India – 1.27 billion and counting


Indian population

Indian population

We have hit the 1.27 billion mark. This only means that we are only less than three quarters short of 2 billion. In 2011 we were 1210 million and in less than four years we have added more than 60 million. It is now estimated that at this rate we will overtake the Chinese population by the middle of the next decade or thereabout.

It seems nothing has risen faster than our population – not our productivity, or our industrial base or even our agricultural output. Despite the general progress in agriculture we are still importing wheat, pulses and edible oils. Obviously, our efforts have not been enough to feed our own population and yet the numbers are relentlessly rising. One shudders to imagine the situation in the country when we become the most populous in the world. It would not be a moment to be proud of. We should then hang our heads in shame for not being able to handle something which was well within our own control. We let slip opportunities away again and again.

My generation has been witness to the rise of our population in monstrous proportions. In the late 1940s we were 35 crore in undivided India. The first census in 1951 after independence clocked a figure of a little more than 36 crore. In “One Life is Not Enough” K Natwar Singh, a former Indian diplomat and politician, wrote about a meeting of Chou Enlai and Pandit Nehru in 1960 when Chou was reported to have told Nehru that if “your 400 million and our 600 million” worked together the face of Asia could be changed. True enough, the 1961 Census revealed a figure of little more than 430 million – registering a decadal increase of around 7 crore. Imagine if we had frozen the population at that level how well-off would we have been with the present level of development? Unfortunately, we could not even restrict the subsequent decadal rises at the same level. Last decade saw a rise of 24 crores and the one before that a rise of 16 crores. We used to be sarcastically told that the country adds population-wise an Australia every year. And, yet the government remained impervious and passive.

Even after partition we were over-populated and worse, our poverty was abject and wide-spread, more so in remote rural areas. It should have been a greater reason for the government to have launched more proactive campaigns for birth control. That, however, did not happen. Though India was the first country to announce a population policy as an integral component of the “First Five Year Plan” yet the measures taken were far too soft. The “Clinical approach” that was adopted entailed opening of family planning clinics in the hope that these would be made use of for acquiring knowledge and wherewithal to prevent the surging birth numbers. That, however, did not happen. More importantly, these clinics were few and far between in the rural areas where they were needed the most. No wonder, for want of any incentives to visit a family planning clinic the policy proved to be misconceived. The realization of its failure came only a decade later when a targeted approach was adopted.

In the early 1970s a law was enacted to facilitate medical termination of pregnancies and the Health & Family Planning minister coined a catchy slogan “Development is the best contraceptive”. However, despite the truism being mouthed neither development took place nor contraception was effectively induced. The population kept surging relentlessly. That is when a ham-handed approach by Sanjay Gandhi, an extra-constitutional authority, veritably killed whatever chances of success the weak campaign run by the government had. Taking advantage of the Emergency, he took the targeted approach to the extreme and illegally assigned targets for mobilization of people for sterilisation to teachers, policemen and sundry government officials who were directed to fulfill them or else face severe penalties. The scramble for achieving the assigned targets resulted in many indiscretions and on numerous occasions in utter high-handedness and thereby hangs another story. The net result was “family planning” became a dirty word so much so that not only the people hated it, even the succeeding government changed the name of the ministry supplanting “family welfare” for “family planning”. As talk of population control became politically unpopular and electorally dangerous no government wanted to touch it with a barge pole.

The governments that came later just drifted along and despite population clocks put up at many places we kept on adding numbers. The programme of controlling births was seemingly put on the back burner. No wonder the decadal growth rate hit a high of 24.80% in 1971 decelerating only marginally in 1981 to 24.66%. However, for reasons yet to be identified the growth rate has been slipping since then, albeit at snails’ pace, and has now in 2011 hit a low of 17.64%.

Yet the absolute numbers are frightening and pose a serious challenge for the government for coping with the needs and demands that will be generated by a burgeoning population with aspirations. Our large numbers have hitherto been described as “demographic dividend” but what kind of dividend they would be like has not been indicated. Unfortunately most of the growing numbers of people we have are not in the workforce for want of jobs or skills or both. The dividend would have accrued had there been enough numbers of jobs to absorb them. The country has always been falling short in job-creation to match the accretions in the job market.
We have to face up to this situation for a few more decades because the basic reasons, apart from other well-known ones, for rise in our numbers – birth-rate being higher than the death-rate and the fertility rate, though falling, is still higher than 2.1 – are not going to disappear in a jiffy. More importantly, the government has not been effectively tackling the illegal or legal migrations from Bangladesh and Nepal. Migrants of both these countries taken together contribute easily around 10% of our population. These apart, millions of Hindus from Pakistan have fled to this country. The partition apparently has been nullified with both Pakistan and Bangladesh, unlike India, hounding out their minorities, mostly Hindus.

One can see a tremendous social stress ahead in the areas of employment, infrastructure that is already stretched, fast depleting natural resources, inequitable income distribution and so on. All these have tremendous potential for causing social tensions resulting in inter-community and intra-community stresses disrupting the social fabric of the country adversely impacting its peace and harmony.

The alarming figure of 1.27 billion has appeared while the politicians are in the midst of a slugfest and are unlikely to react and take necessary measures. Nonetheless, the Prime Minister seems to be wisely toying with the idea of exporting skilled manpower to countries that might be in need of them. That will, however, depend on how quickly the Skills Development Mission is able to build up a substantial bank of human capital.

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