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Overpopulation, Who?

August 12, 2011

When I was in school, we had a chapter in Social Studies called “Problems Facing the Country”. It contained some 10-12 sub-topics each of which dealt with a national problem. Off the top of my head I remember-

  • religion and caste divide
  • disparity of wealth
  • malnutrition and poor health services
  • illiteracy; and
  • overpopulation
Even within this rich variety of problems, overpopulation was special. It was seen as key to everything else. “If only the problem of overpopulation was solved,” our teachers would tell us, “everything else will solve itself .”  
When you had to write an essay in the English-I paper on “What I would do if I was PM” or “How I would serve my country”, the smart kids wrote about overpopulation.
Yesterday, a tweet from The Acorn got me thinking of this again. He tweeted: “What is overpopulation? Is there a magical population density above which it is ‘over’?”
I was dumbstruck. It was such wonderful and staggeringly basic question. But it was one I had never asked.
I never thought  “why do we think India is overpopulated?’ or  “by how many people are we overpopulated exactly?”  I had simply accepted that India had an overpopulation problem. I didn’t think to ask what number we were aiming for, or whether anybody had thought at what point we would stop and say ‘mission accomplished, we are now optimally populated.”
It just felt so obvious that India was overpopulated.Now I don’t know any more.

Why buy another train? Much better to reduce the number of people. Yeah, that makes sense

Maybe the only problem was too few resources, not too many people. I’m not sure anymore that there is even such a thing as too many people. After all, resources such as money and infrastructure can be built up to feed the population. Urbanisation and industrialisation reduce per-capita-square-footage but also boost standards of living. Population density is not an evil of itself if the State ensures access to services.
I don’t say that family planning doesn’t have its place. It does, but its place is within the household- if a family cannot feed a child, it has no right to bring one into the world. But to conflate that domestic argument into a national policy  is dangerous. It is not justified for the State to spend preciously scarce resources convincing people that the national good demands that the country drive its population downwards, because that’s just not true.
The benefits of population- the so-called demographic dividend, large domestic consumption and demand, among others – are now well known. Advances in agricultural technology are providing exponentially larger harvests on far lesser land and water access tech ensures better access to clean water cheaper than ever before. There’s no overarching “reduce-the-population-now-or-we-will-all-die” argument that I can see.
Maybe there’s something I’m missing. But right now, it feels like we were fed a lie, plain and simple. It was a lie that convinced Indians that India would never be able to feed all her people and that the only solution lay in reducing the number of people. A lie that was like some colonial thought-experiment in cultivated self-loathing: the kind that throws up crackpots like Sanjay Gandhi and his band of scalpel-weilding patriots.
I remember a few lone voices who said that India’s population could be its strength. I’m listening to those voices now.
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kabeeer permalink
    August 12, 2011 2:34 pm

    Really good article. It is both well timed, and well reasoned. I wish you would have noted that globally we see no other country which is so fertile in pretty much all corners of it’s inhabitation. So the drama is one of concentration of population in certain areas, than population itself

  2. August 12, 2011 5:59 pm

    The earth can support 400 hundred billion people in fairy land.

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