The government needs to weigh the pros and cons of population growth and choose the right path
Is the population a boon or a bane for India, and will we be able to convert its human resources to productive use? Experts say it could be a boon but only if the people are involved in regulating it.
The topic has come to focus as India will be the world's most populous country in 2023, surpassing China. According to the latest World Population Prospects report, it may go up to 1.429 billion next year when China's would be 1.426 billion.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres released the UN report on the world population day this week and said that by November 15, it would reach an eight billion global population mark. It could grow to 8.5 billion in 2030 and 10.4 billion in 2100,
Those who support population growth believe that it would supply low-cost labour, a valuable resource for India. They say it is positive, resulting in higher incomes and wages and excellent export potential. India's population is young and multitalented, so it could be more productive.
Historically, it took many centuries for the global population to reach one billion. In 2011 it reached the seven billion mark and tripled between 1950 and 2020. (Source: UN DESA)
From 23 crore Indians in 1901, the population growth was slow until 1951. In the next five decades, it shot up three times. The 2001 population census recorded 1.02 billion (102 crore).
Globally, there are about 1.2 billion Hindus. India, which has a population of 1.4 billion, has 80 per cent Hindus. The BJP leaders are concerned about the declining population of Hindus and the increasing number of Muslims.
Those who oppose population rise argue that an accelerating trend means more people to feed and provide clean water, electricity, and adequate social services like education and healthcare. It also means a significant environmental impact.
Secondly, India's economy was already showing signs of weakness before the Covid-19 crisis. A new report from the McKinsey Global Institute identifies a reform plan for the next 12 to 18 months. "If India does not create enough jobs and its workers are untrained, its demographic dividend may become a liability. And education and skill development will be the biggest enablers for reaping this dividend," the report said.
Thirdly, ‘demographic dividend’ is a result of investment in quality education, healthcare, and employment generation, and how best we deal with aging, disease, and disability.
Fourthly, children have lost almost two years of education due to the pandemic. The gap needs to be addressed. There should be more budget allocation for health and education, as seen as lacking during the pandemic crisis.
India's efforts to curtail population growth began relatively early and were the first to launch a national family planning programme in 1952. And since then, there have been many attempts to contain the growing numbers.
The "family planning" programmes became coercive and controversial in 1975 when Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency. In April 1976, the government adopted an "integrated" approach to family planning that incentivised contraception and sterilisation. Since then, the subject has been a no-no for politicians, and the family planning department has been renamed family welfare.
In his Independence Day address on August 15, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought the issue to the national focus. He extolled the virtues of small families; he wanted the "uncontrolled growth" to be checked. According to BJP insiders, discussions are going on to prepare a new population policy before the next general elections in 2024. Some BJP-ruled states like UP have already taken measures to regulate the population acceleration. Now is perhaps the time for formulating policies to contain it.
A national commission, set up by former prime minister AtalBihari Vajpayee in 2000, also recommended constituting population regulation laws.
Parliament has also been demanding regulation from time to time. Lawmakers from both the houses and from different parties have, till now, proposed 35 Private Bills.
The RSS, the parent organisation of the ruling BJP, has also advocated a uniform population policy. In his usual address to the RSS workers on the last Vijayadasami Day, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said, “A population policy keeping in mind the next 50 years should be formulated, and it should be implemented uniformly for everyone.”
The family planning budget is only a meager 4 per cent of the health budget, and India spends only 1.5 per cent on birth spacing methods. We need to invest more in the health and education sectors.
Analysts believe population growth can be a double-edged sword, and the country needs to maximise its potential. The government needs to weigh the pros and cons of population growth and choose the right path.Unplanned growth will only result in chaos.
(The writer is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal.)