Pakistan has a long-list of problems and exponential population growth is at the top of that list. Ironically, one does not find this pressing issue of gigantic magnitude in the governments’ to-do list. It seems the federal and provincial governments treat the unplanned population growth as issue of inconsiderable importance. This menace has a domino effect on all the other issues. For instance, it puts pressure on fast-dwindling natural resources resulting in low-productivity and more consumption, rapid and sprawling urbanization, limited employment opportunities leading towards increase in crime rate, decreasing per capita water availability and what not?

According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), population of the country (then West Pakistan) stood at 33.74 million in the 1951 census, 42.88 million in 1961, 65.09 million in 1972, 84.25 million in 1981 and 132.35 million in 1998. Provisional census of 2017 accounted for 207.77 million which has risen to 217 million till date. With an average annual growth rate of 2.4 % which is lower than earlier 2.6 per cent, still the highest in the region. Against the backdrop of these intercensal statistics, Pakistan’s population is predicted to swell to dangerous level of 246 million by 2025 and to over 300 million by 2035.

In addition to that in 1951, per capita fresh water availability was 5,650 cubic meters which has currently decreased to 865 cubic meters. It is further expected to decrease to 850 by 2025. If a country has per capita water resources between 1,700 and 1,000 cubic meters, according to the Falkenmark Water Stress Indicators, it is within the “water-stress level”, below 1,000 cubic meters is “water-scarcity level” and to further below 500 cubic meters is “absolute water-scarcity”. Pakistan with 865 cubic meters per capita availability is within the “water-scarcity level” and rapidly moving towards “absolute water-scarcity level”. Population is expected to be 246 million by 2025 and per capita water availability will have decreased to 850 cubic meters. This dangerous trend will be disastrous in 2050 when the country’s population has crossed to 403 million as per UN estimates. The population growth and water availability are inversely proportional and hence demand serious planning for tackling the regional highest growth rate, 4.2 per cent.

It is also vital to identify the causes of inherent inverse correlation between the abnormal population growth rate and the dwindling water resources in Pakistan as without identifying the causes, one cannot find out the solution. Economic factors are the driving causes of the high population growth. For example, the federal, KPK and Balochistan governments have raised the minimum wages to Rs17,500 a month while Sindh raised to Rs17,000 from Rs.15,000. These increases of Rs.2,500 and Rs.2,000 are insufficient keeping in view the present-day 9% inflation which is expected to further increase to 13%-16%. Nevertheless, the policy-makers must have kept in view many other factors before deciding the minimum wages. Let us say a household consists of six family members and only one amongst them is breadwinner earning government fixed minimum wages of Rs. 17,500 or Rs.17,000. Is that amount sufficient to cover his utility bill, if rented house/room, daily meal, children’s school fees, unexpected medical expenses, etc.? Answer would resoundingly be in negative.

Above-mentioned causes are serious hindrance in the way of birth-controlling and birth-spacing. As the lower-income segments of society consider that more the male members in the family, the more will be income in the family owing to the reason that many of them will be earning minimum wages which will helping them to effectively tackle the financial hardships. These are the underlying reasons people are ignoring birth-control/spacing moods. Unless these economic needs are addressed and minimum wages are fixed accordingly, there is hardly a chance that the lower-income people will opt for birth-control.

Another discouraging element is that there is a prevalent notion in the society that birth-control and birth-spacing is un-Islamic. Now that there is a consensus amongst the different religious schools of thought that “birth-spacing” is permissible while “birth-control” is not. It is of the utmost importance that this window of opportunity be utilized for reducing the population growth rate through the concerted efforts. The Ulemas should come at the forefront in this arduous struggle and motivate the people to opt for birth-spacing particularly in their sermons, teachings and join hands with the federal and provincial governments in this noble cause. After the 18th Constitutional amendment, the greater responsibility for tackling population growth lies with the provincial governments at the same time federal government should not abdicate the responsibility of facilitating the federating units.

Bangladesh, Iran and Malaysia successfully dealt with the burgeoning population and today their growth rate is reasonably low compared with Pakistan. We should learn a lesson from these countries as they faced similar resistance from the religious leaders.

Moreover, in our part of the world decisions are taken keeping in view the political expediencies rather than well thought-out plans. Whichever party is in power, it reverses the decisions of the preceding government and this cycle keeps repeating itself. This causes irreparable damage to all the strategies devised and gains are wasted in the process.

Hence, it is necessary to focus on the magnitude of the problem as population in 2017 was 207.77 million and it has added further 12 million persons within two years. It is need of hour that the whole-hearted efforts are dedicated to this ticking time bomb of sprawling population. This issue should comprehensively be resolved including addressing all the underlying factors which may be hindering achievement of this gigantic task without further delay such as fixing reasonable minimum wages, covering all the people living below poverty-line in the social safety nets, provision of medical insurance to every poor-family, encouraging the role of ulemas in this direction, etc. As the 10% of the time in media is free for the public service messages as per PEMRA laws, thus the relevant government departments must in coordination will the celebrities encourage family planning, population control and birth-spacing. Whether the people at the helm of affairs are hearing tick…tick…tick…..?