ACCORDING to media reports, initial figures generated by the ongoing census put the country’s population at 235 million, a whopping increase of 27 million or 12.98 per cent since 2017. And there is already a hue and cry over the official data being supposedly well below the actual numbers. By the time the final count is announced, we may have an astounding shock to deal with. Being a practising doctor and someone who has been actively involved with the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) for the last four decades, I feel not only worried, but concerned and scared because the impact of uncontrolled population spike inevitably falls mainly on health and education sectors.
Let us take education first. The national literacy rate is 58pc, which is the lowest in South Asia; and if we go for the standard of education, it might be among the lowest, if not the lowest, in the world. In a country where 26 million children are out of school and the remaining are not receiving quality education, the situation is far from being satisfactory regardless of the definition one might prefer to use to describe the term ‘satisfactory’.
Private-sector education is so expensive that an average breadwinner in a family with four to five children can barely afford the expenses. There is no organised system of giving vocational training to these young children. The overall picture is grim, and there is no sign of improvement in sight.
As for the healthcare system, it is unfortunately one of the worst and that explains the seriously, rather embarrassingly pathetic health indicators, especially infant and maternal mortality rates. According to the Health of the Nation 2023 report produced by PMA, our 80pc of the population has no access to clean drinking water.
Waterborne diseases are common and so are polio, typhoid, hepatitis, cardiovascular diseases, infectious diseases, tuberculosis, kidney diseases, chest diseases, diabetes, hypertension, mental health conditions, cancers, especially oral cancer. Most of these diseases are preventable with vaccinations and lifestyle modifications.
We are fortunate that the country has a fairly organised system of public-private partnership, and some individuals as well as welfare organisations provide healthcare services either free or against fairly subsidised charges. That is actually the only reason the system is still alive. Otherwise, the situation would have been much uglier than what it is right now.
Pakistan, supposedly being an agri- cultural country, has not been producing for years enough grains, lentils and rice to feed the ever increasing population. Our agricultural lands are being converted into housing schemes. Our cities are turning out to be concrete jungles. Our villages are getting urbanised. And all this is happening with utter disregard for the environment. This is a crime in this era of climate change which can no more be brushed off as a mere propaganda.
In a nutshell, we have no proper education for our children, no healthcare for our ailing, not enough food to feed our population, and not enough homes to cater to 80pc of our population. The worst affected are the poorest of the poor. And, generally speaking, they happen to be the ones with large families to take care of.
The situation is going from bad to worse at an alarming pace. Exponential population growth is making the scenario more difficult as far as the country’s economic growth is concerned. The census data should be a wake-up call for us, and sitting idle is not a choice we may hope to enjoy any further. A few more years down the same road will make things almost unmanageable.
Acknowledgement/Credit: Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2023 (Letter to the Editor)