Overpopulation is often linked with depletion of resources (food, ground water, etc), environmental degradation, unemployment, social unrest (e.g. youth bulge theory), illegal migration, communalism (e.g. ‘Love Jihad’), etc. Also it is compared to a bomb, as in Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb, where there is ‘too many people’ and ‘too little food’ in this ‘dying planet’. Malthus argued that increase in food resources increase arithmetically while the world’s population grows faster in geometrical proportions that one day, there will not be enough food for everybody. Surely the world’s population is growing so fast in the recent times that it took millions of years for the world to reach its 1st billion while it took just over a decade to reach its 6th billion.
But is population really a bomb and is Malthus factually right that population growth is outpacing food production? Or, is the population expansion the problem in itself or is there something else we are missing? Amartya Sen opines that there is no issue as contentious as the population problem. At one extreme, we have the pessimists like Malthus and Ehrlich while at the other are the complacent ones who think we are doing just fine with technology (e.g. hybrid seeds, contraceptives) and human progress (human reasoning to want smaller families) on our side. The depiction of population as a bomb has been widely used during the emergency period in the 1970s, and not least by Sanjay Gandhi. Forced sterilization of men followed in the infamous camp approach which led to the downfall of the Congress government. The idea has not died and the Hindu rights continue to use it to fuel communal violence. An example in point is the ‘Love Jihad’ episode where it was alleged that young Muslim men lure innocent Hindu and Christian girls into marriage and convert them into Islam. The Indian Express later reported that the police could not find any evidence of Love Jihad. Inciting fear that Muslims will outnumber Hindus, and stereotype like, ‘Muslims are dirty and breed like rabbits,’ have been effectively used by the Hindutva for political gains. BC mehta has effectively proven that after adjusting for literacy rates, fertility rate of Muslims is no higher than Hindus. Also evidence has proven Malthus’ mathematical prediction wrong. Food production has increased immensely over and above population growth. The problem of starvation is not one of food production, but of distribution. The proofs of this are the recent news report of food grains rotting in the FCI godowns when India has more malnourished children than Sub-Saharan Africa, and some countries dumping milk and millions of tons of food grains into the sea.
Now about the solution of overpopulation which is as contentious as the argument over its cause. The present policies and programs to tackle overpopulation are concentrated in the family planning program, in particular, the use of contraceptives, and to be precise, female contraceptives. India is not behind, in fact, it is the first country to have a national family planning program since 1951. This is very remarkable: the first country with a national family planning program is the one which is struggling the most from overpopulation. Having realized that the family planning program wasn’t working in spite of the lion’s share that it received from the health budget, and the use of coercive male sterilization methods during the emergency period backfiring; ‘Family Planning’ became ‘Family Welfare’. The new emphasis in the 80s was on female sterilization and Maternal and Child Health. Now the family planning initiatives function under Reproductive and Child Health (RCH).
Corresponding with this changing phases in India; the international family planning initiatives have undergone perception changes that guided the policies which in turn guided the programs. There were three international population conferences. The first conference was held at Bucharest in 1974 where the participants came up with the slogan ‘development is the best contraceptive’. Representatives, especially from the poorer nations, realized that the population problem at its root was due to imbalances in the developmental processes, which in turn was a result of the international economic system. To this I will return later. In the second conference at Mexico in 1984 however, this perspective was lost and the new emphasis was to make contraceptives available to meet ‘unmet needs’. This emphasis continues today. The third conference at Cairo in 1994 tried to recapture/return to the ideal of the first conference by moving beyond contraceptive provisioning to affirming reproductive rights. But this return was only a partial one. This will become clearer as I explain the importance of the first conference’s slogan, ‘Development is the best contraceptive’.
Why is it that countries which have the problem of excess population happen to be countries which are relatively poor? And when a country develops, the population problem seems to get solved by itself even when that country may not have vigorous family planning campaigns. Why so? Amartya Sen lucidly gives the explanation taking examples of China and Kerala. Since 1979, China’s population growth has declined drastically due to the ‘One Child Policy’ where families are not allowed to have more than one baby. But the policy has come under severe criticism as the drive to contain population growth came at the cost of human rights violation.
Interestingly, the decline in population growth in Kerala came without the use of any coercion for contraception. How was this achieved? It was due to socio-economic development; not least among many components of which was the increase in female literacy rate. Therefore on the one hand, we have China which controlled its population growth, but at the cost of violation of human rights, and on the other, we have Kerala which achieved similar growth rate of China without use of force through rise in female literacy. Of course, this does not negate the importance of availability and affordability of contraceptives in Kerala’s case. One may argue, “But China is a country and Kerala is just a State”. Sen clarifies saying that Kerala though a State is larger than many countries in the world.
The problem of overpopulation underlines the importance of realizing the interconnectedness of human existence. The Reproductive and Child Health wing of the Medical Department alone cannot bring about a healthy population growth rate in Nagaland. The Education Department alone cannot bring about the rise of female literacy if the social status is low and girls in the villages are not sent to schools. How can the status of women improve if more than three quarters of our population in the villages are poor? The Agriculture Department needs to contribute to uplift the poor as more than 80% of the economy depends on it. To study, the Power Department needs to supply regular electricity while the PHE needs to provide clean water supply to relieve the girls of the time consumed in fetching water for meaningful study, and so on and so forth.
Though it is beyond the scope of this article, it may also be mentioned that a very low population growth rate is undesirable. Some countries have failed to achieve the replacement rate and have started to experience decline. Pope John Paul II had described the crisis of birth in Italy as a serious threat for the future of the country: ‘Italy has grown old and cradles have become empty’. Even in England, if not for immigrants, the population has started to decline. In Russia and Singapore, couples are encouraged to have babies to keep the population stable. For Nagaland, this problem is too far away as we are still clambering on the other half of the problem. For now, the message of this article is: Population control has to be seen in the greater context of the overall development of the society.
For Eastern Mirror newspaper column BLOGSPEAK