Nailing the population lie

July 2000

Consider one of the most populous countries on the planet. Nearly one in five children lives below the poverty line. Guns are freely available and shootings quite common. About 17,000 people are murdered every year and some parts of its cities resemble civil war zones. The country has a mish-mash of races, who speak a range of languages. Its justice system is brutal and under its execution methods, people are gassed, poisoned, shot or electrocuted. The country ranks only behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Congo in the number of people it executes. It is a highly competitive society, possibly the most on earth - people are always looking to make their next buck. The country is so vast, it even has deserts - most of its people are so parochial that they don't know that the outside world exists.

Because of all these problems, the country is economically backward. And everyone agrees that the first place to start to address these myriad problems is to control the population. Get rid of the population problem, and you get rid of the root of all the problems. Or so the logic goes.

But think again. Apologies for misleading you in case you didn't spot it, but the country with which this story started is not India, but the United States. Apart from the lines that the "country is economically backward" and the exaggerated remark on parochialism, the other statements are all facts

The US has the world's third largest population. Why then, given the litany of problems in that country, does no one make a fuss about its population? Or for that matter, the population of any rich country? We'll come back to this.

There is an all-pervasive myth today, both in India and abroad, that India's population is its Public Enemy Number One. But is it, really?

Yes, India has its problems. But blaming population for these problems is barking up the wrong tree. You land at Mumbai, take one look at the chaos and your first response is, this country has a population problem. How many of you visit say Los Angeles, take one look at the huge amount of traffic on the roads and say, hey, this place has a population problem? Oh no. You say that LA has a traffic problem. Visit London, New York or Tokyo, and you say variations of the same thing - that the places have a housing problem, a car-parking problem, a "not-enough-public-transport" problem or whatever. But never a population problem.

This may sound simplistic, but on a larger scale, this is the exact opposite of what's happens when it comes to India. For every problem we blame population rather than address the real problem - be it traffic, poverty or whatever. Yes, we do have problems, but somewhere down the line, we got sold on the lie that the root cause of all these problems is the "population problem".

We have poverty not because we have too many people, but because for far too long, our government policies have inhibited the creation of wealth. We have starvation in far-flung areas because although we are self sufficient in agriculture, we have a corrupt and inefficient food distribution network. Our cities are over-ridden with slums because the successive governments focused on creating a centralised economy focused around industry, rather than on developing villages. We have so much competition in our educational system because we've created only a few centres of excellence. The list goes on - but for every problem, the problem is man-made - and by just reducing the numbers of people, the problem won't go away. You can have a country of just a few hundred people starving, and a country of hundreds of millions overflowing with abundance.

A small population is no guarantee of wealth and a happy life. Just look at the number of countries in Africa, that have far lower populations than India - and yet, India is in far better shape than most of these countries. Why? Because we had some good -though half-baked - policies, and the hard work of its people.

Another common rejoinder to the argument that population is not a problem is that population density is a problem. Again, this argument holds little water.

Let's come back to the main theme in India - pervasive poverty. This is perhaps the biggest reason that India has embarked on population reduction programmes, egged on by a host of international organisations. As anyone who's been to India knows, the emphasis is on promoting smaller families "Two will do" and so forth.

However, the problem with this approach is that the fundamental assumption is wrong. It is poverty that causes large families, not the other way around. Poor parents feel that by having larger families, they have more hands to work. If you want to break the poverty chain, you can't do it by having smaller families in a poor economy. You will just end up with poor small families. If you want have well-off families, you have to have a wealth-creating economy in place.

At this point, you may admit that perhaps population is not the root cause, but one of many causes of India's problems. But that is wrong too. Population has absolutely nothing, repeat nothing, to do with any of India's problems.

Many countries that are rich in today's world were most affected by the world wars -Germany and Japan being notable examples. They were left battered and impoverished by the wars. To all intents and purposes, they were "poor". Do you think their response was to straightaway put a population control programme in place? No. They focused on re-building their economies - they put into place policies and initiatives that would help restore their countries' wealth.

And at the risk of sounding extremist, there seems to be an element of racism in terms of population reduction. Have you ever heard of an international organisation such as the UN or WHO advocating population control in a predominantly white country? And it's not because all predominantly white countries are rich - several Eastern European countries are struggling economies - yet they don't seem to have population control programmes thrust on them.

But that's not really relevant. Our concern is with India. And if India is to succeed in the long term, the country will have to stop blaming all its ills on its population. It's a mantra that's being handed down the generations - population problem, population problem. And while we're all blindly chanting this mantra, we aren't stopping to really question this fundamental belief of ours, a superstition of sorts.

The US is a great example of a country with a huge population - the third largest on the planet - that has succeeded in conventional terms. The truth is that all countries - with big or small populations - succeed only if they have the right policies and a positive approach to solving problems.

There is no such thing as too many people. India is huge enough, and abundant enough to take care of everyone in it and all those millions of babies that will be born in the coming decades. In fact, our population is one of our biggest assets. We only have to tap this magnificent and awesome resource properly.

The views of this column are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of NRI Online.

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