Challenges and Opportunities
Throughout the history of human civilization, the size of a country’s population has been viewed as the most important pillar of its national power as it is crucially important for defence and labour. The human population remained almost stagnant during the Middle Ages because a number of factors including wars, starvation, epidemics, high mortality rate, etc. combined to keep the human population within 500 million. By the 17th century, the Columbian Exchange (the exchange of crops, livestock, diseases and material between Americas and Europe and Africa in the aftermath of Christopher Columbus’s voyages) and industrialization helped increase the population at an unprecedented scale. Since the late 1700s, the global population has increased by more than 15-folds. The increased population had a tremendous impact on human societies and the environment, and resultant stress on the carrying capacity of planet Earth convinced many people that an unbridled growth of population was bound to create crippling consequences. Now that humans have trampled almost every corner of the planet and their encroachment into the wild has disturbed the delicate balance of nature, the role of population in economic, political and social development cannot be overemphasized. Given the fact that the world is observing World Population Day on July 11 amidst the twin crises of Covid-19 and deep recession in the world economy, and the approval of results of the 2017 census by Pakistan’s Council of Common Interests, it seems pertinent to discuss the various demographic features of Pakistan’s population as well as attendant challenges and opportunities in this regard.
Pakistan’s population stood at 30 million at the time of independence. Later, a host of factors including migration, decreased mortality rate and increase in fertility rate, pushed the population to the upward trajectory. The 6th Housing and Population Census counted 207.68 million people in Pakistan and showed that the country’s population grew at an annual growth rate of 2.4 percent – higher than the average growth rate of South Asia (1.2 percent) – in the inter-census period, i.e. between 1998 and 2017. Based on this growth rate, Pakistan’s population has reached around 220 million on this World Population Day. The worrisome aspect is that despite having a decades-old population planning regime, Pakistan could not cut down the fertility rate. If this rate is not controlled, the country’s population is estimated to double in the next 29 years—on the contrary other South Asian countries will take around 58 years to cross this milestone.
In Pakistan, the population density is comparatively lower, i.e. 287 persons per square kilometre, which makes Pakistan among the least densely populated countries in the region. In Pakistan, as per estimates, one child is born every 5 seconds while one death occurs every 21 seconds. This contributes to an upward trajectory of population growth. This higher-than-expected growth rate is responsible for over-stretched educational and healthcare facilities, unsustainable extraction of the aquifer, rapid urbanization and resultant cannibalization of precious arable land, food and nutrition insecurity, gender inequality, rural exodus and emergence of unregulated sprawling slums, and other socio-economic evils.
Age structure or age pyramid denotes the proportions of individuals at different life stages. This demographic feature is extremely important as it provides insight into the political and social circumstances of any society and measures the potential of economic development. The growing population has larger proportions of individuals in the younger age group as opposed to the ageing population that has a larger population of older individuals. In other words, the preponderance of younger individuals’ growing population translates into the handy availability of the working people and indicates the potential of sustained growth in the decades to come. Pakistan’s higher population growth and resultant pyramidal age structure reflect the untapped potential of millions of youngsters. About 19.3% of the population falls within the age bracket of 15-24(early working age) and 34.7% falls within the age category of 24-54(prime working age). In total, almost 55% of Pakistan’s total population is ready to bring innovations and entrepreneurship in various fields, should they are provided with requisite vocational and educational skills.
Another associated demographic feature is the dependency ratio that points to the burden that a nation’s economy has to bear in terms of social security and public health and education. The dependency ratio is the measure of the total number of dependent people to the total working population. It provides the number of too young and too old people to work. A rising dependency ratio implies decreasing number of working people and consequent increased economic burden. Though Pakistan has a higher dependency ratio – 64.4% – due to cultural and demographic factors, our dependency ratio has been declining since the 1990s. This decline that points to the surging working population has provided what demographers call a “Window of Opportunity”. The decline in dependency ratio will continue till 2045 and Pakistan can reap the demographic dividends, if our policymakers launch holistic and strategic planning that not only provides employment to youth but also mobilizes the vast untapped potential in the tech-based economy and other emerging technologies to ensure expansion in the export base. We have already squandered more than half of the time and we have to act strategically before the older population will begin pushing the dependency ratio upward that would burden the economy to the point of collapse.
Urbanization is also becoming a crucial aspect of our demography that can be an asset or liability depending upon our response to the exponential growth of urban areas. The consolidated results of the census have confirmed the earlier estimates that Pakistan’s urban areas are expanding at the highest rate in South Asia. Almost 76 million people, or 36.94% of the total population, live in cities that are much above 43 million dwellers who used to live in cities back in 1998. Keeping in view the annual growth rate of 2.10%, UN Development Program has estimated that by 2025, nearly half of the population would be living in the cities. Keeping aside the urban bias that we all harbour, the cities play a key role in national development. Globally speaking, cities contribute more than 80% to global GDP. Pakistan’s federal government collects 95% of its revenue from 10 major cities as per UNDP. Well managed and planned cities prove instrumental in sustaining national development: the higher per capita income strengthens consumption and expansion in the market; cities are the hubs of innovation and entrepreneurship that provides a robust base for high-tech economic growth; the availability of improved healthcare and educational facilities ensure the development of skilled human capital; and most importantly, cities play a determinant role in the democratization of the country. But the benefits of urbanization require proactive public policy, autonomous and resourceful local government equipped with requisite paraphernalia for effective urban planning and management, public participation in the decision making, and avoidance of the fragmentation of public services and responsibilities. Unfortunately, Pakistan has failed to properly channelize its urban potential, instead, the policy and administrative neglect have turned the cities into unorganized and haphazard human settlements demarcated along the lines of socio-economic status. Consequently, the crime infestation is rife, disease prevalence is rampant, inequality is widespread, and unregulated horizontal expansion is engulfing fertile agricultural land ferociously. The recent decision of the Punjab Government to urbanize some 154 small towns and cities by preparation of master plans is indeed a welcome development. The master plans and their implementation would ensure the demarcation of cities into clearly delimited residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural areas. This decision would help stop migration to metropolitan cities and regulate the hitherto unchecked growth of housing societies. Other provinces should also follow the suit.
Socio-economic indicators, particularly the health-related indicators mirror the rapidly-worsening picture of the national health security of Pakistan. NHS is increasingly threatened by the rising population, unmanaged urbanization, environmental degradation, change in lifestyle and rampant poverty. The poverty, though improved considerably and dropped to the level of 24.4% in 2015, Covid-19 caused disruption in the economy and resultant unemployment led to a sharp reversal, pushing 40% of Pakistan’s population under the poverty line (UNDP). Pakistan Economic Survey 2020-21 has also painted a gloomy picture of the health indicators which should be the cause of deep concerns for policymakers. Infant mortality rate is highest in the region: 55.2 per 1000 live births as opposed to Afghanistan’s 46, India’s 28, Bangladesh’s 25, and China’s 7. The maternal mortality rate is however better than that of India and Bangladesh. Pakistan’s MMR is 140 per 100,000 live births as compared to India’s 145 and Bangladesh’s 173, but it is ranked far below China (29). Pakistan’s life expectancy is also the lowest in the region. It has 67.3 years life expectancy as opposed to Bangladesh’s 72.3, Sri Lanka’s 76.8, and China’s 76.7 years. Despite these worrisome indicators, both federal and provincial governments have failed to increase substantially the budgetary allocation that has hovered around 1.1% for the last many years. Poor socio-economic performance poses the biggest challenge to national development. The issues including stunted growth and consequent non-attainment of cognitive and physical potential of grown-up adults; unskilled labour force; poor consumption; disease prevalence and resultant burden on already creaking healthcare infrastructure; and wealth, gender and educational inequality are direct offshoots of the poor performance of health-related demographic indicators.
Though it is generally believed that fast-expanding size of population and concomitant increase in the labour force is one of the major impediments to the growth prospect of Pakistan as it is bound to absorb precious and already scarce resources, breed rampant unemployment, cause poverty, limit household saving and investment and it adds pressure to the already overcrowded labour market, but the demographic dividend – a larger percentage of working-age population as compared to the non-working and dependent percentage of the population – could provide Pakistan with the window of opportunity. But the harnessing of the demographic dividends requires some well-deliberated and well-hammered-out strategic planning in various areas in order to stimulate sustainable and broad-based growth by bringing about technological and non-technological innovations (organization and management, etc.)
Sustained growth in employment is the foremost requirement to reap the demographic dividends. Unfortunately, this has not been the case for the last many decades. Pakistan’s unwavering habit of knocking at the door of IMF has seriously hurt the employment generation. Since 1958, Pakistan has entered the IMF program 22 times including an ongoing $6 billion worth Extended Fund Facility. Pakistan that has failed to expand and diversify its export and implement taxation reforms, has often found itself tackling with the balance-of-payment crisis. To avoid default on foreign loans, our economic managers rush to IMF for loans. IMF-demanded implementation of stabilization and structural adjustments result in the containment of expenditure and aggregate demand through cuts in PSDP, monetary squeeze via curtailment of bank lending, and high interest rate. The tight fiscal and monetary conditionalities have caused a serious slowdown in economic activities and attendant fewer employment opportunities. The limited opportunities for employment and consequently non-employment of the working-age population in the productive sectors could easily be termed as the underlying cause of our failure to harness the demographic dividend. Unless and until we enter the regime of expansionary fiscal policy and bid farewell to stabilization, our most cherished dream of exploiting the youth bulge will remain unfulfilled. It is heartening to note that after an extremely painful three-year stabilization phase, the incumbent government has come up with the annual budget of 2021-22 that has promised expansionary spending in order to have inclusive and sustainable growth. The budget has hiked the Federal Sector Public Development from PKR 600 billion last year to PKR 900 billion, thereby making the mass of National Development Program (FSDP plus provinces’ development share) PKR 2.13 trillion, 33% higher than last year’s allocation. One can hope that this time our growth would be sustainable and the government would be able to achieve an ambitious revenue target of PKR 5.8 trillion to avoid a balance of payment crisis in the future.
Low-skilled or unskilled youth is another major roadblock in reaping the dividends of decreasing dependency ratio. Pakistan has been trapped in the low-skill quagmire that has severely hindered the ability of the manufacturing sector to enter the higher-value-added arena that is essential for raising productivity and increasing economic growth. The poor quality of education, outdated and less market-relevant curricula, not suited to the employers’ demands, lack of soft skills, which are more important than academic qualification, are some of the major bottlenecks in the attempts to upskill the ever-burgeoning labour force. The Skills for All strategy launched the PTI-led incumbent government should bring about the following interventions to better organize the skill development program.
The greater linkage between skill providers, academia, and industries to help bridge the gap between required demand and available supply of skills; introduction of Technical Vocational Educational Training (TVET) at the secondary level of education to equip the students with employable skills from an early age; improvement in coordination and communication between federal and provincial institutes; establishment of ICT-based portals; integration of skill development goals in major economic and industrial policies; creation of unified and accredited qualification awarding system to maintain standards, regulate the quality and national and international acceptance of educational certificates; expansion of industry engagement in the skill sector to address the issues of training relevance and quality; and most importantly, investment in research to assess the future demands of skills and help inform the design of relevant training to the meet the demands. Pakistan’s precious youth bulge offers a unique opportunity and continuing negligence at policy and administrative levels would be tantamount to the criminal offense.
Despite having enormous potential for inclusive and sustainable growth, the projected size of Pakistan’s population is unsustainable that necessitates effective population planning and implementation. Population planning in Pakistan suffers from the absence of a coherent approach to overcome the social, cultural and religious constraints to the adaptation of family planning; the ineffective information and communication campaigns, and the lack of political commitments. After the 18th amendment that resulted in the abolishment of the Concurrent Legislative List, the federal ministry of population welfare was transferred to provincial jurisdiction. The delegation should be transferred to district governments now for effective organization but that has not been the case. The incomplete devolution of powers has further constrained population planning and implementation. In this regard, the capacity building of human resources within provincial and district governments; lateral and vertical coordination with other public sector institutions, particularly those related to health and education; encouragement of private sector to expand in rural areas; the targeting of inaccessible areas and vulnerable communities by the public sectors; and sustained partnership with bilateral and multilateral institutions would prove instrumental in the effective population planning and implementation. The continuing efforts to cut down the fertility rate and improve the socioeconomic indicators, along with the strategic planning to upskill or re-skill the youth can go a long way in turning a seeming liability of Pakistan’s ever-expanding population size into an asset.
The writer is a graduate of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. He writes on national and international affairs.