By Pervez Hoodbhoy
18 March 2017
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
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.
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, birth-rates 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, madrasas 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
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
over-breeding 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
Pervez Hoodbhoy teaches physics and mathematics in Lahore and Islamabad.