Pakistan’s Population Boom
By Nayyer Ali MD
For the first time in 20 years, and 10 years after it should have been performed, Pakistan carried out a census. This allowed the government to finally determine what the total population had become as it had relied on assumptions about births and deaths since the last census. According to the most recent estimates, Pakistan was supposed to have a total population of 195 million. When the census data was reported, the real number turned out to be 207 million, up from 132 million in 1998.
In 1947, the population of West Pakistan was about 35 million. In the 70 years since then it has grown six-fold. This dramatic population increase has held back the pace of economic and social development as the country was constantly playing catch-up with the population. India and Bangladesh have also had significant population growth since independence, but they have only grown four-fold, as both countries have done a much better job of reducing birthrates.
The critical number that determines the pace at which the population grows is the TFR, or Total Fertility Rate. This is the average number of childbirths per woman in the country during their lifetime. For a modern population to replace itself, it needs a TFR of about 2.1. The TFR in pre-modern societies was very high, 6-8 births per woman, but most of those children would die before reaching adulthood. In the last century, as basic public health measures became widely available in even the poorest countries, death rates fell rapidly, while birthrates remained high for generations. It was this that created the population explosion of the last century, as global totals rose from 1.5 billion in 1900 to over 7 billion people today.
But in every society a point occurred at which birthrates too began to fall. As parents realized that their children were more likely to survive, they didn’t need to have so many. Also, as education spread, particularly to women, and as people moved from farms to cities, birthrates also declined. This happened first in Europe and the US, but now has taken place all over the globe. There remains however a big difference among Third World countries.
Nations like China and Iran have TFR’s below 2, while many African countries still have TFR’s of 4-5 or even higher. India and Bangladesh have TFRs close to 2.2. Pakistan is in-between. Its TFR is still around 3, which has fueled its faster population growth. The main reason why TFR in Pakistan is higher than Bangladesh is that the Pakistani government has failed to make family planning programs accessible to the entire population, including the rural poor. The more educated urban population has access to family planning, but there are too many Pakistani families that do without, and end up with more children than they actually want to have.
Even if the TFR could be brought down to 2.1 in less than a decade, it would not stop the population from growing. That’s because there are many more younger Pakistanis than older ones. So even if the current young generation merely replaces itself, the total population continues to grow as the older ones who are dying off are much smaller in number. For example, there are about 5 million Pakistani newborns this year, but less than a million aged 60.
The UN projects that given this, and making reasonable assumptions about the decline in fertility over the next few decades, Pakistan’s population will grow to 350 million before it levels off towards the end of the century. That will mean a ten-fold increase since 1947, and Pakistan will be among the five largest countries in the world, behind India, China, Nigeria, and the US.
Despite the challenges of its rapidly growing population, Pakistan has made major progress in improving the lives of its citizens. Using the national poverty benchmark of 3,000 rupees per month per person (or 15,000 rupees per month for a family of 5), poverty dropped from 65% of the country in 2000 to 30% today. Using the international benchmark of extreme poverty, which is less than 1.90 dollar per day per person, Pakistan only has 6% of its people living in extreme poverty. This compares with about 20% for both India and Bangladesh.
This rapid rise in living standards can also be seen in the diets of Pakistanis. Meat was a luxury two generations ago. But since 2000, annual per capita meat consumption has exploded from 12 kilograms to 32 kilograms, and is projected to rise to 47 kg by 2020. That will be about half of the per capita meat consumption in the US, but still reflects a much richer diet than Pakistanis enjoyed a few decades ago.
In certain ways Pakistan has done better than India in providing a decent life for the majority of its citizens. The social oppression of India towards Dalits, Muslims, and lower-caste Hindus exerts a very negative toll. But Pakistan should be doing much better. The government needs to expand education to all children, family planning services to all parents, and health care to drive down the unacceptably high infant mortality and maternal mortality rates that plague the country. Until such time, no Pakistani government deserves to be considered a success.