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The population bulge

The results of the seventh Population and Housing Census of Pakistan in 2023 have been announced recently by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS). There is a need to fully recognize and appreciate the transition to a digital Census. It has also been the largest South Asia’s digital exercise. The results of the Census have been endorsed by the Council of Common Interests (CCI).

The population estimates of 2023 continue to demonstrate the exponential historical growth in numbers. The population in the sixth Census of 2017 was 207.7 million. It has now risen to 241.5 million, with an annual growth rate of 2.51%. This growth rate is even higher than the population growth rate between 1998 and 2017 of 2.37%.

Pakistan today has one of the highest population growth rates in the world, due primarily to a higher birth rate. The corresponding growth rates of population of India and Bangladesh are 0.9% and 1.1%, respectively. There is the prospect that unless the population growth rate is brought down sharply, the total population will approach the extremely high level of 400 million by 2043.

The implications of the population bulge are very worrying. First, the rate of population growth at 2.51% between 2017 and 2023 has outpaced the growth rate of food production during these years of 2.07%. Pakistan is moving towards a Malthusian situation of relative food shortage.

The second implication is the burgeoning size of the youth population. Already, the population aged from 15 to 24 years was 19.3% of the total population in 2017, with the number at close to 40 million. It has probably approached 47 million in 2023. According to the World Bank estimates, almost 35% of the youth are ‘idle’ in Pakistan currently. This implies that many of these youth may be forced into crime, fundamentalism or vandalism.

Third, Pakistan is also witnessing a rapid rate of urbanization. According to the 2023 estimates, the extent of urbanization has reached 38.8%. This is higher than the urbanization level in India of 35.9% and close to that of Bangladesh of 39.7%.

The striking finding is the acceleration in the process of urbanization in the country. The annual growth rate of urban population between 1998 and 2017 was 2.98%. It has risen significantly to 3.57% between 2017 and 2023. Simultaneously, the growth rate of rural population has declined from 2.06% to 1.87%.

The 2023 Census estimates reveal that the process of rural-urban migration within a Province or migration from other Provinces is relatively high in Punjab and Balochistan. The growth rate of urban population during the last six years was as high as 4.17% in Punjab and 5.03% in Balochistan. Perhaps surprisingly, the national primate city of Karachi is no longer attracting a disproportionate share of migrants. The urban population growth rate in Sindh has been significantly lower at 3.11%, perhaps also due to a slowdown in the rate of urbanization in the rest of the Province.

The implication of the rise in the national urban population growth rate from 2.98% between 1998 and 2017 to 3.57% between 2017 and 2023 is a likely significant decline in the quality of life of residents in cities and towns. In the absence of fully-empowered and adequately funded local governments as per Article 140-A of the Constitution, there has been a virtual breakdown in the provision of basic municipal services in most cities and towns, especially in Karachi. The 2023 Quality of Life Index of cities by NUMBEO ranks Karachi as 183rd out of 193 cities.

Turning to the pattern of population growth between 2017 and 2023 at the provincial level, there have been big changes here also. The two relatively more developed provinces, Punjab and Sindh, have seen a rise in the overall population growth rate compared to that observed between 1998 and 2017.

The population growth rate of Punjab has risen from 2.11% to 2.49%, but still somewhat below the national growth rate, while that of Sindh has gone up from 2.38% to 2.55%. Simultaneously, the population growth rate of two relatively less developed provinces has declined. It has fallen from 2.78% to 2.35% in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and from 3.28% to 3.20% in Balochistan. Is the gravity model of migratory flows working in Pakistan? In particular, the urban population growth rate in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is reported at only 0.55%. Is this, however, a reflection of the annexation of the pre-dominantly rural FATA?

The changes in the provincial shares of the population are given below in Table 1.

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Table 1

Provincial Shares of Population, %

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1998 2017 2023

Punjab 55.97 53.48 53.39

Sindh 23.11 23.25 23.29

Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa 15.90 17.29 17.10

Balochistan 5.02 5.98 6.22

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TOTAL 100.0 100.0 100.0

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The implications for the next NFC Award are significant. The last and still operative Award is the Seventh NFC Award of 2009, which was based on 82% of the horizontal sharing among the provinces based on population shares. A future NFC Award will imply a significant increase in the share of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa of over 3 percentage points due to the merger of FATA into the Province. The big decline in share will be of Punjab of over 4 percentage points.

The results of 2023 Census also include estimates at the division/district level in each Province. A, more or less, likely pattern is for the more developed jurisdictions within a Province to show somewhat faster population growth.

The expectation is met in the case of Punjab and Sindh. Lahore Division has the fastest growth rate at 2.72% among the divisions of Punjab. Karachi Division has a substantially higher growth rate of 4.10% than the rest of Sindh. In fact, it has the largest population growth rate among all the divisions of Pakistan.

This should largely eliminate perceptions about conscious undercounting in Karachi.

The surprise is in the growth pattern of the divisions of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. In these two Provinces, relatively underdeveloped divisions have shown the fastest population growth rates. It is Kohat in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Rakshan in Balochistan. Of course, it is possible that there was relatively more under-enumeration of population in these backward areas in the base year of 2017.

Overall, the population estimates from the 2023 Census have sent some clear warning signals. The time has come for unambiguously giving much higher priority to population planning and control and mainstreaming it with health services. This is essential if Pakistan is to avoid a Malthusian scenario down the road.

The writer is Professor Emeritus at Beaconhouse National University and former Federal Minister)

Dr. Hafiz A. Pasha, "The population bulge," Business recorder. 2023-09-05.
Keywords: Economics , World Bank , Monterey fund , Historical growth , Population growth , Pakistan , South Asia , CCI , PBS , NFC , NUMBEO

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