The fact that we finally got a census done is very good news, and credit should be given to the various stakeholders for this. But that is where the good news ends. The census numbers are alarming. There is little comfort in knowing that both the raw numbers and national growth rate are well above what the economic surveys had indicated. Successive governments had claimed that the national growth rate was under 2, and the rate was falling. We now know that both of these claims were inaccurate and misleading.
Not surprisingly, there already are discussions in political quarters about what this may mean for National and provincial assembly seats and the resources that go with them. The Leader of Opposition has suggested that the census is a conspiracy against the people of Sindh, who make the base of his party. He unfortunately provided no basis for his claim, or any data to back it up. He also failed to mention that while his party was in power, no effort to have a national census was ever undertaken. Beyond the conspiracy theories, there are important questions that economists and demographers are asking, including the dated and questionable definition of urban and rural. Observers are also worried about the current growth rate and likelihood of having nearly 400 million people before 2050. Pundits have also questioned the lack of will, ability and honesty in our population control programme.
For a moment, let us now turn our attention from the future to the present. With the current population, we are facing a fundamental crisis: a crisis of access to a decent life. Basic necessities including water, education and health services are not getting to millions. A study published last week, on the quality of groundwater in Pakistan, in a prestigious journal (Science Advances) shows that nearly 60 million people (about 29% of the total population) are at risk with the presence of alarming levels of arsenic in groundwater. This is well above the previous estimate. In the education sector, a recent national study had estimated that about 25 million children are out of school in the country. In the domain of health and hygiene, about 68 million do not have access to toilets or basic sanitation in the country.
So the question to ask is how do we handle the current crises and plan for the near- and long-term future. While a multi-pronged strategy is needed, awareness and education remains one of the most reliable and proven method to control population and improve the chances for better decision-making. First, educated mothers are less likely to have very large families, even in cultures where large families have historically been encouraged. Multiple studies in Africa, particularly in Ghana, Ethiopia and Kenya have shown that women with no education have, on average, 5 or more children whereas this number falls to about 3 with secondary education and close to 2 with college education among women. Closer to home, decades long studies have shown that there is a strong correlation between population control and education in Thailand and South Korea. Educated girls are not only more likely to have smaller families but are also likely to contribute to the economy. Scandinavian countries have benefited tremendously from increasing the presence of women in the workforce. A balanced and diverse workforce in Norway, Sweden and Denmark has helped create strong social structures that have strengthened the economy and have improved the overall social cohesiveness. Finally, educated mothers are far more likely to ensure that their daughters get educated and hence the chain reaction starts to take off. Similar positive outcomes are also seen in healthcare (e.g. in vaccination and hygiene).
The population growth issue is not just an academic discussion or a policy debate. It has now become an existential question. Serious and sustained investments in girls’ education is not a Western conspiracy against our values, it is the only way to ensure our survival.