Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Most populous in world: An asset or a burden for India?

The Asian Age.  | Sunanda K Datta Ray

Opinion, Columnists

Such numerical achievements do not add up to material well-being or mental happiness. They have no impact on the quality of life

For those who are not drunk on the magic of numbers, this massive over-population can only warn of a Malthusian disaster looming ahead. (Representational Image)

Come April 14 next year and there will be no dearth of patriotic Indians to applaud the National Democratic Alliance if India’s population touches 1,425,775,850, as the United Nations has predicted. Since the current G-20 presidency is being presented as almost Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal triumph, beating China in the race to be the world’s most populous country must be reckoned as an even greater national victory.

For those who are not drunk on the magic of numbers, however, this massive over-population can only warn of a Malthusian disaster looming ahead.

It’s as deceptive as pride in superlatives like the world’s biggest statue, the highest mobile phone penetration, the most numerous diaspora, the highest foreign exchange remittances, or a ruling party with the greatest number of members. Such numerical achievements do not add up to material well-being or mental happiness. They have no impact on the quality of life. On the contrary, they highlight the need for a strong population policy that aims to provide the greatest number with the best creature comforts.

China had an estimated 225 million people in 1750, more than a quarter of the world’s total. India, not then politically united, had roughly 200 million, which placed it second globally. The UN has long predicted that the crown would be India’s in 2023. But it’s a hollow crown, the chalice that goes with it is poisoned. True, some economies like Israel’s see population as an asset.

People mean manpower which in turn stands for productive labour with each pair of hands adding to the gross domestic product. But there are other societies like India’s where more people mean more mouths to feed and a heavier burden on every scarce service and facility.

There are not enough buses for everyone’s movement. Doctors, nurses, hospitals and medicines are in short supply. Food is scarce. So is housing. The Covid-19 pandemic, when millions of Indians perished cruelly, exposed that even cremation or burial are luxuries that not all the dead can afford.

Twinning India and China as the two Asian giants is a facile politeness.

Leaving aside economic prowess and military, especially naval, might, there can be no true comparison between India with its approximately 3,287,263 square km and China sprawling across 9,596,960 square km of the Asian heartland, which makes it 192 per cent larger, or 2.9 times bigger than India.

Yet, 20.9 million more people are already crammed into India’s smaller space with its heavily polluted air. In spite of the fact that the family planning and welfare programmes undertaken by previous governments brought down the fertility rate, India’s population is not expected to stabilise before 2050. First, the birth rate is still higher than the death rate. Second, although fertility has been falling, it is still much higher than in developed countries.

Development demands a certain outlook and a vision of society. It is not compatible with the compulsions of early or even universal marriage. India’s legal marriageable age of 18 for a girl is widely breached in the villages with the result that not only is almost every woman married at the reproductive age but the childbearing years of a girl’s life are prolonged. Poverty and illiteracy perpetuate these practices. Impoverished families equate additional children, especially boys, with earning power. Indians lag behind in the use of contraceptives. Many families are either still not aware of birth control methods or are unwilling to discuss them.

Social growth is hostage to cultural inhibitions and religious obscurantism. Indian politics often vests leadership in unenlightened caste hierarchies. In some places, Muslims find their numerical disadvantage irksome. Elsewhere, migrants from Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar add to density.

Over-population means more and more illiterate persons every year as well as armies of unemployed people teetering on the brink of poverty.

The various social welfare schemes that the government announces with a proud flourish amount to no more than bribing the poor to remain poor. They do not encourage investment in infrastructure to keep pace with numbers or in developing transport, communications, education, or health care. They do not prevent the proliferation of squalid slums or urban congestion. Excessive numbers mean the over-exploitation of natural resources like land, water and forests, aggravating the existing threat to a fragile ecosystem. Food production and distribution lag behind rising numbers, pushing up prices and compounding inflation. The consequent inequality in opportunities and incomes fuels societal tension leading to political friction.

No respite can be expected until the Central government summons up the courage to face the problem of numbers irrespective of its religious prejudices and concern for majoritarian privilege. India has been lukewarm about population control ever since 1977 when Indira Gandhi’s defeat was attributed to her younger son’s over-zealous birth control campaign and the abuses it encouraged. “Nasbandi” became a dirty word then, and Raj Narain, the Janata Party politician who defeated Mrs Gandhi, famously directed hospitals to find a substitute for “Emergency” because the word gave him nightmares.

No credible and effective population policy can ignore birth control but there is much else that the authorities can do to improve welfare, tackle illiteracy, improve the status of women, and spread education. Village schools are now either non-existent or a mockery of a credible system, lacking qualified teachers and educational facilities. Those who are supposed to run the system and ensure that girls are compulsorily educated are themselves often either too corrupt to discharge their duties faithfully or too much a prisoner of the Dark Ages to be able to do so effectively.

Although China’s economy is nearly six times larger than India’s, India, as the world’s most populous country, is expected to provide more than one-sixth of the global working population in the 15-64 age group. Indians are also supposed to lead the world in information technology. If this is India’s modernising mission, nothing could be more ludicrous than the prospect of armies of young messiahs setting out from a country that is itself an area of darkness steeped in poverty and ignorance and whose principal industry is to make babies.

Modernisation, like charity, begins at home. India must free itself from bigotry before it can think of changing the world. Birth control need not be the mainstay of the government’s population policy, but no meaningful policy can ignore the need for smaller planned families.