Sanjeev Ahluwalia | Is growth in population a ticking bomb or blessing?

The Asian Age.  | Sanjeev Ahluwalia

Opinion, Columnists

Managing population through heavy-handed top-down curbs on fertility is an inhuman and ineffective policy

One-fourth of India does not live where they were born, migrating after marriage, for advanced education or for jobs. (Representational image: PTI)

Global population growth has decelerated since 1965, even before The Population Bomb, a 1968 best-seller by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, had advocated population control if the world were not to starve to death. In 1972, the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth, which similarly predicted that the world would run out of its natural resources.

Both drew from Thomas Robert Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population, which was published nearly two centuries earlier, in 1798. It postulated that humans are profligate by nature -- squandering their enhanced income on having more children or consuming more goods, or both, thereby perpetuating resource scarcity.

The latest dire forecasts come from the Inter-governmental Panel for Climate Change -- albeit based on better science and computing power. We are racing towards the irreversible tipping point of a 1.5 degree rise in ambient temperature above pre-industrial times. Yet again, increasing population and growing appetites for fossil energy consumption, are to blame. We might be surplus in food, but we are running short on carbon space with insufficient resolve to reverse the process of carbon emissions.
Population trends depend on three variables -- fertility (a statistical device measuring the average number of children born to women aged 15-50 years in any one year); mortality (the ratio of deaths to population in a year) and net migration.

Global fertility rate reduced from 5.0 in the 1950s to 2.3 in 2021. By 2050, the global fertility rate will be 2.1, the “replacement rate”, at which population stabilises (World Population Prospects, 2022). Two-thirds of the global population have fertility rates between 1.5 to 2. East and Southeast Asia -- dominated by China -- reduced fertility from 2.6 in 1990 to 1.5 in 2021. Central and South Asia -- dominated by India -- reduced fertility from 4.3 to 1.9 over the same period. This trend is welcome, signalling more agency for women over their bodies. Professional and personal goals now substitute their traditional ones of childbearing and rearing. Incentives for big families are disappearing in the advanced economies. State-provided social protection for the aged substitutes for children as an insurance mechanism. Mechanisation (tractors, harvesters, industrial robots, contactless services) and digitalisation reduce the grunt work in agriculture, manufacturing, and retail services, diminishing the need for large families as reliable in-house help.

Mortality rates have dropped. Higher incomes provide better nutrition. Coupled with better healthcare facilities under the welfare state model, longevity (the number of years a person can expect to live at birth) has increased from 61.8 years in 1990 to 72.8 in 2021. By 2050, it is expected to be 77.2 years. However, the average masks significant diversity. In 2021, the disparity between the lowest mortality country and the highest was 33.4 years.

The reduction in mortality rates (particularly infant and child mortality) preserves population and precedes the counter force of higher incomes, which shrink the population. This explains the so-called “demographic dividend” -- an interim period when more babies are born and live longer to provide a steadily growing workforce. It lasts between three to five decades before the population shrinking impact of higher incomes kicks in.

China leveraged its demographic dividend from the late 1970s to grow its economy. It stands at the cusp of becoming a high-income economy by 2023. But in its impatience, it introduced artificial top-down constraints on population -- as advocated by the Ehrlichs -- with the “one child per family norm”. More than four decades later, the consequences are coming home to roost, as China ages and encounters low domestic demand and workforce shortages. From 2016, it reversed the policy controls on children. But the benefits will kick in only after 2050. Also, going back to large families goes against the grain of women’s empowerment, the high cost of nurturing children and the uncertain future demand for humans in the “good” jobs market.

Managing population through heavy-handed top-down curbs on fertility is an inhuman and ineffective policy. It drives children underground -- hidden from public discovery. Less developed countries are tempted to do so because the State lacks the resources to educate and nurture the large numbers.

In more benign cultures, where population management is largely driven by incentives, sudden, deep disruptions in demographics can be avoided.

This is a policy choice which confronts Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), where the fertility rate in 2021 remains high at 4.6 and in North Africa and West Asia, at 2.8. Under-five mortality is similarly high. A child in SSA is 20 times more likely to die than in Australia or New Zealand, depressing average life expectancy at birth in SSA to a global low of 59.7 years.

Migration for jobs and away from mortal danger has historically been the demographic balancer between population and resources. But it initiates cultural change and invites resistance from locals, though some societies are more open than others. One-fourth of India does not live where they were born, migrating after marriage, for advanced education or for jobs.

During 1980-2000, the natural population increase (excess of births over deaths) in high-income countries was 104 million -- more than twice the international in-migration of 44 million. Between 2000 and 2020, international in-migration at 80.5 million became the primary driver for population growth, versus 66.2 million through births exceeding deaths. Over the next few decades, migration will be the sole driver of population growth in high-income countries, as deaths progressively exceed births.

But can the relatively closed cultures, like Japan or South Korea, be open to young foreign workers, like the United States, Britain France, Canada, Australia and New Zealand -- all stellar examples of dynamic, immigrant societies.

Global GDP (in constant terms) has grown much faster than the growth of population, increasing household incomes and improving healthcare, resulting in a reduction in family size, irrespective of religious beliefs. This is illustrated by impressive fertility reductions in Islamic Malaysia and Bangladesh and Catholic Latin America.
Since the 1980s, rapid growth in global trade and financial flows, courtesy the “open economy” model, helped incomes grow, reducing poverty in the developing world. The Ukraine crisis has disrupted that model. The long-term damage appears uncertain now. But upsetting the incentives-based apple cart of high growth, a fairer distribution of income and better healthcare for regulating population growth, could have seriously negative consequences, one would not wish even for an enemy. Remember, when the push comes to shove, borders are porous.