Atanu Dey On India's Development

People Matter: India’s Population Problem — Part II

{Continued from People Matter: India’s Population Problem.}

A big picture description of an economy would have to include at its minimum the resources within an area, the technology available, the population and how they are organized. The available resources are strictly limited in the short-run. For a given area and its resources, a factor called the carrying-capacity can be defined. This indicates the level of population which the area can sustain without resource depletion. Any population larger than the carrying-capacity would lead to unsustainable resource depletion. By this factor, any area which exceeds its carrying-capacity is considered overpopulated. It can be plausibly argued that India’s population exceeds India’s carrying-capacity. That is not to say that India is alone in this regard; even the US is vastly overpopulated by this criterion given its capacity and inclination to use global resources unsustainably. But my focus here is India.

Some of the effects of overpopulation should be briefly indicated. Intensive agriculture can impoverish the soil and the relentless conversion of forests and old growth to farmlands leads to soil erosion and desertification. India loses about 8,000 square miles of arable land each year. Fresh water reserves are used up faster than what nature can replace; groundwater levels fall. With the disappearance of forests, rainfall patterns change leading to droughts and floods. The biotic diversity decreases with the loss of animal habitat. Pollution of lakes, rivers and the atmosphere takes its toll in terms of health hazards.

At the social level, overcrowding leads to communal tensions and civil unrest. Malnutrition and poor health services create unnaturally high infant mortality rates. Education takes the back seat while the society is remorselessly driven to unemployment and underproductivity. The cycle of poverty finally gets a firm hold on the population at large and it is a vicious cycle from which it is almost impossible to break free. Though we may gloss over the details of the exact effects of all this, it can be reasonably argued that overpopulation is the corner stone upon which all the other ills of society are founded.

The scarcity of goods and the abundance of people are a potent formula for poverty. Poverty and exploitation are quite well suited. Let’s look at an analogy to see the connection and further explore its implications.

A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT

Consider the hypothetical situation of two men who start out with equal resources at their disposal in terms of earning capacity and so forth. One of them, call him Blue, has two children whom he cares for with all his limited resources. The Blue children get reasonable education and become professionals. The other guy, call him Green, has six children. The Green children do not become professionals since they each had only one-third the resources as the Blue children. The Green children become labourers. The trend continues and soon Green has 36 grandchildren all of whom are not very well educated. The Blue grandchildren, numbering four now, continue on the footsteps of their parents since the parents were educated and more productive. The Blue children were able to have spare resources to educate their children and these became rich people who finally employ the Green grandchildren to work for them.

Now in this hypothetical situation, we need not ascribe any malice on the part of the Blue family nor any attempt on their part to exploit the Green family. All things being equal, the Green family just did not have any surplus to invest in the education and growth of their offsprings unlike the Blue family. The Green family just had to use all its steadily declining resources to feed its exponentially increasing population; they just did not have any left over money to improve their lot.

Let’s fast forward a few generations now. Given the rate of growth of populations — exponential — the Greens number in the thousands and the Blues are in hundreds. The Blues have steadily improved their lot since they keep getting richer doing more productive and creative work which is highly valued and the Greens work for the Blues in factories, houses, etc., at less productive (albeit necessary) positions.

What can be learned from this admittedly highly artificial scenario which we have developed? That humans are in one significant respect different from any other species on the planet. For any other species, numerical strength implies biological success and any strategy which leads to increased numbers is a winning strategy. Survival of the species depends upon successful breeding within the natural constraints of available resources. The name of the game is to proliferate as fast as possible to maintain quantity. Nature imposes quality control with ruthless efficiency. But for humans, the situation is different. Numbers alone do not ensure success since we have left that stage of evolution a few thousand years ago with the advent of technology and the need to effectively exploit the environment.

The concept of disposable resources comes into the game. Any resources which are not strictly required for the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter, is available for purposes which are uniquely human. The surplus is available for education, scientific research, technological development and the pursuit of art and recreation. All of these activities ideally improve the quality of human life and also change the survival game in favor of those who have an excess at their disposal.

INDIA: BONDED LABOR

There exists, unfortunately, the notion of bonded labour. These are people who through circumstances are in perpetual debt and whose earning capacity is so low that they cannot ever hope to have any excess with which to repay their debts. Lacking any disposable resources at all, they continue to barely survive using all their earnings and don’t have any hope of ever breaking free of the cycle of poverty.

Consider, if you will, India. So we have a very large population of poorly educated people a large majority of which live at or below subsistence levels. All the available resources are used in trying to desperately survive and there is virtually no surplus. There is nothing left over for investing in those areas which are the most productive like education, social uplift and technological development. India has to buy from other nations some of the things that it needs and these tend to be costly because of a number of reasons.

Let us dispassionately look at the trade situation between India and say a developed country like the USA. They, USA, export to India products which are high cost, like weapons, software, airplanes, etc. These products are high in price and capital intensive. India, in return, exports to the USA products which are labour intensive, low cost and low value. So, we have the import of say a single airplane costing millions of dollars which a small number of people in the USA produced. In exchange for that airplane, we have to export the output of millions of Indians in say industries like stone, leather, carpets, etc., at a low price to the USA. The rate of exchange is naturally set by the forces of supply and demand. There are numerous sources from which USA can import all the labour intensive products that they need. But for India, the options are limited for high tech goods. To compete in the world market, therefore, a steady devaluation of Indian goods have to be maintained. The terms of trade continue on a trend adverse to the poor country and this is reflected in the steady devaluation of the local currency relative to the foreign currency.

The vicious cycle inexorably continues. The rich nations have the means to produce high value, high demand goods. They continue to have a surplus which they invest in technologies which are more productive and the gap increases. India has no surplus to invest in technological advancement and it continues in this race constantly falling behind. Any advantage gained is quickly dissipated in maintaining a burgeoning population through the import of essential goods like fuel and other scare commodities.

In effect, India is like a nation of bonded labourers with no recourse. The exploitation of this nation is inevitable given the circumstances however unfair it may appear to be. It is unfair that 20 percent of the world’s population consumes 80 percent of the world’s resources. It is unfair that India with 16 percent of the global population uses only 3 percent of its resources. But who is responsible for this imbalance and who are we going to complain to? Unfortunately, we have no one to thank but ourselves for the situation that we find ourselves in. Finally, what are we going to do about it?

  • http://www.thescian.com Selva

    Very pertinent analysis. The parellels drawn with darwinian ideas were effective.

    In the long run the solution is in education, especially science education. That is, of course, my conviction and I am sure there are many equally good but different ones. As always variety is good and allows better solutions to evolve.

    On the lack of resources for investment on technology, I believe by science education people can learn to use the resources they’ve got better.

  • Amit Kulkarni

    Atanu,

    I concur with Selva, and applaud you on the presentation. There are just too many of us. It is easier for those who are educated to break away from their procreation instinct, it is far more difficult for the uneducated. You cannot blame them, they have been genetically conditioned like that for tens of thousands of years. I firmly believe nature will put a brake on this process. It is only in the past couple of centuries that science has advanced so fast and effectively.

    The birth rate is already falling in the developed world. Watch Japan, Europe, Korea. They will need either migrant labor or robots in future. Japanese are turning to robots.

  • Praveen

    I agree that population is a serious problem especially in our country. But it does not figure in our national discourse at all. How many politcal parties had population control on their manifestoes ? None. The media is also totally silent on this problem. How long can we live like an ostrich ?

    I disagree that poor people are genetically conditioned to procreate. I think high mortality rates and the need to have more hands to produce are the reasons.

  • RICKY

    I KNOW THAT POPULATION IS HUGE PROBLEM IN INDIA .THIS IS BECAUSE CONDOMS ARE NOT DURING SEXUAL INTERCOURSE.THE USAGE OF CONDOMS DURING SEX HAAVE DECREASED IN INDIA.
    CONDOMS SHOULD BE USEDTO PREVENT OVERPOPULATION.