Atanu Dey On India's Development

People Matter: India’s Population Problem

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!”


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.

  • Venkat Ramanan

    The model to promote administrators into bosses of state and country looks very impressive, but will this succeed in land of Jaya and Laloo remains a trillion dollar question?! Bosses feel they would get corrupted if they enter politics and so refrain from it. from what we observe, we may have to say there is fundamentally something wrong with the draft of Indian Constituion as it is being so mishandled, or the way politicians have been messing around with the constitution makes us believe so. everywhere we go, we can surely see lots of poor people, who get to vote given some gandian votes. and in this distribution process, a whole nexus of thugs and goondas crop up and make the whole process a bigger shit! there is no process 2 check who is contesting the elections. I have already mentioned this point, but would like to reiterate it again! This country will not improve unless it bans criminals from contesting in election, especially people like that doctor in bihar who leaked competitive exam question papers. A senior professor was seen supporting him.
    Not only with politics, there is a fundamental trouble with people in our country. I witnessed an advocate driving recklessly and crossing the traffic signal when red light is on. it’s people like him who frame the laws for breaking the rules. the other day, it happened for me to see a foreigner inside a consulate car throw wastes out of car into the road. would they do it in their country? Many more instances to write which would run to terabites in this page! People take our country and men for granted! shouldn’t we ensure a strict mechanism to check such misuses and rules breaking incidents?

  • AK


    The old way to control overpopulation was to conduct wars. If you try to understand why different societies impose different rules, you will get the answer for future control of population. But, a common thread in ALL religions is this…Remember I am talking a timeline of more than 5000 years, i.e more than recorded history.

    Here is my take on some things without any bullshit

    *) Why were boy children preferred ? to fight wars
    *) Why can men have multiple wives?
    So they can create more children, 1 woman and 5 men won’t create more children.
    *) Why are women persecuted?
    So they can be dominated by men in societal rules, and be forced to accept inferior status.
    Succession is oldest son, son preferred over daughter.
    Many women are adept at physical things compared to some men, but their abilities are suppressed in our society.

    Why all the background? Have you looked at the sex ratio? More males than females. Possibly, religion will go for a toss in the next few hundred years. Discontent. Murder. Kidnap. “Darr” type violence in which Shahrukh lusts after Juhi. Compromises. Possible multiple male partners.

    Weak Animals die
    Weak humans ==> poor

    Radical ==> Wars (old way maybe)
    Currently practised ==> educate, climb food chain
    Problem ==> climbing life expectancy
    Culprit ==> Science?
    Reality check ==> increasing pollution, more natural disasters, skewed sex ratio, migration to countries with negative birth rates.

    They are crying “foreigners” but the European nations will cry for migrants inside of 30 years. There is no such thing as racial purity, there is no such thing as religion, current religious practises will HAVE to adapt.

    I strongly hate the brain washing done to all of us after childhood about religion, caste. Politicians exploit this stuff. Sonia Gandhi cares two bits about that old woman, Vajpayee cares two bits about that old woman, they just want power. I think that it is high time we ran this as a business, albeit a non-profit business. The administrators who prove themselves to be good for their regions should be automatically promoted up the chain. Give every district collector a amount in tune with his district size, population etc. Publish an all-India rank every 3-5 years. The best performer goes to be the state boss. After 5 years, the best state boss gets to be the country boss. NO ELECTIONS. Politicians as a rule are dumb anyways.

    Does that make sense? I know it is not coherent..

  • AK


    We do not respect authority i.e cops, why?

    Here in the US, I know if I try to bribe them for a minor infraction they may charge me. Why?

    Here they are paid better. I am not saying they are paid VERY well, which they are not, but they can squeek by without taking bribes.

    What the hell can a policeman do when he is earning Rs 2000 or less in many cities in India? Not much. I can understand why they turn to bribes in order to survive.

    Cops, on duty here, are allowed free food, free housing if they stay at an apartment house. How do I know this? I have a friend who is a cop.

    Why don’t old/new apartment complexes sponsor 5% flats for cop families? This will ensure they have free housing nearer to their jurisdiction, and one big chunk of their income is saved. This has to be done by BUILDERS or politicians. This will also ensure that the state doesn’t carry the whole burden of providing for them. People have to carry it too, this will also help in the reduction of crime rate. Building residents can just call the friendly neighbourhood cop(s) for settling any problems. There are approx 40,000 cops in Mumbai, spread them over 10-20,000 societies it is cheap. They have to be given decent housing, so they earn respect from us.

    Anybody care to forward this to the right person(s)?

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