Apr 282008

NOW that a democratically-elected government is in place in Pakistan, politics needs to be put aside as much as possible, to concentrate on what really affects Pakistanis, namely development. And in development, a major priority has to be population stabilisation.

First, a few statistics: Pakistan’s population is still growing at a high rate. Figures vary. The Pakistan government puts it at 1.8 per cent but United Nations Population Fund Activities (Unfpa) puts it at 2.1 per cent a year, one of the highest population growth rates in South Asia. Over three million extra Pakistanis are added to the population every year, people who have to be fed, housed, educated and employed. That’s a stupendous task.

In 1981, Pakistan’s population was 84 million; today, it is over 160 million, having doubled in less than 30 years. The only bit of good news in this particular area is that the average number of children that a woman in Pakistan bears (also called the total fertility rate) has gone down from 5.6 in 1990-91 to 3.7 in 2007.

A family planning programme was actually launched way back in 1952 by the Family Planning Association of Pakistan, a non-governmental organisation (NGO). India, too, initiated something similar at government level at about the same time. However, the results in both countries have been very uneven.

In India, Sanjay Gandhi, Indira’s son, tried to forcibly thrust family planning down the peoples’ throat during his mother’s notorious dictatorial ‘Emergency’ rule in 1975-77. He made sterilisation (for women) or vasectomy (for men) compulsory for families with more than two children and ‘targets’ were set for government officials. These terror tactics failed abysmally and set the Indian family planning movement back by at least two decades, with subsequent governments reluctant to pursue population stabilisation measures whole-heartedly. The tactics were also partly responsible for the defeat of Indira’s Congress Party in the 1977 elections.

In Pakistan, after Gen Ziaul Haq’s coup in 1977, the family planning programme was virtually abandoned, with Islamic fundamentalist parties, who oppose family planning, in the ascendant. Fortunately, the recent elections rejected those very parties, which should augur well for a renewed thrust in curbing Pakistan’s population explosion.

In 1992, I was commissioned by the Unfpa to write a book on family planning success stories. Eight developing countries were chosen from all over the world, which had been fairly successful in their family planning programmes. Those programmes had to be voluntary, which is why China – an undoubted ‘success story’ with an annual population growth now of under one per cent – was not chosen.

Two of the successful countries were Muslim: Indonesia and Tunisia (today, at least three more could be added: Turkey, Morocco, and, surprisingly, Iran). The main reason they were included was to show that there was nothing in Islamic teachings that opposed family planning. All that was required was enlightened leadership.

In Indonesia, the late Suharto (though much-maligned for other reasons) provided this, and in Tunisia, it was the nation’s founding-father, Bourguiba. It might surprise readers to know that in Tunisia, polygamy has been banned by law since the 1950s and in Morocco, the King’s government has made it so difficult for a man to marry more than one wife that a ‘one-man, one-wife’ policy is effectively in place.

In Indonesia, the government actually persuaded the religious leaders that bringing down the population growth rate was in national interest. A fatwa was issued to this effect and the mullahs preached the virtues of family planning from mosques.

In Roman Catholic developing countries like Brazil and Mexico as well, even though the Pope still refuses to permit the use of modern contraceptive methods, the vast majority of the people have ignored him and practice family planning.

Religious compulsions and enlightened leadership apart, while researching for my book I found that two other essential factors had to be in place for success in population stabilisation: high literacy rates, especially among girls, and good health care.

Those are the two areas where India and Pakistan have failed badly. In India, only a little over 60 per cent of the population is literate, the literacy figures for females being even lower. The picture is worse in Pakistan. As for health care, the surest indicator for this is the average expectancy of life. In India and Pakistan it is around 64 years, one of the lowest in the developing world, outside sub-Sahara Africa.

In both Indonesia and Tunisia, priority has been given to literacy and health care. Indonesia had a literacy rate lower than India’s or Pakistan’s half a century ago. Today, close to 80 per cent of Indonesians are literate. In Tunisia, the literacy rate is even higher.

Why are literacy and health care so important?

Very simple. You have to be educated to understand and follow family planning, while good health care means the survival of children to a ripe old age. If a couple knows that their two children are very likely to live into their 70s and 80s – as they do in most developed countries and in quite a few developing ones as well – they won’t have more children. And of course a variety of contraceptive methods must be easily and cheaply available.

Not that difficult to achieve, provided that political will and commitment to the cause is there. This is a vital area, key to economic progress, where India and Pakistan can cooperate to their immense mutual benefit. n

The writer, former editor of the Reader’s Digest and Indian Express, has also been a consultant for UNFPA and is the author of Family Planning Success Stories: Asia, Latin America, Africa.


Source: Daily Dawn, 28/4/2008

 Posted by at 4:54 pm

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