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Need for a better strategy



The UN's Population Division has disturbing news on the demographic front. It has revised its estimates for the global population in the year 2050. It is expected that 9.1 billion people will live on the planet earth 45 years hence.

The other worrying factor is that this increase will be preponderantly in the Third World, with the developed countries' population remaining stable at 1.2 billion. The only positive points are that fertility will continue to decline -although not fast enough.

This report has some grave implications. With burgeoning populations, it is evident that the developing countries, which also have fewer resources and the bulk of the illiterate, malnourished, and impoverished people, will not be able to improve the lot of their citizens.

The growing population pressure and increasing poverty will bring greater violence in its wake. It will also give a boost to the increasing urbanization trend in all countries resulting in the emergence of mega cities with poor civic facilities.

The UN's report is a wake-up call for nations, especially for countries like Pakistan which still have the dubious distinction of having very high population growth rates and high fertility rates.

Pakistan's population is growing at the rate of 2.4 per cent per annum (UNDP's figures) and the total fertility rate is 5.3 (the average number of children every woman is expected to have).

These are much higher than the South Asian average of 1.5 per cent and 3.3, respectively. It is plain that the failure of our population programme is at the root of widespread poverty and deprivation.

Unless this issue is tackled seriously, it is unlikely that our policy-makers can actually put the country on the road to progress. The most serious cause of concern is that our leadership has failed to understand this link between population and development.

Only the other day the federal secretary of population welfare said that no legislator has ever raised questions in the National Assembly on the population problem because they are totally ignorant about it.

The federal secretary also said that the government planned to set up independent population commissions at the centre and in the provinces to create awareness of the problem.

This would be a positive move. It is, however, essential that the members of the commissions themselves understand the basic issues. While there are some basic flaws in the strategy adopted, the social environment in favour of the small family norm has not been created either.

Thus the approach to the problem continues to be low profile and a shy one which precludes an open discussion of matters related to sex, contraceptives and the pros and cons of various birth control methods.

This explains why Pakistan has such a large unmet need - that is, people wanting to practise family planning but who cannot do so for the non-availability of contraceptives, guidance and counselling.

The other important factor is the close bearing the status of women and female education has on the population sector. One cannot hope to reduce the fertility rate if women continue to be regarded as inferior beings with parents preferring sons over daughters.

Reducing the gender gap in education will also have a beneficial effect on the population growth. One hopes that the government understands the gravity of the matter and works concertedly on multiple fronts to tackle the problem.