ASK people around you to identify the three greatest threats facing Pakistan. Ordinary people, chatterbox anchors, mullahs, generals and politicians will name everything from corruption, bad governance and religious terrorism, to Indian and American conspiracies, and general moral decay. But few, if any, waste sleep worrying about the country’s exploding population. Some educated people do have misgivings, but they show concern only when prodded.
Fortunately, the ultra-religious sorts — which this land is abundantly blessed with — are free from useless doubt. For them more is better. Every newborn, say the ultras, comes with a guaranteed rizq (provision) stamped on its forehead. Now let’s assume, ignoring the visible contrary evidence, that this is correct. Yet there shall remain an impossibly difficult problem even if food and water were to drop miraculously from the skies. Fact: Pakistan will eventually run out of physical space. This is what the law of exponential growth says.
Only a miracle can now prevent Pakistan from becoming 400 million people in around 35 years.
An old Persian story helps understand the mathematical concept of exponentials.
Once upon a time, a clever courtier presented an elaborate ivory chess set to his king. In return he asked for only one grain of rice for the first square, two for the second, four for the third, etc. Now, kings in those times did not have degrees in math, and this one was no exception. He foolishly agreed and ordered the rice be brought out from the storage. Working on the agreed upon terms, the 10th square had 512 grains, the 14th weighed around 1kg, and the 20th around 128kg. Long before reaching the last square (64th) the kingdom’s entire rice stock was exhausted.
The moral: if something doubles, and doubles again and again, then even the sky is not high enough.
Let’s return to Pakistan. In 1947 it had 27 million people and now has over 200m. This gives a doubling time of roughly 25 years. Now assume for a moment that the ultras have their way and the doubling time stays unchanged. Then 25 years later there will be 400m Pakistani CNIC holders. Wait for another 100 years and that number will comfortably exceed the world’s current population of 7.2 billion.
The effects will be much more dramatic after yet another 25 years — ie 150 years from today. Imagine that all 800,000 square kilometres of Pakistani territory is somehow levelled. Even so, there will be only room for standing shoulder to shoulder. In such circumstances it is hard to imagine how further reproduction will be physically possible. Generals who receive retirement gifts of 93 acres (approximately 37 hectares) of land today will be lucky if they get 93 square feet.
The good news is that this is not actually going to happen. Every demographer is shouting from the rooftop that birth rates are declining and doubling times are increasing. Indeed, according to the CIA World Factbook, birthrates in Pakistan have fallen from 32.11 in 2000 to 23.19 in 2014.
The bad news is that even this decline isn’t good enough. Short of nuclear war or a miracle, nothing can now prevent Pakistan from reaching 400m people in 35-40 years. Hence the demand for living space will vastly accelerate. Even now, green areas are vanishing as villages become towns, and one city spills over into the next. Karachi and Hyderabad are approaching their eventual merger, just as Islamabad and Rawalpindi have become practically one city, and Islamabad is furiously racing towards Taxila.
Doubling Pakistan’s population means that there will only be half as much fresh water as today, the air will become yet filthier, pollutants will poison the land and sea, and road traffic will become nearly impossible. As poverty skyrockets, hordes of beggars will roam the streets, madressahs will swell in size and number, and the unemployed and unemployable will chafe in anger and frustration. They will be easily persuaded that their predicament comes from some international conspiracy.
Although this holocaust is only some years away, curiously it is the suicide terrorist — whose ball-bearing filled jacket can kill only dozens — that draws our attention. Why? The story of two frogs loitering near the kitchen stove is instructive.
One frog fell into a pot of hot water and was so jolted that he jumped out instantly. He was saved. The other one fell into a pot wherein the water was only slowly warming up. He swam around and around but did not summon the energy to make a sudden jump. Ultimately he was boiled to death. The obvious moral: instant shocks are better survived than long-term threats.
How to avoid a similar doom? As a first step we must declassify our best kept national secret — knowing how babies are made. Only then can contraception be discussed in the public media, and in schools and colleges. Phenomenal ignorance on these matters has led to extremely low rates of contraceptive usage by Pakistani women. This also reflects their disempowerment in deciding the number of children. Hence birth and fertility rates in Pakistan exceed those in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and the rest of South Asia.
With discussion suppressed in the name of Mashriqi sharm-o-haya, all kinds of nonsensical belief are going unchallenged today. Should we be surprised that countless workers administering polio shots — which are falsely alleged to decrease fertility — have been shot and killed?
The government’s supreme cowardice makes one shudder. Fearing the wrath of violent ultras, Pakistan abolished the ministry for population planning many years ago. Upon googling, I came across the website of the Population Welfare Department. This ridiculous name suggests that PWD will seek, and succeed, in delivering welfare to Pakistanis irrespective of their number. I could not find an Urdu version of the website. Apart from giving advertisements in newspapers, where it matters little, I am unaware if the PWD does anything else.
Averting catastrophe because of overbreeding does not need rocket science but it does need common sense. It also needs courage, which our pusillanimous leaders — both civil and military — have so far failed to muster. Much more than Zarb-i-Azb, we need Zarb-i-Tauleed. Unless we learn from the second frog’s fate, Pakistan doesn’t have much of a future.
Written by Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy. He teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad. Since 2013 he has been a member of the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Affairs. Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2017. Read it in Urdu here.