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The population bomb revisited

Published by Newsweek on 1999-08-01

The world's most exclusive club doubled its membership last week when India formally joined China as one of only two countries with populations of more than a billion each. The next largest nation on earth, the United States, is a distant third, with a population of 276 million. But the U.S. population growth rate isn't high enough to push the billion-people club into opening its doors again for at least another hundred years. Developing countries with rapid population growth such as Kenya, Nigeria and Brazil, need not even bother putting in their applications for another 200 years. Russia and the 15 countries of the European Union? Their waiting period to be eligible for billion-people club membership: 300 years.

With its newfound status, India should have been pleased. After all, when neighboring China became charter member of the billion-people club in 1980, the commissars of Beijing decreed a month of celebrations. But the Chinese knew that it wasn't their demography alone that accounted for their superpower status--China's military might, and its growing economic strength, had assured that. Moreover, the Chinese weren't exactly congratulating themselves on having reached the billion mark when they did: during the celebrations they were, in fact, making the point that they had succeeded in putting off the day of reckoning. Which is to say, so strict--even draconian--were China's population-control policies that the country was successful in slowing down growth rates dramatically enough not to have reach a population of a billion even earlier. Abortions and rigorously monitored one-child-family policies that carried financial and other penalties, were among the measures Beijing instituted (and still advocates).

India, a less culturally and socially homogenous nation than China--and certainly a more politically chaotic one--has had a different demographic experience altogether. Some 20 million babies are born each year. That's like adding a new Australia annually to the already overcrowded Subcontinent. That means India's population is doubling every three decades. (That also means that in about 25 years, there will be more Indians than Chinese.) And because most of the growth is occurring in impoverished rural areas and in urban slums, increased population contributes significantly to the already huge cohort of poverty. While Indian policymakers understandably choose to emphasize the country's impressive economic progress--India is the world's 10th biggest industrial country, for example, and the second biggest manufacturer of computer software, after the U.S.--there is also another, less savory, reality. That consists of the numbers of people living below what the World Bank calls the "poverty line"--meaning people who earn less than the equivalent of $1 a day. And the number of such people? At least 300 million, more likely 400 million. Such figures diminish the value of other statistics that Indian political and business leaders like to cite--that the country's middle class, which can increasingly afford cars and condominiums, now numbers around 150 million.

No one should scoff at the value of cars and condominiums--housing's a major Indian problem, too, as is transportation--but what's needed in India is more condoms and other contraceptives. That's exactly what people, particularly poor people, don't seem to be getting. And it's not because of lack of resources available for primary health-care. India receives more than $200 million annually in foreign aid for population control; its 25 states and federal government allocate twice that amount in local currency for family-planning programs. But numerous U.N. and donor-countries have revealed that much of this money lies unused. Why? Bureaucratic infighting, lack of adequate distribution channels, and political indifference to the population issue.

That indifference--some would say criminal negligence--can be traced to the time, more than a generation ago, when the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended the Indian Constitution. She jailed thousands of political opponents, and imposed a state of emergency that involved measures such as the forced sterilization of men. Mrs. Gandhi subsequently lost an election in which the forced sterilization issue played a key role; one lesson she drew from the "Emergency" was not to march into people's bedrooms. Twenty-five years later--and 15 years after Mrs. Gandhi's assassination by Sikh bodyguards in her own garden in New Delhi--that lesson remains vivid, and relevant, in the minds of the men who rule India.

These men don't necessarily view India's large population as an economic and social handicap; rather, a huge citizenry is seen as mammoth vote bank. Perversely enough, the poverty that results from rampant population growth offers Indian politicians a potent rallying cry on election platforms: "Garibi hatao!" they shout, "Let's get rid of poverty!" Even Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of Indira Gandhi's son, the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, has blithely used that phrase in her opposition Congress Party's efforts to unseat the Hindu nationalist alliance that governs the country at the moment. She has made few references, however, to family-planning--perhaps because she's a Roman Catholic who adheres to her Church's generally anti-birth-control teachings.

But birth control is only one aspect of the population issue. India needs to create more jobs for women--it's been long demonstrated that working women choose to have fewer children and also postpone childbearing. And the men of India--whose myriad societies are still burden by outdated notions that value boys more than girls--need accelerated education about "population." They need to be reminded that the true test of male virility isn't rapid reproduction but greater concern about numbers of children and the provision of better health, education and economic opportunities for those children.

When India gained independence 52 years ago from the British, its population was a third of what it is now. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru -Indira Gandhi's father--spoke eloquently about making a "tryst with destiny." A billion mostly poor people surely wasn't the destiny that India's founding father had in mind. India's present-day leaders should be ashamed of the tryst they made last week.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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