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Pakistan’s Population Policy Has Failed to Achieve Its Intended Purpose

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Sarwar Saba

Although Pakistan started its population programs early in the 1950s, it had yet to have a distinct population policy exclusively dealing with the population problem. As a country, our focus was on controlling fertility rates instead of dealing with the real issue of tackling demographics and population momentum. Historical analysis shows that although the population was mentioned in all five-year developmental plans, no substantial and separate policy for population control was designed.

Neither of those implicit population policies were implemented in letter and spirit. Only in the era of Ayub Khan was a population policy designed because different stakeholders raised their concerns about issues of inadequate resources and infrastructure owing to the growing population rate. In that era, a consensus was built that Pakistan would only be able to achieve economic development if it embraced family planning. It was also feared that Pakistan might lag far behind other regional countries because of its high population growth rate. However, subsequent governments should have consistently followed the policy; hence, it could not yield positive results. 

Instead, the subsequent governments considered it a religious obligation to let the population grow, and they used this population in Jihad (1979 Afghan War – Zia era). Later, the population policy in 2002 was severe and action-oriented compared to previous policies. It contains several elements that can be considered adequate for controlling the population. It seeks population stabilization through fertility and mortality rate declines to achieve its overall objectives. It targets reducing fertility through enhanced voluntary contraception use and reducing fertility to the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman by 2020. The long-term goal of this policy was to reduce the population growth rate to 1.3 per cent. Moreover, universal access to safe family planning methods should be achieved by 2010 (Which seems to be an overly ambitious policy).

To understand the reasons for poor policy outcomes, several factors can be blamed for policy failures: No distinct and exclusive population policy goals, lack of political will and commitment, bad governance, resource deficiency, religious constraints and widespread illiteracy. In addition, consistent population growth also acted as an impediment to development. Another mentionable reason for policy failure is that we merged Family Planning with health policy and needed help comprehending the real issues. Moreover, certain leading hindrances, such as gender inequality and the low status of women, as well as persistent socio-economic, cultural, and administrative constraints, are equally responsible for policy failures in Pakistan. We couldn’t successfully implement population policy and hence couldn’t achieve demographic dividends.

Changes Suggested in the Current Policy:

To establish a robust and effective population policy, Pakistan must adopt a multi-sectoral approach at various levels, with clear short-term, mid-term, and long-term objectives. Following the 18th Amendment, the population became a provincial subject. However, to ensure coherent policies and their simultaneous implementation across all provinces, it should be made a federal subject.

First of all, there is a need to remove widespread illiteracy, which is, in a true sense, a mother of all ills in Pakistan. 

Secondly, the benefits of having small family sizes can be conveyed to the public through the media. The success of Family Planning programs can be ensured if our policies focus on demand-side reforms. When more people ask the government to take steps to control the population, then the government will be compelled to take effective action. Therefore, it is the need of the hour to educate and motivate people to have small families. In this way, the supply side can also be amended to address demand-side hurdles. Individual decision-making regarding small family sizes can be encouraged to restrict fertility, as in Taiwan and Korea.

Thirdly, certain programs can be designed to guide and educate families about the importance of population control. ICT (Information Communication Technology) tools can also be an excellent resource for creating awareness among people. Similarly, religious leaders can also effectively convince people about the importance of having small families.

Fourthly, considering poverty’s inverse relationship with family planning, there is a dire need to reduce poverty so that poor people’s conditions may improve, hence our population policy. Poverty alleviation programs can be initiated through macroeconomic policies (Effective Labor and Trade Policies must also be incorporated to address this issue). Similarly, enlarging the economy can prove fruitful because it would accommodate scores of unemployed. 

Fifthly, good infrastructure policies, including grey and green infrastructure, will also help reduce inequality. One of the leading obstacles to gender inequality is the low status of women, which should be dealt with iron hands.

Sixthly, we need to increase the postponement of marriage age because it can result in a reduction in marital fertility (as happened in Japan). Furthermore, increasingly ambitious targets like those of China need to be strictly enforced.

Seventhly, new innovation and community involvement models can effectively reduce fertility because people will change family preferences. In addition to this, contraceptive use can also be increased in this way. However, one should keep in mind that fertility decline cannot be merely attributed to high contraceptive use. Factors other than contraceptive use are also equally important because we have an example of Indonesia, where low fertility and low contraceptive use can be witnessed in such a design, and policies can also be incorporated into our country’s population policy by keeping in mind local aspirations and demands.

Lastly, only writing mere policy statements will not change behaviour; therefore, Pakistan needs to benefit from the rising working-age population because demographers rightly argue that a declining dependency ratio offers a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to make a successful and prosperous nation. We need to learn from the policy experiences of other developing countries and formulate our policies by keeping in mind the recent demographic realities in Pakistan; an effective population policy should include the following:

  • Strategies regarding reduction in the rate and incidence of unwanted fertility.
  • Reduction in demand for large-size families.
  • More excellent investment in adolescents to tackle the population momentum problem.

It is of utmost urgency that Pakistan addresses the looming population explosion, a crisis that threatens to halt the country’s progress. To avert this, we must devise a comprehensive and effective population control program, implementing it rigorously across the nation. The neglect of previous policies can still be rectified if we act promptly and prioritize this issue. Failure to do so would exacerbate the current problems, potentially spiraling out of control as predicted by the UN.

The time has come for all stakeholders, including government, non-government organizations, religious leaders, and the public, to cooperate to achieve tangible results in population policy outcomes. To overcome policy obstacles, Pakistan needs the commitment and willingness of political and religious leaders. 

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