Over Population: Facts and Myths

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The World Population Day is celebrated every year on the 11th of July as a result of a UN Resolution in 1990 seeking to enhance awareness of population issues, including their relations to the environment and development.

In India the World Population Day has more often than not been an occasion to highlight the ‘over-population’ in the country with a focus on the total number of people living in India and that this number is ‘too much’. This year this focus on overpopulation has been reinforced by a new group of concerned citizens called TAXAB or the Taxpayers Association of Bharat who are calling for a new population control law under the hashtag #Bharat4PopulationLaw. The overall logic of this campaign is two-fold – the first part argues that as tax-payers of India we should be concerned about the misuse of our taxes by the system towards the development of Bharat. The second part explains the nature of the misuse which manifests as lack of good roads, joblessness, increasing poverty, lack of good food, clean air etc. And this lack of good infrastructure and facilities as well as pollution is due to increasing population – primarily among the BPL. In quick strokes it creates a division between the tax-payer who is being short-changed by the poor who are growing in numbers, and secondly it attributes all the ills of the country to growing population, though it first argues that there is mismanagement by the system. The problems in the country are there for all to experience, and urban overcrowding is a phenomenon nearly all taxpayers are facing daily – so the logic is bound to be extremely attractive. However this entire argument is based on myths.

The population growth rate in India is not growing but instead has been slowing for the last few decades. From a high of 2.3 percent per year in the 1970’s and 80’s it is now down to 1.2% per year. At the level of the family the Total Fertility Rate or number of children a woman has in her life has reduced from 5 in the 1970’s to 2.2 in 2015-16. The total wanted fertility is below 2 but women do not receive the contraceptive services that they want. The population growth rate is a function of birth, death and migration. In India, the birth rates are still a little high, but not because women are having more babies but because the number of young couples in India is higher than ever before. And this large number of young couples even when they have fewer babies each, the total adds up. This will come down as the babies born in the heydays of population growth and their children become older. In other words there is not much we can do to reduce their reproductive rate other than provide them with spacing methods.

Now understand the various problems that have been attributed to population growth. India was a poor country in 1947 when India became independent, now it is no longer a poor country. By expert estimates the GDP growth between 1951 and 2011 was over 20 times and food grain output grew by over 4 times while population grew by a little over 3 times in the same period. Clearly the total amount of food or income available per head has grown but poverty seem to be all around us. The TAXAB campaign has highlighted the bad state of roads and infrastructure as a result of overpopulation, highlighting the poor state of infrastructure in cities. This overcrowding of Indian cities is not a result of overpopulation but migration from villages to cities. This migration is often as a result of rural distress, and lack of employment opportunities which is highlighted by the continuing news of farmer suicides from across the country. The TAXAB campaign also makes reference to pollution in the name of ‘shudh’ and ‘ashudh’ food, water and air. Pollution in India is undeniable, but is overpopulation the cause behind it as the #Bharat4PopulationLaw seems to imply? Pollution is most often contributed by the burning of fossil fuels, either for transportation or for factories or for generating electricity which then powers our air conditioners, or factories. We need to understand that the poor, who are a much larger proportion of the population, require very little fossil fuel generated energy. Their requirements for water too are very little. Research shows that the richer countries and the rich in countries like ours consume 20 – 30 times more energy in their whole lifetimes than the poor. Here if the population of people is to be seen as a problem, it is the fewer rich who pose much more problems for the absolute consumption of resources as well as the contribution to pollution.

The overall logic of the #Bharat4PopulationLaw campaign seems to imply that the taxpayers need to be worried because not much has happened through their taxes in the last seventy years. And this is where the campaign organisers have been completely misled. While overcrowding is a fact, it does not indicate a failure of contraceptive related practices among the people. Overall contraceptive usage rates have increased from 13% in the 1970’s to over 56% now. Infant mortality rate, or number of children who die before reaching the age of one year has reduced from over 130 per 1000 children to 41 now. Overall life expectancy has also increased from less than 40 years at the time of independence to over 64 years now. More people are living, less people are dying, fewer children are being born but more people are crowding to cities where there is inadequate infrastructure, few job opportunities and we see more poor people in our streets.

A population control law is not the solution to the problems that have been indicated by TAXAB. A population control law as we have seen in China will lead to further decline in the number of girls in the country, a problem that our society is already facing. It will lead to reducing opportunities for the poor, and marginalized, including the dalits, as such laws deny benefits to those with more children. Data shows the poor have more children, but not because they want it, but because they don’t receive the appropriate services. Women bear the disproportionate burden of population control laws, as they bear children and can be faced with repeated abortions or even desertion as men take desperate measures to keep their family size small and qualify for positions for which they can become disqualified.

Yes we need changes in policies and the way they are implemented to address the issues that TAXAB has highlighted but the approach is misplaced. . The problem lies not in the population related policies but in economic policies which have not focused adequately on health or education or economic opportunities for the poor. Yes tax-payers need to rise up and make demands from our government to increase the investment of healthcare so that not only the poor but we all are healthier and more capable, without become penurious due to healthcare costs. We need to make demands to increase the quality of standards of the government schools so that children educated there are more empowered, and we are all confident enough to send our children to these schools rather than the very expensive private schools that are coming up every day. Our family planning programme needs to be reoriented towards the needs of younger couples through increased availability of spacing methods. Men need to involved in discussions around family planning. And last but not the least we need to ensure all young people have adequate knowledge and information about their bodies, and reproductive health which enables them to take decisions that will enable them to live healthy and productive lives.

Profile photo of Dr. Abhijit Das
Abhijit Das is a doctor with training in obstetrics, paediatrics and public health with thirty years’ experience in clinical work, training, research and policy advocacy. He is Director of Centre for Health and Social Justice (www.chsj.org) a health policy research and advocacy organization in India and Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Global Health, University of Washington, Seattle, USA.