Prof. Dr. Sumaira Rehman,
Rector, The Superior University, Lahore

Youth has been regarded as an asset that has great potential for contributing towards the making of a developed and prosperous Pakistan. Youth bulge, population between the age of 15-29 years, constituting 27% of the country’s population holds a pivotal position in defining the trajectory of nation building. Given the significance of the subject, policy commitments at the federal and provincial levels along with their respective programs for youth have been resonating in the public space for more than two decades. However, the rhetoric of youth being an asset and its potential needs to be examined with respect to the efficacy of policy landscape concerning youth in Pakistan and implementation mechanisms of the envisaged policies.

The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan devolved the subject of youth to the provinces in 2010 thus making the provinces responsible for defining, gauging, and harnessing the potential of youth for the development of the country. However, we notice a plethora of youth centric development programs initiated by the federal government in the recent years. Although appreciable for their focus on mainstreaming youth and allied allocation of public resources, yet their relevance to the mandate of the federal government seems to stretch the constitutional division of responsibilities after the abolition of the concurrent list. Keeping in line with the constitutional requirement, Punjab promulgated its Youth Policy in 2012 addressing subjects like challenges to youth in Punjab, strategic action plan with guidelines for youth development in the province, and institutional mechanism for implementation along with a commitment for establishing monitoring and evaluation units. Reading through the policy, one is constrained to notice the evasive nature of policy commitments that seem to ignore the multiplicity of sectoral interventions and their much needed adoption by relevant tier and entities of the government.

The Punjab Youth Policy 2012 defines youth development as;’ Youth Development is the phase of physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual growth, between the age cohorts of 15 to 29 years, when youth actively pursue to develop attitude, skills, knowledge and competencies to realize their potential and strength at optimal level for the well-being of themselves, their family, communities and the country. ‘This definition by the Policy is further supplemented with fifteen objectives that span from mainstreaming youth on the agenda of public policy of the province as a cross-cutting theme to help decreasing gender discrimination in the youth behaviour and conceptions, and to improve gender equity. The objectives further commit to help bridge digital divide by promoting positive use of ICT in the marginalized youth especially in the semi-urban and rural areas. The notion of recognizing existing diversity in youth across the province is a welcome one. However, this sparse recognition by the policy falls short of appreciating further categorization within youth i.e. very young adolescents, adolescents, and older youth dispersed over urban, semi-urban and rural areas of the province. It cannot be stressed enough that each segment of the aforementioned categories is faced with a peculiar conditionality that shapes and alters life choices available to that segment. The struggle of youth to find its rightful place in the social and national order is juxtaposed to its conditionality with opportunities for individual growth and inhibiting factors intertwined with each other. The extent and severity of struggle is easily discernible from the state of avenues for upward social mobility and that of affronting institutional mechanisms.

Policy, institutional and governance structures draping the subject of youth development are multifaceted and complex in design and application. Formal education of youth, skills development, healthcare, cultural integration, exposure to urbanization, political participation etc. correspond to various entities within the governance system controlled and guided by their respective legal mandates and policy guidelines. The Punjab Government Rules of Business 2011 is the formal instrument that attributes various aspects of youth development to multiple departments and entities of the provincial government having varied implementation mechanisms and capacities. Youth Affairs, Sports, Archaeology and Tourism Department has been made the custodian of youth affairs at the provincial level but interestingly its mandate sumps up its approach towards youth affairs as; ‘legislation, policy formulation and sectoral planning regarding youth affairs, sports, archaeology, and tourism’. The interconnectivity of youth affairs with other departments and need for further coordination and collaboration has not been considered significant. ‘Matters of youth organizations’ and ‘arranging visits of youth delegations’ have been deemed as other important areas by the Rules of Business. One wonders over the limited scope of this Department amid the glaring challenges of coping with the needs of youth development. The current trajectories offered to segments of youth across the province are contributing to socio-economic divide instead of bridging them as envisaged by the 2012 Policy. A policy devoid of appreciation for interlinkages of youth development with policy frameworks on education, health, employment, economic growth, urbanization, political participation etc. needs to be revisited to achieve the desired results.

The current statistics on different aspects of youth development indicate that literacy rate of Punjab stands at 64%, and unemployment rate of Punjab is 7.4% which in absolute numbers has increased from 2.39 million to 3.05 million over 2017 to 2019. Number of colleges in Punjab is 2,409 and universities functional in the province are 73 in number whereby national estimate of students attending higher education institutions is 1.8 million. The provincial capacity of student absorption for vocational training hovers around 200,000 per year. Reported crimes in Punjab increased from 405,845 in 2017 to 609,404 in 2021 indicating an alarming 33% increase over a period of four years with high incidence of youth involvement. As per Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, prior to COVID-19, the working population across the country was 55.75 million out of which 52.56 million resumed working after a lag of two years. Labour force participation rate of women in Punjab was reported to be 26.5% by the Labour Force Survey which is significantly lower than that of males. Punjab in these numbers and in the light of its policy objectives is not faring well with respect to youth engagement and development.

Available data is merely indicative of shortcomings in the design and applicability of Strategic Action Plan devised by the Punjab Youth Policy 2012. Since the action plan does not recognize any relevant government entity for its area of responsibility and neither prescribes a timeline for implementation, we are left with evasive statements purporting to be policy commitments. It forces us to question the approach of policy formulation that ignores basics like choice making, system analysis, cost-benefit analysis etc. in favour of political and administrative expedience.

The subject of youth, its development and empowerment spans over multiple policies of the provincial government and likewise invoke responsibility frameworks of various government departments and entities. Given the paucity of evidence on making multi-tier governance initiatives function effectively in Pakistan, an ‘incremental model’of policy formulation may be best suited to our needs. It would allow us to design building blocks of desired results that could be spread over a time scale with well-defined roles and identification of resource availability packaged as inputs. Improving the fabric of public policy formulation and its implementation mechanism will allow our youth to develop agency and capabilities for leading onto positive trajectories of life.