IN 1989, the Governing Council of the United Nations Development Programme recommended that July 11 be observed by all countries as World Population Day. Today is the day to focus attention on the urgency and importance of population issues.

I have noted with concern elsewhere while conducting research on population issues in Muslim countries over the past 10 years, that Pakistan’s population growth rate is one of the highest as compared to most Muslim-majority countries in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Still, our planners have yet to realise that arresting rapid population growth is of utmost priority. Whether it is the widespread poverty in this country, deteriorating civic amenities, poor health conditions, increasing crimes in cities, water shortages for farming and household consumption —all have their roots in rampant population growth.

Unfortunately, what we know about Pakistan’s population figures are only guesstimates (ranging between 190 to 200 million), given that — under one pretext or another — no national census has been conducted since 1998. However, a United Nations report indicates that while, in 1972, Pakistan’s population was 7m less than that of Bangladesh’s, in 2015 it surpassed Bangladesh’s population by about 30m. A Pew Research Centre publication indicates that in 2010 the number of Muslims in Pakistan was 178m and the number is expected to swell to 256m by 2030 — surpassing the number of Muslims in Indonesia, which is projected to increase from 205m in 2010 to 239m by 2030.

Pakistan’s rapid population growth rate is a ticking time bomb that must be defused.

Thus, in the next 10 years, Pakistan will have the largest concentration of Muslims in the world. Can a country — where the level of education is fairly low and the health status of the population is comparatively poor — afford the additional burden of over 4m people every year and still claim to be a leader of the Islamic world?

If, on average, every woman bears two children she is considered to have replaced herself and her husband. Demographers term this ‘zero population growth’. Until the mid-1970s women in Pakistan, on average, produced 6.6 children — compared to 6.2 in Iran and 6.9 in Bangladesh. In 2015, the average was reduced to 1.7 in Iran and 2.2 in Bangladesh but is still 3.7 in Pakistan.

The main reason for more births in Pakistan is the poor performance of family planning programmes. Only 28pc of married women below the age of 50 are reported to be using modern contraceptive methods, as compared to about 60pc in Iran and Bangladesh. Successive governments in Pakistan have blamed the negative role of Muslims clergies and, rather than learning from the examples of Iran and Bangladesh, the federally supported Population Welfare (family planning) Programme was folded up in 2010. Consequently, the contraceptive prevalence rate has remained at the same levels from 2006 to 2013.

It is high time that the government not only pledge to reduce the high population growth rate, but aggressively tackle the issue of high fertility rates, particularly among women living in rural areas and urban slums. How does one meet this challenge?

The immediate task ahead is to reduce the population growth rate substantially by reducing the average number of children per woman (close to two) within the next decade, as was done by Iran and Bangladesh. It is no longer a question of motivating couples to have fewer children. As study after study has shown, besides those already using contraceptives, another 30pc want to use these methods but are not doing so because they don’t have access to facilities where contraceptives are available. If one adds those who are currently using contraceptive methods to those who would like to use them, the contraceptive use rate could easily go up to 60pc.

Concerted efforts can be made at two levels. Since family planning is now a purely provincial matter, provinces should make and implement their own policies. Population planning is an issue where all stakeholders — including departments of health, education, local government, environment, agriculture, and planning and development — should be involved in formulating a sound policy and laying out plans for its execution.

In this respect, the role of each provincial population welfare department is of vital importance and should work in tandem with the departments of health. Each basic health unit, rural health centre, as well as tehsil, taluka and district headquarter hospitals, should be fully equipped to provide family planning and reproductive health services at the grass-roots level, as is being done in Iran. Bangladesh has followed a different model by using NGOs to implement its programme.

In the case of Pakistan, a public-private partnership approach could be adopted. In promoting family planning programmes at the macro level the government has played a key role, even though credit for outreach is generally given to NGOs that mostly operate in urban areas where contraceptive use rate is fairly high. Unfortunately, government outlets, NGOs and the private sector’s social marketing organisations work independently of each other. We need to bring various providers to work under one umbrella to promote family planning activities, provide services and monitor and evaluate these activities and services.

To hasten the process and enhance its usefulness, a foundation for population activities (FPA) should be established in every province. The FPA should be headed by a chairperson who is professionally qualified, and guided by a governing body consisting of key professionals from population and health fields, public figures and representatives of civil society. Besides being funded by the government, the FPA should also raise funds from various sources, including the private sector and international organisations. The provincial population welfare departments could play a crucial role — as coordinating and monitoring agencies — to assure that programme activities are being carried out properly.

As a consequence of a high fertility rate, Pakistan’s infant mortality rate is one of the highest in Asia, and the country already lags behind achieving its Sustainable Development Goals. If we are unable to reduce our high population growth rate in the immediate future, Pakistan is likely to be left far behind all other Asian countries.

The writer is vice-chancellor of Malir University of Science & Technology, and co-author of Islam, the State and Population and Future of the Global Muslim Population.