Pakistan’s Population Bomb

Posted on June 5, 2011
Filed Under >Faris Islam, Economy & Development, Society
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Faris Islam

Amongst the tide of dismal economic data released ahead of the budget presentation are building the currents of the next crisis that could inundate Pakistan.

While media attention remains fixated – rightly so – on shorter-term problems such as the ever-growing threat of militancy, the cresting polarization of society, a recurring power crisis and an inflation rate that only seems to rise, the greater demographic problem facing the country is too often relegated to the sidelines. While actions taken to address the population explosion in Pakistan may appear less urgent – and will yield results evident only in the long-term – action must be taken now lest the currents building around this crisis crest into a tsunami.

The statistics are sobering, according to a piece in The Express Tribune:

  • At 2.1 percent, Pakistan has the dubious honour of having South Asia’s highest population growth rate.
  • On average, two people died and eight were born every minute in Pakistan in 2010, meaning the country’s population increased by six people every minute of the year, on average.
  • This translates into a growth in the Pakistani population of half a million people in the last year. This would be added to the estimated population of 177.1 million as of July 1st 2010.

The implications of these statistics are both enormous and alarming. While power shortages, inflation and unemployment may be the current fault lines upon which the country’s economy is stumbling, adding this many people to the population every year could stretch even the strongest and most vibrant economy to the max.

As our education sector and national infrastructure are involved in a perennial game of catch-up to meet an ever growing demand, they too will fall behind in the face of an ever-increasing target populace. Evidence of this problem is already starting to take hold. Though Pakistan’s official literacy rate increased from 18 percent to 50 percent, according to numbers from 2009, the number of illiterate people in the country increased from 28 million to 48 million, according to UNESCO numbers.

In addition to a burgeoning population that threatens to overwhelm an already struggling education sector, the country’s massive youth bulge and continued population growth has severe economic impacts as well. The Labour Force Survey of 2009-2010 credits Pakistan with the ninth largest available labour force in the world at 54.92 million people. With an unemployment rate of 5.6 percent, this may appear to provide Pakistan with a formidable engine of economic growth, though 29.1 percent of those employed – more than two-thirds of whom are women – are working as “unpaid family helpers.”

Attempts to stem this growing population crisis have so far been far from successful, as the country’s population growth rate declined by only 1.01 percent in the last 30 years. From 1960 to the present, Pakistan’s population has quadrupled, according to a vice-president at Population Action International. Indeed, the United Nations’ recent population projections for Pakistan in 2050 increased by 45 million in two years. Citing the Economic Survey of Pakistan, The Express Tribune says one of the main reasons for this explosive growth is a shockingly low prevalence rate for contraceptives – the lowest “not just in South Asia but among major Muslim countries”. While Pakistan’s contraceptive prevalence rate stands at an appalling 30 percent, we are less than half the Asian average of 67 percent and even more significantly behind the rate of our neighbour, the Islamic Republic of Iran which boasts a contraceptive prevalence rate of 74 percent.

Indeed one reason Iran was able to control its population growth so successfully was because of – not in spite of – the conservative regime that governs it. Through a broad-based national campaign, the country was able to bring religious leaders into the discussion on family planning. This not only brought the issue into the mainstream but helped in the devising of a broad-based national policy that worked within, rather than against the country’s societal and cultural norms, developing an Iranian solution for an Iranian problem.

To begin such a process in Pakistan, we, as Pakistanis need to engender a national discussion on family planning and develop our own solutions to our looming population crisis, before it overwhelms us.

37 Comments on “Pakistan’s Population Bomb”

  1. Sridhar says:
    June 5th, 2011 10:44 pm

    Correction: The fertility rate cannot be 2.1 – it is the growth rate. A fertility rate of about 2.1 would imply that a mother gives birth to 2.1 children on average. After accounting for some infant mortality, this would mean that the number of chlildren surviving to adulthood would be about 2 or less. At that rate, termed the replacement rate, there would be no population growth (each couple would be replaced by their two surviving children).

    BTW, if Pakistan has achieved a growth rate of 2.1% per annum, it would be a pretty creditable achievement, and would show that the trend is right. Growth rates were much higher even a few years ago. Of course, since there hasn’t been a census since 1998, I am not sure if there is any veracity to these numbers.

  2. June 5th, 2011 11:01 pm

    I am also quite sure that Sridhar is correct. The TFR (total fertility rate) is the number of pregnancies that a woman will go through, the 2.1% is the population growth rate, although I think most population experts in Pakistan would doubt that number (partly because the most reproductively active tend to be the exact cohorts missed in census and other surveys). But I will wait for someone more informed on this than me before making changes.

    Overall, however, I just landed in Lahore (literally a couple of hours ago) and knowing that this post was about to come up, I was struck by how the population challenge is in our face (literally) everywhere… from the airport baggage belt to the traffic on the roads to everywhere.

  3. omer says:
    June 5th, 2011 11:13 pm

    The main issue is that people don’t take family planning seriously in Pakistan. I know a lot of well educated people who do not put much thought into the fact that they cannot afford to raise 4 children well and do not use contraceptives at all.

    One explanation for such behavior is the religion’s views on contraception or rather the religion’s self proclaimed owner’s views on the subject. A lot of people dismiss contraceptives as just another ‘western ploy to defeat the ummah’.

    I’ve seen totally preposterous wall markings in my village saying ‘have more kids as it will result in better Jihad!!’

  4. Faizan says:
    June 5th, 2011 11:25 pm

    Love the picture you have chosen. THAT is a population bomb. And its everywhere!

  5. Faris Islam says:
    June 5th, 2011 11:43 pm

    Sorry about the misquoting of the statistic, the 2.1 statistic does indeed represent the population growth rate and not the fertility rate (which according to CIA World Factbook estimates is 3.17 children/women and the 54th highest in the world).

    Sorry for any confusion this may have caused and thanks to Sridhar for pointing out my mistake.

  6. Ehtisham says:
    June 6th, 2011 12:27 am

    This really is the most important issue, but no one seems to be paying attention. Glad to see this post.

  7. Gardezi says:
    June 6th, 2011 1:27 am

    Easiest way to population control is education. That is only thing we should concentrate on.

  8. Wasim says:
    June 6th, 2011 1:33 am

    This is one bomb that no nuclear bomb can save us from

  9. auk says:
    June 6th, 2011 3:16 am

    Another correction on your stats. At this rate the population is growing by over 3 million a year and not half a million. A growth of half a million a year would be an achievement for Pakistan.
    Another startling fact; today the population of Bangladesh is 150 million. In 1971 at the time of the secession of East Pakistan, the population of the two wings of Pakistan was 50 million and 70 million. Guess which wing’s population was 50 million. Yes, it was the western wing or today’s Pakistan which was smaller at the time. And that was the main reason for the tragic events of 1971 (no digression here). Now 40 years hence, we have not only overtaken Bangladesh, but have outpaced them by 50 million (in absolute numbers). This tells you the gravity of the crisis that we have on our hands.
    It is not just an issue of education and economic opportunities for the masses, but the ills faced by today’s Pakistan can be traced to the population bomb. Not just a strain on our resources which are absolutely under a crunch, but the extremism in the society is a direct consequence. Where do you think TTP derives its ranks from? Wikileaks had a very intriguing analysis of this, where the Madrassahs of Bahawalpur and DG Khan have an endless supply of youths from the poor in the area who can’t afford to feed their kids. Now who is funding those Madrassas is another issue, but it is the underlying population crisis which presents an opportunity to our friends. Yes, Pakistan is a fertile ground for extremism because of its population bomb.
    One other thing about Pakistan is the complacency and the lax attitude that is a hallmark of our masses (no matter what background they come from), which has led to this crisis. I strongly contend the notion that it has anything to do with religion. Show me a woman with 8 kids who tells you that she wanted all of them.
    It is a question of empowering our woman which we refuse to do at all levels of the society. Empowered woman will create an empowered society. We also need an army of midwives and medical professionals who will deal with this crisis headon, instead of leaving it to the Will of the Almighty. Attitudes need to be changed at every level, and they need to change now.

  10. Abdul Hai says:
    June 6th, 2011 4:09 am

    When I was in Pakistan, I always believed that family planning and all kinds of contraceptives were not allowed in Islam. In USA, I have had the benefit of learning fro Ulema who were knowledegable and studied the issue myself. I found what I learned in Pakistan from the Imams was wrong. I wish that Imams in Pakistan are taught properly and they do not make sweeping statements in the mosques.

  11. Moise says:
    June 6th, 2011 9:53 am

    Ah the genocidal Malthusians. We need to work on management of resources and not curse people.

  12. Moise says:
    June 6th, 2011 10:10 am

    Quote from article:

    Needless to say, this is good news for the Keynesians out there: in addition to earthquakes, volcanoes, rain, snow, floods, droughts, tsunamis and nuclear power plant explosions, worthless economists will now have viruses to blame for “one-time, non-recurring” misses to their latest set of expectations.

  13. Abdullah says:
    June 6th, 2011 11:10 am

    First of all it is a pity that we forget who is the ultimate controller of all things and He is Allah Subhanahu Wa Taala. Without His command, nothing can occur in this universe. When any of us arrange food for some people for a wedding or any large gathering, the number of attendees is kept in mind. Nauzobillah, does Allah doe not know how many people he will be sending on earth ? He definitely does know that and can manage it perfectly.


  14. Khalid R Hasan says:
    June 6th, 2011 12:02 pm

    Unemployment has been touched on in this post but needs further elaboration. The official unemployment rate is said to be 5.6% which would be considered “full employment” these days in the US and Europe. The actual situation in Pakistan is very different, and the key lies in the 29% of the labour force classified as “unpaid family helpers”. Adding them to the unemployed (as I’m sure is the normal practice) gives us an unemployment rate of 34%, which is a better indication of a “bomb” waiting to explode (The rate of unemployed youth is likely to be even higher).

  15. Activist says:
    June 6th, 2011 12:20 pm

    In my opinion all these articles/columns are useless…coz ppl who need to be addressed on this issue ,they can’t even understand the language,they are illiterate ppl,living under the line of poverty…not to talk abt reading these online articles/columns,they havent even hear the word ‘internet’ ever.these issues should be addressed in public; something like door to door campaign ….or during ‘khutbaas’ in mosques….why we all discussing this issue here , telling each other what we know and understand already?

  16. ali hamdani says:
    June 6th, 2011 12:29 pm

    The bomb has fallen on Pakistan and that is the population bomb. It is important that we make good ties with western countries and others as well so that the people can move back and forth to other countries and send remittances home for a better living.

  17. Khan says:
    June 6th, 2011 12:34 pm

    Imagine in a room once three persons lived and now 18 or more in the same room.

    Late Ayub Khan launched a very serious effort to control population.He had a plan for next 20 to 30 years.It was sabotaged by ZA Bhutto who unleashed all ill educated socalled ulema to oppose Ayub’s plan basically out of venom for all good that Ayub Khan did for the country. And the good was far more than the collective good, if any, done by any other government since.

    This is part of our history and no one can change it. It is PPP again who has yet to recognise this menace.It is beyond them anyway.

  18. Dan says:
    June 6th, 2011 12:41 pm

    @Abudullah: It’s people like you who Pakistan has no dearth of, citing lame analogies, and illogical arguments in favor of population explosion; who never make an effort to think without bringing religion into picture. But since you have given the example of a “wedding”, here is an example of what Pakistan will become in a decade

  19. Owais Mughal says:
    June 6th, 2011 4:47 pm

    The pop growth rate used to be higher than 3% in the 80s. So if it is at 2.1% now then it is trending downwards – though it is still the highest among other nations in the region – as written in the post.

  20. Khan says:
    June 6th, 2011 5:32 pm


    The difference between animals and humans is AQL or power to rationalise. Allah controls animal population.Imagine if there were more lion population than jungle buffallos,what would have happened. Apply logic and you will understand.Creator kept one principle supreme when He created the universe; Balance or tawazan.We disturb that balance and court trouble.What is this hue and cry about environment etc? We the humans have disturbed the balance as we did with the population.

  21. Owais Mughal says:
    June 6th, 2011 7:36 pm

    As our commentator Khan has written in one of his comments below, Ayub Khan had started the pop. growth control program in the 60s – which somehow got side tracked in later years. I recently finished reading Ayub’s diaries and on several occasions in his diaries Ayub has noted that if Pk pop was not controlled then ‘man will be eating man’ in the country by the end of the century (2000). At one point in his diaries he had noted the pop of Pk to be around 200 million by the year 2000 and then followed it by his ‘man eating man’ comment. This 200m number included both East and West Pk (Bangladesh).

    Today only in Pk it is getting close to 176m people where as Bangladesh which once used to be 56% of combined pak population has done much better than its former West wing and they are now around 151m people (46% of Pk population).

  22. Naan Haleem says:
    June 6th, 2011 8:50 pm

    Wikipedia (citing United Nation) says that Population growth rate of Pakistan between 2005-2010 is 1.84%, ranked 62 among 230 countries and territories. The World average for the same period is given as 1.17.

    The same page gives a ranking by CIA Fact book for the year 2009 reporting Pakistan’s growth rate at 1.56%, ranked 83 among 232 countries and territories.

    Another Page at Wikipedia ranks Pakistan at 9 among 185 countries in terms of labour force (55.9 million in 2009 est). The only thing required is the will and capacity to provide skills to this huge mass and use this human capital locally. Besides we can earn enormous remittances by exporting the skilled labour to the countries falling short of required workforce due to their drastically low population growth rates.

  23. auk says:
    June 6th, 2011 10:45 pm

    Khan, I couldn’t agree with you more, as I was thinking of absolutely the same argument. AQL is the difference between humans and animals, which we in Pakistan are trying to remove, this case in point. ADL is the principle on which God created this universe – everything has an order which it follows to the last detail – countless references in Quran, and examples all aournd us for those of us who have the first trait – AQL. As you so aptly cited, we are destroying that ADL or balance that is the hallmark of this universe – be it through overpopulation, or through environmental deterioration. And our so called Mullahs are only concerned about our pre-destined fate. What happened to Iqbal’s “Khudi”, and rising to create a strong nation.
    If there was such a thing as a “Misery Index”, Pakistan will rank real high on it, and we can’t see that in front of our eyes.
    And folks like Moise have the nerve to lecture me about resource development.

  24. Sridhar says:
    June 7th, 2011 1:31 am

    Total fertility rate is a leading indicator for growth rate of the future (population growth typically continues after the replacement TFR of about 2 is reached but follows the same trend with a lag). The following link has a nice graphic of the TFR for all South Asian countries since 1960.

    Pakistan has actually shown a significant shift in the slope of the curve after 1990 – it was almost flat until then and shows a relatively big dip afterwards. Of course, this performance is good in absolute terms, but pales in comparison to Bangladesh, which surprisingly has a better performance than even Sri Lanka on this score. Sri Lanka is typically the leading country in most indicators – social and economic – in South Asia but not for TFR. Bangladesh started out with a higher TFR than Pakistan, but has one of the lowest in South Asia as of now (only tiny and prosperous Maldives does better).

    India is better than Pakistan but has a long way to go as well. Both India and Pakistan, being the two largest countries, show significant disparities in social indicators across regions. In India’s case for instance, states like Kerala, Goa, the North-eastern states and to some extent the other southern states and Maharashtra are way higher than other states in these indicators. Kerala approaches first world standards on social indicators, despite its economic performance being only average. I suspect that there are similar disparities in Pakistan as well.

    Thus, each of the two countries has significant internal experience that can be transferred to other regions if there is enough political will. This is what we must force our Governments to do. Not copy from other cultures, which may be hard to do. But copy from within our respective countries, transferring best practices from regions with success to regions without.

  25. Naan Haleem says:
    June 7th, 2011 1:46 am

    In a meeting on 27 November 1931, Italian ruler Mussolini requested Allama Iqbal to give some exceptional suggestion for him. Iqbal advised, “Don’t allow overcrowding of the cities. Limit the size of the population of a city and after that limit instead of allowing them to settle there, create new settlements and cities for them.”

    Elaborating his point, Iqbal said, “As population of a city increases, its moral values and economic power start waning. Worst, immoral activities start challenging the cultural strength.”

    And this is, I think, the crux of the problem/solution. Law making is very easy anywhere, but implementation of absolutely any law is hardly possible in overly crowded cities. Public awareness about civic values can not be generated in congested cities. Although economic opportunities are greater in larger cities but this is exactly the phenomenon which deviates the attention of the individual from personal and family contentment to the materialistic goals of amassing more and more capital items. Increased population (at a place) => Increased competition => Increased workload => Increased depression => lost social setup.

    So, build and develop more cities with considerable distance among them so as not to expand already congested cities. A bad example in this regard is the new Zulfiqarabad Project just miles away from Karachi.

    p.s. Some people say that Iqbal’s advice was actually narration of a Hadith-e Nabawi (PBUH), but I was unable to verify it.

  26. Amna Zaman says:
    June 7th, 2011 12:29 pm

    Population is a main problem for the growing poverty in Pkaistana nad indirectly also the militancy. The people in search of a few meals per day fall into the terrorist trap.

  27. Kamal Kunal says:
    June 7th, 2011 5:46 pm

    One aspect of this that nobody has mentioned is the practice of marrying with the bloodline. So marriage to 1st /2nd cousin “to keep the bloodline pure” …when infact nothing could be further than the truth.

    Pakistan has the largest growing homo-sapien inbreeding program the has ever seen. This will be resulting in diseases that are simply not present in people practising other religions.

    Cleft diseases, gum diseases, blood diseases rising faster and faster.

    Two urgent programs are required and some peoples have mentioned one of them.

    1) Education in family planning, but above all NEVER to marry in the immediate bloodline.

    2) Build a contrceptives factory in every large city…and distribute FREE condoms to the villages. It is cheaper to do this than support childrens once born….Hukumat…get your skates on and build these factories.

  28. Meengla says:
    June 7th, 2011 7:15 pm

    Thank you for some very useful posts.

    I see that most Comments are bordering on alarm–and rightly so. How can such a population be sustained with so few resources? Well, at least as of now, it is unsustainable and signs are there to see.
    Is there any silver lining in the cloud then? May be. At least 2.1% is quite less than the 3%+ of the 80s growth rate. Also, may be there is time to completely re-align the Pakistani national priorities by dumping the ‘security state’ mindset and using the newly-freed resources for education and training. I see no reason as to why Pakistan can’t use the billions of $ saved from the military and nuclear weapon budgets to better educate and train the population. The educated population can be turned to great asset by exporting to countries like Japan, Germany, Russia etc where there is a trend toward ageing and population decline.

    The pre-requisite for such a realignment of the Pakistani state is to make peace with India as soon as possible. Cut the losses from the un-winnable 60+ struggle over Kashmir and move on.

  29. shiv says:
    June 8th, 2011 10:05 am


    6 people per minute x 60 minutes an hour x 24 hours x 365 days a year

    6 x 60 x 24 x 365 = 3 million plus.

    Not half a million, but 3 million more Pakistanis a year

  30. Sridhar says:
    June 8th, 2011 4:46 pm

    Good observation, but even that is an underestimate. If the population is growing 2.1% a year, and current population is 177.1 million, there would be an addition of

    177.1m * 2.1/100 = 3.72 million people

    That implies about 7.1 people added every minute.

  31. Sridhar says:
    June 8th, 2011 5:06 pm

    Correction: the article reports the 2010 population as 177.1 million. Thus, it will be 180.8m by July 1 of this year, if the current annual growth rate is 2.1% (it is likely lower than that if the 2.1 is the average since the last census, since the growth rate itself is slowing over time). In any case, it is safe to assume that it is 180m now, and growing by over 3.7m a year. At this rate, it will touch 200m by 2016.

    To give a scale to this, at the time of Pakistan’s last census in 1998, its population was 132.4m, while India’s population at the same time was 982.2 million (estimated). Thus, there were 7.4 Indians for every Pakistani in 1998. Today, there are 180m Pakistanis and 1.21 billion Indians – i.e 6.7 Indians for every Pakistani. In 2016, there will be 200m Pakistanis and 1.26 billion Indians, i.e. 6.3 Indians for every Pakistani. Thus, in under 20 years, the ratio of Indians to Pakistanis has gone from 7.4 to 6.3. Very drastic by any standards for countries with similar economic and social profiles.

    If this growth is harnessed, it can do untold good to society and to the economy of Pakistan. If it is not harnessed productively, it can do untold harm. The alarm is not unwarranted. Slowing population growth takes time and enormous effort (even with drastic measures such as China’s, it will take a couple of decades to bear fruit, perhaps more given the huge youth bulge). It is imperative therefore to think urgently about what can be done to harness the surge in the number of young people, while doing what is possible to slow down population growth. This will entail massive expansion of educational infrastructure. Creating a large number of jobs every year. Catering for the inevitable growth in cities that will take place at an accelerating pace. These need to be the single minded focus of the establishment for the foreseeable future. I don’t see it happening unfortunately.

  32. pervez roshan says:
    June 13th, 2011 7:56 am

    the only thing probably the pakistans have not put up a conspiracy theory or the usual blame game abt india is thier population growth insha allah

  33. Kunwer says:
    July 7th, 2011 2:09 am

    Besides this intellectual discussion, what i feel necessary is that we should chalk out a program to involve the major portion of population which is actually responsible for population bomb. I suggest that a debate should be started on, how to involve this uneducated (may be literate) lot of Pakistanis in controlling the high rate of fertility and realizing their responsibilities, and also how to eradicate the wrong religious education given by ignorant “Molvis” to these common Pakistanis.

  34. Nazia Kahn says:
    July 16th, 2011 10:45 pm

    There is no plan, no system, no policy of the government to control this popultion.

  35. Gillani says:
    July 29th, 2011 12:13 am

    Am so glad to see this issue highlighted.

    This, really, is the biggest problem Pakistan has. bigger even than terrorism. The mother of all problems

  36. November 7th, 2011 2:07 pm

    Come on people…………… you know the word “CHINA” ???????????????????????????
    Population is called “MAN POWER” it needs training and utilization!

  37. December 7th, 2011 2:03 am

    Human populations should be urged to grow naturally, at the full natural rate unhindered, so that more and more people may experience life. Effort should only go towards population accommodation, never to try to slow nor “control” the natural rate of population expansion.

    It’s okay for Pakistan to grow more dense with people, for all countries have their duty to do their part to help the planet hold more people, especially via growing denser by their own naturla increase – their very own children.

    Avoid nasty Big Pharma contraceptive potions and poisons. No need to directly pollute or sabotage the natural life-giving function of the body of procreation. Nature is resilient, and the world can much more easily withstand or absorb the naturally-rising human population “pressure,” than people can be expected to struggle against nature to “control” their fertility.

    Families can continue to enjoy growing as large as ever, for humans can ADAPT. A denser world is far more preferable, to being denied our basic God-given right to have “all the children God gives.” So it’s best, for the sakes of our children, the populous many, everybody, to welcome babies to go on pushing out naturally, without any contrary-to-nature “birth control.”

    “How can there be too many children? That’s like saying there are too many flowers.” Mother Teresa

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