Without population control, the demographic dividend may soon become a demographic disaster
Will it ever be possible for any country to create jobs and provide the best amenities for quality living to all its citizens when the population continues to grow at a rapid pace? Is it ever possible to have no checks and balances on the growth rate of a burgeoning population even while aspiring for sustainable development? Can social coherence, peace, and tranquillity be guaranteed when a rapidly growing population keeps posing new challenges for faster creation of jobs, at a time when artificial intelligence and industrial automation is already shrinking the space for job creation? Can a country ever have enough schools, colleges and teachers to educate and train young generations when the population is already 132 crore and rapidly growing? As a society and as a country, are we heading in the right direction without any concerted effort to contain population growth? These are some of the pertinent questions that India needs to ask herself.
Balancing economic growth
There is no denying that the Indian growth story is something to reckon with and it is for the right reasons that global investors are willing to bet big on India. With a $2.6 trillion economy and as Asia's third-largest economy, India is expected to breach the five trillion dollar mark by 2025 and become among the top three economies of the world in the next three decades. Likewise, it is also true that since the start of the economic liberalisation process, there has been considerable improvement in the quality of life and a significant portion of the Indian populace has been brought out of poverty. Economic growth has catapulted India, from the verge of bankruptcy, to become among the top economies of the world in less than three decades. A young and aspiring population did trigger the economic boom. But, what exactly is the tipping point from where the demographic dividend may become a demographic disaster? Malthusian Theory may have been proven wrong as food production has outpaced population growth rates and famines are passé now. But, is the modern life all about merely having access to food? Surely not. With rising aspirations, everyone today demands a better life and it is well nigh impossible for any state to fulfil all aspirations of 1.32 billion people, and ever-growing, without putting serious strains on the country's natural resources and environment, unless efforts are made to stem this unbridled growth.
Do our cities have enough space?
Take for example the projection that by 2030, around 40 per cent of India's population is expected to live in cities. This is more than 50 crore people. The moot question then is whether India's cities have the capacity to absorb the pressure of the 50 crore plus population. The Government of India may have plans to upgrade India's top 100 cities into Smart Cities and have the AMRUT scheme for infrastructural capacity building in another 500 cities – but is it good enough? Developing brand new cities is not an easy task. Apart from the massive capital investments needed for it, such vast amounts of land acquisition for building scores of new cities is not possible without a major dent in forest areas or acquisition of fertile agricultural land which often creates major controversies, stalemates and litigations thereby leading to delay, disruption, agitation, cost escalation and finally cancellation of projects. India has seen it all.
Thus, while land acquisition continues to be a major cause of headache for any developmental project, it is not that if land is not acquired then people in that concerned region live happily without any problem. Low agri-income coupled with shrinking per capita land holding as a result of bigger families sizes and division of ancestral farmland among successive generations result in the land pie becoming smaller, the creation of disguised unemployment and, thus, compelling rural folks to often migrate to cities to supplement their agri-income with earnings from other sources. This results in increased pressure on cities leading to more slums, water crisis and creation of ghettos in addition to rising crimes. Without a halt in population growth, increase in farm income and development of industry in rural India, this migration and subsequent dooming of Indian cities will continue.
The strain on infrastructure
Indian Railways is perhaps one of the best examples to elucidate what happens when a nation fails to control its population growth. In spite of running more than 13,000 passenger trains daily, among the largest in the world, the quality of travel in most unreserved trains is deplorable. It has less to do with the Indian Railways and more to do with massive overcrowding that happens in long-distance passenger trains or suburban trains. Being a convenient and cost-effective means of travel, most prefer the train, where travelling is often sub-human. Even in the reserved compartments, one can often witness overcrowding and influx of passengers without seat reservation. No amount of capacity building can help India improve its quality of train travel if this overcrowding does not stop.
Straining the healthcare system
The same goes for India's state-funded healthcare, which is crumbling because of decades of neglect and practical limitations on how many patients it can address at any given point in time. A visit to any public hospital vindicates the enormous stress under which the medical staff work and one can witness the ocean of people waiting for their turn to get a pie of the free or subsidised treatment. When quantity has to be taken care of, quality deteriorates. Same goes for the healthcare system. While the efforts of Prime Minister Modi to provide health insurance of up to Rs 5 lakh to 10 crore families is commendable, the moot question again is whether it would be possible to provide such subsidised insurance scheme for all in the long-run and continue expanding it, if India adds around 20 crore to its population in every decade.
Depleting water resources
India is also facing a formidable water crisis given the number of inter-state water disputes that are only escalating. Be it the issue of Krishna River or Godavari, Narmada, Cauvery or Vadandhara, Mahadevi, Mandovi – in each of the cases, the real underlying problem is of the increasing demand for water because of a rising population vis-à-vis the constraint on the limited amount that can flow through the rivers at any point of time. The reality is that rivers cannot increase the water flow because of the growing demand of a rising population and, thus, water sharing disputes between states will only worsen. Add to this, the fast depletion of groundwater across India because of its unbridled exploitation for cultivation of water-guzzling food crops.
The unanswered question
Has any research ever been done to find out how much India has spent since Independence on rural sanitation, healthcare, provisioning of safe drinking water, rural infrastructure and education? It would perhaps be to the tune of several lakhs of crores and, yet, the plight of rural India continues unabated. Where has all that money gone? Apart from corruption, the impact of all money spent on rural development would have been far better through improvement in the human development index, had India been dead serious about controlling population growth with an iron hand long time back.
Due credit should be given to the Modi Government for constructing more than three crore toilets under the Swachch Bharat initiative as also for providing LPG connection to 2.5 crore households under the Ujjwala Scheme. But, for how many can the Government build and how much is enough if the population continues to grow by roughly 20 crore every decade?
Now or never
It was in the year 2000 when India's population crossed the one billion mark. In the past 17 years, India has added another 32 crore to it which is roughly the size of the US population. No amount of economic growth is good enough to improve the quality of life of this entire population unless this ever-growing population is stringently controlled. Voluntary measures of controlling population had limited results. What India needs is a mandatory two-child policy for all irrespective of caste, creed or religion, with stringent norms preventing a person to be the biological father or mother of more than two children irrespective of the number of marriages. With GOI having enough data of the entire populace through Aadhaar database, stringent implementation of the policy with strong penalties for violation should not be a problem provided there is political will. Will the Modi regime bell the cat? Only time will tell. It is now or never for India.
(The views are strictly personal)