highly skilled if cost-effective labor force, it is nearly impossible for any other country to replicate. For the post-colonial states like India and Pakistan which inherited an extractive administrative structure and state machinery, this example is nothing but a castle in the air. The discipline and planning needed to turn the existing deficits into opportunities simply do not exist in these systems. India, to be honest, abandoned its extreme poor ages ago. They exist not because of, but in spite of the government policies. Today India's leading economists agree that the country is a prisoner of the middle-income trap where industries and other producers mainly cater to the needs of the middle-income groups and the lower strata of the society primarily rely on the industries of countries like Bangladesh. The reform process started in the 1990s has only systematically dismantled the social safety nets that existed since its independence and the ongoing farmer agitation, against the recently introduced draconian agricultural laws, is only a recent outcome of further movement in this direction. With the sources of finance drying up, the non-performing assets piling up and other economic shocks in sight, the wealth creating mirage of India that inspired our false confidence in population growth threatens to devolve into an unmitigated disaster. The Pakistani economy, need I remind you, is far more vulnerable and flawed to offer any small or medium-term relief. And while India and China might be competing with the Western powers in terms of the overall GDP growth, in per capita income they lag far behind. In 2019 while the U.S. per capita income was 66,080 PPP dollars, China stood at 16,790 and India at 6,920. No comparison.
Population growth only poses challenges and while Pakistan's population rate has come down from somewhere above 3 percent to slightly above 2 percent ,it is still significantly higher than the regional average of 1.6 percent. Three factors should convince the policymakers in Pakistan to declare a population emergency and combat the growing crisis on a war footing.
First, the growing instability of the global job markets. So far Pakistan has derived solace from the fact that there is a job market for its skilled and semi-skilled labor abroad. Even before the advent of the COVID crisis which paralyzed the global economy, the job markets Pakistan has traditionally taken advantage of were witnessing instability due to the growing global political and xenophobic trends. And in came the COVID crisis which dealt a deathly blow to the prospects of job seekers abroad.
Second, technological unemployment. We live at the cusp of a technological era where automation will rapidly displace most of the jobs. This poses such a huge threat even to developed economies that leaders like the former U.S. presidential candidate Andrew Yang have recommended the introduction of universal basic income handouts to take care of the needs of the growing class of the technological unemployed or displaced. That is happening right now in the most successful economies of the world. In the struggling economies like ours the fallout will be swifter, far more dire, and dramatic. Today, you may dismiss such a possibility based on conjecture. Surely, Pakistani businesses are unlikely to adapt to the costly technologies that displace labor. But such conjectures do not hold much water. Technologies get cheaper very quickly due to mass production and unlike human labor machines do not need salaries, overtime compensation, rest breaks, weekends off, vacations or healthcare. The wealthy class cannot resist the temptation. The nature of the beast is such that no job is safe from its threats. Bringing more souls into this world when the future of the workforce is uncertain makes no sense.
Third, climate change. Pakistan is the eighth most vulnerable country on the global climate risk index. In the past 19 years the country has witnessed 173 climate-related events. The loss of arable land as a result of decline in the water table, destruction of the natural resources due to agricultural malpractice, sea intrusion, geographical location, temperamental weather ranging from heavy rainfall and flooding to drought-like situation puts pressure on the food security and the overall safety of the population. Already, the existing incident of stunting and malnutrition in the younger population is a problem. With ever-increasing health and climatic catastrophes, these challenges are too much for a growing young population. Complacency is not an option. The disadvantages of the population explosion heavily outweigh the imagined benefits of such exponential growth. The country's policymakers will have to act now. All national stakeholders will have to come together and forge a consensus path ahead. These stakeholders include politicians, pundits, media, bureaucrats, teachers, healthcare workers, civil society organizations, businesses, and the clergy. The purpose has to be to significantly bring down the growth rate. In all honesty, at this point we can barely afford a zero-growth rate. The existing growth rate of 2 to 2.4 percent is impossible to sustain. The sooner we grasp this reality as a nation the better it is. Otherwise, we are sleepwalking towards the worst catastrophe in our history.
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist.
E-mail: [email protected]
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