Wednesday, September 18th, 2019
Home »Articles and Letters » Articles » Our revolving door of existential threats
The abandon with which we label every looming crisis an existential threat must be making Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre roll in their graves.

To them existentialist philosophy was about the individual as a free agent responsible for his actions; to us it is our existence under threat - because our leaders thought of themselves as free agents not responsible for their actions.

It is of course too much to expect our leadership to make even a nodding reference to existentialist philosophy but one does wonder how the expression entered our political lexicon and why it is of so recent a vintage: recall, it was not employed when we were about to lose half the country.

The expression seems to have debuted with Talibanization taking root; when Swat was run over and the 'liberators' were within sixty miles of Islamabad. We labeled it an existential threat, not 'reaping what we had sowed'.

The world caught on. Secretary Clinton reminded us "the fragile government was facing an existential threat" from Islamic militants. Secretary Rice, speaking in New Delhi four years later, declared "extremism continues to remain an existential threat for Pakistan".

With terrorism seemingly under control, our quest for existential threats takes us into new groves, home-grown and foreign-inspired. Strangling the voices of moderation was counted as one by the President of the Republic. Urbanization, cyber threats, circular debt, fiscal profligacy, energy crisis have all figured in our pantheon of existential threats.

Climate apocalypse was not to be left waiting at the gates. In her year old article, Sherry Rehman pointed out that in some 15 years we lost around sixty thousand people to acts of terrorism - and we lose the same number each year to air pollution! "I don't want to downplay the risk of militant extremism....but people are more vulnerable to diseases in the air than to armed terrorists on ground", was her sobering reminder.

And what about the looming water crisis? What can be more real than the spectre of provinces fighting one another over their respective shares, and water riots erupting in the cities? Agriculture, the mainstay of our economy and prodigal user of some 92% of our water stock, may wilt under scarcity. Desertification and inundation of the coastal belt by sea water could soon follow.

Our run away population growth - we continue to procreate more than any other country except Nigeria - is to the futurists amongst us the biggest contender to the title of 'mother of all existential threats'.

Malthusian thinking - population growing 'geometrically' and food resources only 'arithmetically' - may have been proven wrong around the world but unless we get serious our story will give the late priest's soul something to cheer about.

Ayub realised the gravity of the problem about 60 years ago. He put population control top of the agenda, alongside such priority items as dams and reservoirs, industrialization, agriculture, energy, and education. [It is a curious commentary on our public policy that after all these years the very same issues continue to haunt us. Plus ca change?]

Our population planning initiatives failed, not solely on account of resistance from the clerics. Our people did not know any better, despite our bold attempts to bring the demand-side imperative to the fore; or because the high infant mortality rate incentivized more births; or perhaps because there were such few pleasures in life.

The numbers are as daunting as well-known. We add around five million people to our population each year. Population density has doubled over the last 30 years. Urbanization is rapidly marching towards the 50% mark, and beyond. More than half the population is under the age of 25. Around 3 million additional jobs need to be created each year to absorb those reaching employment age.

If Pakistan is water-stressed it is not because water resources have depleted. It is because there are so many more competing for a finite source. If there are many without proper housing it is because there are so many more to shelter. If there are many who are jobless it is because the economy cannot keep pace with the growing numbers.

Fortuitously, if there is one area where the PM has not set up a task force it is population and demographics. We say so because the solution has been staring us in the face: it is the girl child who holds the key. If countries have been able to control population growth, and speed up poverty alleviation, it is because they prioritised education for girls.

Bangladesh story, as we reflected in an earlier piece, is particularly relevant. Despite comparable corruption and venal politics - no state of Medina there -they have surpassed us in every single development index. It may sound simplistic but a major reason is that they invested in female education.

We have been derisive of all this talk of 'charters', from foreign policy to the economy. The 'charterists' forget the Constitution is the charter! It is quite explicit in what has to be done and what cannot be done. To get to what the Constitution enjoins is a matter of manifesto-based policy choices that provides little space for bipartisan 'charters'.

But so unquestionably critical is female education to our future that this is one area where we would be for making an exception. Let there be a national compact, across party lines, to bear any cost to put every single girl to school, by whatever means possible. Indeed, this is one area where we would not even mind an Army take over!

The reason we have this revolving door of existential threats - a constant stream of 'one calamity out and another one in' - is because we choose to remain in a state of denial until it hits the fan. We see things evolving, the genie getting out of the bottle, the wound festering, but just don't react to it in time. 'A stitch in time saves nine' is not us.

Will we allow the ogre of exponential population growth get the better of us and become the ultimate existential threat? Will we allow the cacophony of all our alarm bells make us deaf to the first Command: iqra?

Let us also remember why we name many of our daughters Iqra. Let's walk our talk: let no girl remain unread.

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Copyright Business Recorder, 2019

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