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An existential threat to Pakistan

S Khan Islamabad
August 30, 2017

New data reveals Pakistan's population has ballooned by 57 percent in two decades to 207.8 million. This has not only raised concerns about the state's ability to provide for its people, but also caused a wave of anger.

Bildergalerie Das Leben in Balochistan
Image: Abdul Ghani Kakar

Political parties in Pakistan are busy sparring over the accuracy of the recently-held census, and religious groups are preoccupied bashing America for its alleged threats to Islamabad. This leaves civil society and social scientists wondering: who will take the country's growing population's impact on security and prosperity seriously?

Pakistan's population has ballooned to 207.77 million, according to provisional census results. This is a 57 percent increase since the last census nearly two decades ago. After the South Asian nation was established 70 years ago following India's partition, the region that constitutes modern-day Pakistan had a population of 33.7 million.

Recently, the most explosive population growth has taken place in Pakistan's major cities, western provinces and tribal areas that border Afghanistan.

Pakistan Paramilitär bewacht auptsitz der MQM in Karachi
'A large share of the nation's budget is taken away by the military'Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/F. Khan

Bitterness among regions

The census results have caused a wave of anger across the country with smaller provinces lambasting the federal government in Islamabad for "rigging" the data. Squabbling politicians want to protest the census numbers because they complain their regions' real population sizes are higher. They say the government does not want to increase its funding to local authorities to reflect this.

"The large share of budget is taken away by the Pakistani military," said former Finance Minister Dr. Mubashir Hasan. "The rest is taken by capitalists, feudals and bureaucrats. Unless we cut down the military budget, abolish feudalism and distribute lands, we will see nothing but a myriad of problems with this rising population," Hasan told DW.

Read more: Altaf Hussain: 'Slash Pakistan's military aid until reverse in pro-jihadist policies'

Facing realities

Amidst this political wrangling, civil society groups are worried about the implications of this census that shows a 57 percent increase since in 1998.

"If the state does not perform its duty with regard to the provision of basic amenities then the situation will be catastrophic," Farooq Tariq, a Lahore-based activist, told DW. "More than 67 percent of people are already living without concrete roofs, 35 percent of peasants are landless and over 60 million are living in poverty," he added.

Pakistan Trinkwasser
Experts say water scarcity in Pakistan is a bigger threat than terrorismImage: picture-alliance/Pacific Press/R.S. Hussain

With Pakistan spending just 0.9 percent of its GDP on health, and 2.6 percent on education, Tariq fears poverty will increase even more in the coming decades.

- Pakistan's urbanization: 'A challenge of great proportions'

- Water scarcity in Pakistan – A bigger threat than terrorism

Conscious of the regional bitterness and wave of protests the recent census has triggered, Dr. Mehdi Hasan, a renowned intellectual and author, warns the results will only compound the country's existing challenges.

"More than 20 million children are out of schools, and then another 43 percent of the students drop out before passing their fifth grade," Hasan told DW. "[You can] expect millions more that will be added to this figure with the rising population."

Money troubles

Pakistan's current deficit is already alarmingly high and the country's exports are dwindling. Despite the government's borrowing binge over the last four years, the South Asian country is still grappling with a deteriorating economic situation.

Economist Zia Uddin says: "With this trend of the rising population, our debts, which are already close to $70 billion (58 billion euros), are set to rise."

Uddin says that Pakistan's tax-to-GDP ratio at 4 percent is the lowest in the region.

Uddin warns of economic trouble ahead, saying, "Our resources are so meagre that they were not enough even before this census."

National security

Many analysts predict the country's biggest challenge of the coming decades will be ensuring national security in the face of an exploding population. Analyst Ahsan Raza believes this rapid population growth and the reality of meagre resources will likely strengthen religious and extremist forces in Pakistan.

"We already have around 79,000 registered and unregistered seminaries across the country where poor people with a large family have been putting their kids," Raza told DW. These seminaries, also known as madrassas, provide free food and lodging to its students, making it an attractive option for impoverished communities.

However, Raza warns that these madrassas will mushroom across remote regions of the country to compensate for the state's inability to provide for a growing population. "More people will send their children to religious seminaries, which means that you will have more religious intolerance, sectarianism and extremism," he explained, "which ultimately further complicates the security situation."

Read more: Pakistani civil society alarmed over the disappearance of liberal activists

Cities are also not immune to the potential rise in religious extremism, with already more than 30,000 religious schools in urban centers. Raza said, "They teach mathematics, physics, and other science subjects (but) go and visit these schools and you will feel as if you are in a madrassa."

There is a fear that religious groups and organizations will continue to step in where the state fails to provide for its growing population, and as Raza surmises, there will be "more jihadi and sectarian warriors in the coming decades that will not only target alleged infidels but the liberal and secular-minded people of the country."