Time to take a look once again at the population-poverty trap.
In 1965, about 40 years ago, there were less than 500 million of us. By 2004, the population of India has more than doubled. The effect of this incredible increase has been a falling standard of living in general, shortages, untold misery and conflict. It is foolish to expect that we can provide a decent standard of living to so many in such a short time. The vast majority of us do not have adequate drinking water, sanitation, health care, education and job opportunities. The preceding statement does not even begin to indicate the amount of human misery and sorrow which it implies. It hides within it the teeming millions who suffer without the slightest hope of ever seeing a future remotely human.
But let us get back to numbers again so that we can have at least an intellectual understanding of the problem before we begin to address the real issues. The population growth rate is a convenient measure of how fast the population is increasing. For India, it is at present 2.2 percent annually. This apparently innocuous looking number has terrible consequences. It implies that the population will double in less than 30 years. By the year 2030, at the current birth rate, India would have 1700 million people, surpassing China to become the most populous nation on earth. For the present, India has an additional 16 million mouths to feed, clothe and educate every year. Even the most optimistic scenario for the future of India is daunting due to demographic momentum. To quote Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University: “Suppose, over the next thirty to thirty-five years, India’s average completed family size dropped from the 1990 level of about 4.3 to 2.4 (replacement level) and remained there, and death rates didn’t rise. India’s population would continue to grow for almost a century, and when it stopped there would be about 2 billion Indians – as many people living in that one nation as populated the entire planet in 1930!”
A HUMAN PROBLEM
The numbers above are dry statistics and we are understandably dismissive of them since they have little relevance to more pressing problems at hand. So what’s the big deal? Well, it is a human problem and we have to feel the human issues involved to really understand what the implications are. An account of a personal encounter would be in place here. I walked out of a railway station while waiting in transit not long ago. It was noon time and the road in front of the station was crowded with the mad hustle of cars, buses, cycles, scooters and people. In the middle of the road, over a narrow divider, was the sleeping form of an old woman. She lay there in her rags with her eyes closed, perhaps asleep out of sheer exhaustion, with a stick and a battered tin can near at hand, in the middle of all the noise and fumes of the traffic in the noonday heat.
So here was a human being with all the capacity for love, pain, joy, hope, caring, companionship, contemplation and all those qualities that you and I have in common with every human. Nature had invested as much in her as in any other human on earth. Yet she was just a hopeless bundle of misery existing in a void without comfort or joy. I watched with a sick feeling in my stomach that I couldn’t do anything for her. And for the millions of others in circumstances not too different from her’s. It wasn’t the first time that I had seen something like this. It wasn’t even the first time that day. I am sure that you too have felt the pain. But we have stood by helplessly and turned away finally to cope with other problems.
Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being
something helpless that wants help from us. — Rainer Maria Rilke
We may have unlimited compassion in our hearts but there is a limit to the sizes of our pockets. We have to shut out the dictates of our hearts to turn our attention to the urgent task of surviving. At best we dig out a few coins and hope to alleviate our conscience. The problem remains out of mind even though it is not out of sight. It is a human problem.
At another level of comprehension, it is an economic problem. The value of an entity is ruthlessly dictated by the ratio of supply and demand. We have too many people and hence each individual is valued so little. Pathetic though it is, the fact is that we have devalued human life to the point that millions continue to exist in conditions that afford little dignity and humanity and we are apparently unmoved to do anything about it.
What does this personal account have to do with the larger issue that I was discussing above? Pretty much everything, really, if you care to think about it. When I hear, for example, that so many millions of people live in dire poverty, I don’t really understand what it means. To fully understand it I would have to have the empathy to feel how it is like to be in that old woman’s place. Then to take that painful existence and multiply it a million fold (an impossible task, surely) and then I may have a hint of how much suffering is implied by that statement.
Well, you may say, all this thing about compassion and human pain is a lot of sentimental hogwash and doesn’t really concern you overly. But what if all this has an impact on you, your future and your children? Would you be concerned then? More about this later.