Continuing from my last post, The Art of Living, I would like to explore the question of why the population problem is important. To start off with, allow me an analogy. Consider a tub made of staves of differing lengths. How much water the tub can hold is then dictated by the length of the shortest stave. If one were to pour water into the tub, the water level will continue to rise but only until the level reaches that of the shortest stave, when it starts overflowing. To increase the capacity of the tub, you will have to lengthen the staves.
But lengthening any of the staves except the shortest stave will not increase the tub capacity. And even lengthening the shortest stave beyond the length of the next shortest stave is wasted. So the strategy for increasing the tub capacity is this: lengthen the shortest stave(s) first to match the length of the next shortest stave(s) and repeat.
The capacity of the tub represents development of the population. I argue that overpopulation is the shortest stave in the tub. The other staves are important — such as digital broadband access, electricity for all, subsidized higher education for the elite going to IIMs, free all expense trips for government ministers. But lengthening them will not alter the development potential (the capacity of the tub) one bit unless the shortest stave is addressed.
It is so because of what is called demographic entrapment which is that the population is large relative to the resources available and therefore it is poor. High fertility rates are highly correlated with poverty. The population continues to rise as a result and the ecological support further weakens, making it even more difficult for the population to make the demographic transition to a low fertility and high development state.
I am continually puzzled by the persistent neglect of the population issue in much of the popular debate about poverty, empowerment of people (especially women), the digital divide (and all sorts of other divides), AIDS, falling water tables, shortages of all kinds, and so on. I think that it is a profound lack of basic understanding of where the real constraint is that leads to this neglect. Allow me a personal anecdote to illustrate the importance of knowing where the constraint is.
My younger brother is a businessman in Nashik. He has a PC at home but asked me to bring him a new laptop from the US. What kind do you want, I asked. Problem is, he said, that his PC is very slow. What do you mean “slow”, I asked. Well, it takes a long time to download stuff with his PC, he said. It would be great to get a fast PC.
I asked him what he would do if the water supply was so meagre that only a thin trickle was all he got at the tap in his bathroom and it took an hour to fill his little plastic bucket. Buying a more expensive bucket will not make a difference to the trickle, would it?
Talking of buckets, I like to think of development in terms of filling buckets. If the buckets has too many holes, the leaks may be too much for a given flow to ever fill the bucket. While getting the flow into the bucket is important, it is also very important to plug the leaks. I have a bunch of suggestions which could plug the huge leak (population) in India’s development bucket. I will take that up the next time.