What will Pakistan be like in the next 30 years?
The latest census figures should scare the hell out of us, or at least those who like to think that they care about the country’s future. We are now upwards of 207 million people and this is not counting Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. And our population growth rate figure is such that it would astonish even the gods, for we seem to have given a whole new meaning to the concept of fertility.
Time was, and not so long ago, when we ridiculed our Bengali brothers and sisters that they were only good at breeding. We in the western wing were the superior race and they only produced children. Now our population is 30 million more than that of Bangladesh and if this doesn’t set us thinking there is little else on the planet that will.
And here’s the even scarier bit: in 30 years time we will have doubled the number of people inhabiting God’s own republic. Many of us think— no, it’s an article of faith with us—that this country, for reasons still unfathomable, was a special creation of the Lord of the Worlds. In other words, there was a divine purpose behind the birth of Pakistan. Leaving aside the other implications of this belief, was it a part of the divine intention that our people, above all others, should have a unique capacity for self-propagation?
We couldn’t do without outside assistance—the polite phrase for begging—when we were 100 million. We were a basket case when we were 150 million, then 180 million and we remain a basket case when we can proudly lay claim to the figure of 207 million (not counting the two parts of Kashmir already mentioned). What will our proud status be when in 30 years time we reach 400 million? How will we manage, how cope with the consequences?
I went to Bangladesh as an election observer some years ago—when Begum Khaleda Zia was prime minister—and travelling by road from Dhaka to Sylhet it was impossible not to feel the pressure of population on the land. A village would hardly end before the next one began. There were few open spaces and once or twice when we stopped by the roadside, in the best sub-continental fashion, to answer the call of duty privacy was hard to come by.
We have more land than Bangladesh but travel on the GT Road—the same road taken by the ousted Nawaz Sharif a few days ago in the hope that his appearance would ignite some kind of a mass upsurge in his favour, leading to his restoration to the PM House—you can see the same pressure slowly building up.
I had the same sense of pressure on land when in 2004 I took the bus from Lahore to Delhi. As you go through Sirhind and Panipat and are approaching Delhi you get the nightmarish feeling that you are cutting your way through a sea of humanity. We had the best land-to-people ratio in the whole of South Asia. Imagine, at Pakistan’s birth, the population of this part of Pakistan was just 35 million…and look what it is today.
Forget about being scared, are we even bothered? Looking into the future has never been one of our foremost strengths. We live in the moment and for the moment and the only future we are concerned about is the hereafter….when the trumpets sound and the mountains come crashing into the seas. The fear of the hereafter grips us. How will it be like in the grave as the questioning angels come and start making up our earthly accounts?
For the hope of salvation in the eternal fields we are ready to do anything—fast in the holy month, perform the enjoined pilgrimage to the holy land, and fulfill all the obligations and injunctions laid down by the faith. The good and great among us cheat on taxes but are heavy on charity, the guiding light in this and other endeavours the hope of salvation.
But how to fix the here and now is not much of a concern with us. Our population growth rate is a ticking bomb, deadlier than anything in our nuclear arsenal. It doesn’t move us, doesn’t scare us. The terrorist threat we face is a temporary phenomenon. It was grave and life-threatening before the army started its Fata operation in mid-2014. Then the tide turned and the severity of the threat abated. But the population explosion is no passing thing. Unless we start doing something about it, and start now, it will make nonsense of all our development plans.
But who’ll do the thinking? It’s not a priority with our governments, civil or khaki. The last time anyone took this problem seriously it was Ayub Khan and he was a military man. Since then this problem has gone off our radar screen and the results are before us…a growth rate now well out of control. Issues such as this are not on the minds of our political class and, for that matter, on anyone else’s mind. When was the last time anyone saw this topic being discussed in a primetime TV talk-show? For the media this is not a sexy subject.
There is another thing we should be concerned about, but are not, and that is plastic. Whether it is the polythene bag or other products made of plastic like bottles, etc, they are not just polluting our landscape but poisoning and destroying it, and not only the landscape but our waters and our seashore too. The other day in a newspaper there was a photo of the Karachi harbour with moored fishing boats surrounded by a deluge of plastic. Horrifying is a small word to describe the effect. And we pay no thought to this devastation.
Half if not more of Karachi’s garbage problem would be solved if something was done about the polythene bag and other plastic containers. Just this one step and the problem would become manageable with no need to call upon Chinese companies to come to our rescue. What kind of a nuclear power are we, anyway? We can’t lift the garbage from our cities—garbage disposal in Rawalpindi and Lahore contracted out to Turkish companies and in Karachi to a Chinese company—but there’s no end to our pride in our nuclear capability.
What will it take us to make some policy about the polythene bag? Does any politician talk about it? Do our leaders have any time for it? I once suggested that since the army has taken the lead in so many things it could take a lead in this as well and ban the use of the polythene shopper in all cantonment and defence areas.
Perhaps some bright scholar will have to write a paper arguing that the plastic shopper is a threat to ‘national security’ before the army command and the other services wake up to this danger. When they do the rest of the state may also fall in line…but not before then.