Like it?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Population of India! - boon or bane?

The crowded spaces of Bangalore city is something which I experience whenever I am traveling to office. There is a dense crowd in almost all major street, people seem to overflow from footpaths onto the streets – of software engineers waiting for company bus, groups of students waiting for school bus, construction workers waiting for their route bus, men in yellow colored hats bustling overhead for Metro construction. And then there are people in cars, autos, hawkers selling cheap articles, smart poor kids selling news magazines near traffic signals shouting latest witty political headlines. And not to forget the people selling pirated movie CDs and latest management books, novels etc on footpaths. From my seat in my company transport, I look beyond the casual colleagues’ talk and odd dumb charades games... and wonder what this ever increasing population is doing to my country. If people are engine for India’s growth, our growth story should be on the ascent.

… Population scientists and demographic experts have made mockery in past of India’s (and China’s) massive population. It is common knowledge that East Asian governments had encouraged smaller families and promoted idea of smaller population. However with the waves of last 2 decades viz. technology, knowledge outsourcing, BPO, IT consulting and services, manufacturing hubs within SEZs (think of Shenzen/Peenya industrial town/ever-surprising neo townships on outskirts of Hassan town) hitting Indian shores, we are given to re-think the impact of population on India’s economy. It has forced decision makers of the country into debates on ways to leverage on existing census numbers.

Getting back into history books (a.k.a websites) to check origin of assumed ideology is both tickling and fun. Thomas Malthus, a clergy Englishman [1]* predicted in his academic essays that increasing population would lead to epidemics, famines or wars! In his time of early 18th century, intellectuals in East Asian English colonies came from Britain. East Asians borrowed his idea as gospel truth from a white clergyman. India endured multiple famines between 1770 and 1950 – plagues when few provinces got wiped out in entirety. By 20th century, prophets of Malthusian theory were sounding alarm bells that impacts of uncontrolled population growth in Indian and China will be felt by rest of world. Decision makers of the country bought these seemingly natural ideas and introduced slew of policies… whoever heard of “sterilization of unfit and disabled” and “killing of defective babies”. The coinciding famines in India of 1950s and 1960s leading to large scale farmer suicides and domestic shortages helped to push panic button [2]*. Consequently if you remember when you were at school in 1980s, there were various theories of how the end for this earth was so near. And it was so easy for us to believe considering what was happening around us - famines, ever increasing shortage of jobs, and growing mass of middle class. We know that Indian families are large within themselves - don’t you remember spending holidays at grandparents’ house? With host of cousins enough to form 2 cricket teams and too many to cram into same photo frame of family photo.

Growing global concern of population fuelled by domestic problems forced India also to control birth rates. Government tried “self-control” as method to influence people coupled with Gandhi’s towering preaching on abstinence [3]*. When this method didn’t work, government tried rhythm method and technique of colored beads. Rural men were expected to be educated about human body rhythm cycles… and expected women to signal yes/no to men with help of colored bead. Do people recognize color in darkness? Obviously these schemes failed. Not surprisingly, India’s population grew uncontrolled numbers through 1950s and 1960s even as fertility remained high while infant mortality and death rates fell… This is despite the flurry of advertisements by government to promote smaller families. We all remember different radio advertisements to promote smaller family and hummable number on doordarshan “Hum do, hamare do”.

People in power wanted drastic and quick workable remedies. Dr.S Chandrashekar, minister for health and family planning hinted at scale-on-knuckle measures and remarked “Our house is on fire”… “We can get blaze under control” pointing at sterilization. By 1970s, sterilization clinics were set up for citizens to avail free services. Indians didn’t get lured by any number of sops to compromise on possibility of giving birth to a son who is perceived as social and financial insurance. Government’s methods to persuade people to get sterilized backfired in many ways. E.g. Gowdas refused to take anti-TB BCG since it was rumored that BCG stood for “birth control government”! In 1975, Indira Gandhi imposed emergency rule, which suspended democratic citizen rights and empowered her with new powers of persuasion. Coercion, cruelty and corruption went rampant with rural masses denied rural credit without “nasabandhi” [4]* certificate! Parents of more than 3 children were refused school admission, prisoners were not given parole and employees didn’t get paid without going under knife. There were reported scenes of people being dragged into sterilization clinics after being rounded up like sheep. The emergency era saw 8 million Indians getting sterilized which was less than moderate success. Immediately after in 1977, Indira Gandhi was tossed out of power indicating dislike of masses towards power, persuasion games on seemingly private affairs of people. Janata party, which came to power eventually renamed program from “family planning” to “family welfare” to avoid stigma.

China also got bitten by population bug and emphasized on “right” sizing for better social harmony. Chinese government also launched “later, longer, fewer” program and Deng Xiaoping implemented “one child” policy in 1981. Back here in India, however people didn’t like idea of persuasion and toppled government for implementing nasabandhi and similar programs. Democracy made sure that voice of common man won over policies of a chosen few. China, in meanwhile used strong-arm tactics and Marxist hold to push more than 30 million/year to one-child result. Meanwhile the rumors on how the world would suffer due to over-population grew. In 1973, the Hollywood movie “Soylent Green” [5]* showed how overpopulated world suffers in lack for food for all and how people would resort to cannibalism. However nothing drastic happened even as population grew over the years. On the contrary, since 1900 - the world has witnessed rapid growth of industrial productivity which, with rise of industrial economy lead to remarkable growth in economy. Europe’s GDP doubled every 3 years after 1900. As labor became a powerful force, a larger working population became more valuable. Looking back at Malthus - he wrote essay during industrial era where human capital could achieve manufacturing results in linear proportion. That was the time when human capital did not posses kind of transformational role in economy as it does now. The idea of population as an asset rather than burden has gained currency with knowledge based industries such as IT, telecom, and BT. Infact information economy has now placed human capital as main driver of productivity and growth.

Word of caution – I am not suggesting that unhindered growth in population is way for economic growth. To keep our wits in mid path - our natural resources are no bottomless pool. A billion people may offer us huge human capital but will have detrimental burden on our environment, food and resources.

Economists found it difficult to explain why only East Asia witnessed high economic growth between 1965 and 1990. GDP growth had clocked ~6% pa for ~3 decades. During this period, infant mortality increased… from 181 deaths to 34 deaths per 1000 children. This caused fertility of every woman from 6 to 2 children. This increased number of children and decreased number of children borne by each woman… which increased chance that women were working instead of rearing babies. They were better able to work in fields/industry and contribute to economy rather than just consuming. We saw rise in manufacturing and technology including growth of Singapore in manufacturing and retail, of Hong Kong in finance and of Taiwan in electronics. The reduced mortality rates increased number of young, enterprising workers who in-turn fuelled economy. These young people had fewer children and therefore fewer dependents. East Asia’s working population grew 4 times faster than dependent population. This generation had lower social costs viz. costs to feed dependent population. This meant more savings and ploughing back into economy. In India, savings rate has grown to 34% of GDP and is projected to 40% by 2015. This additional savings create additional capital for investment and growth of economy [6]*. During Second World War, people were forced to postpone having children and they all had children in one big wave after the war. This created a baby boom of young workers and contributed to 20% GDP growth in US economy between 1970 and 2000. This article can go on, but this is logical point to end. where we can agree that population increase is not necessarily a bane.

Whats to come in my next blog (on top of my mind)?

- Differences in how China and India have handled population crisis.

- How democracy is key differentiator in giving India the edge for future?

Looking back at Indian situation, the “pigs have already passed through the python”… there is more to look ahead than backwards in Indian politics. The UPA government is in full power at center with dependable and eminent set of people handling top ministries. The prime minister has already started pet policy initiatives giving technocrats few responsible and decision making positions in administration. Lets wish they bring their hands together to “roll up red tape and roll out red carpet” for developmental initiatives and inclusive policies.

For those who are interested on topics of public policy and reforms, there are very informative books by today’s politicians’ viz. P.Chidambaram, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Shashi Taroor, Veerappa Moily. Those also interested in visionary thoughts can read books from Narayana Murthy (collection of his speeches), Essential Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha (India after Gandhi), Nandan Nilekhani (Imagining India).

My data sources are various books, Wikipedia and Google.


[2] * In 1960 India had consumed 1/8th of US’s total wheat production. And it has grown to 1/4th by 1966.

[3] * Refer book “Essential Gandhi” which is an anthology of his writings.

[4] * Nasabandhi is Hindi colloquial word for sterilization

[5] *

[6] Theory of David bloom

No comments:

Post a Comment

Santosh is eager to know what you think.