Millennium Post

The Malthusian conundrum

By Sumati Rajput

Thomas Malthus, a prominent economic philosopher has been widely accredited as well as criticized for his theories regarding the increase and decrease of population. He believed that for mankind to subsist and for a nation to flourish, population must be checked regularly. In this day and age, the growth and progress in a nation is measured by a few economic indicators, the most significant one being that of GDP growth rate. The GDP growth rate, also known as the economic growth rate, is the change in the nation’s annual growth rate which indicates the health and wealth of the economy.

In India’s case, a noteworthy trend emerges while mapping India’s agricultural growth rate against India’s economic growth rate. Ever since 1961,[1] these two measures seem to move in an uncannily similar direction which highlights how the agricultural sector continues to play a prominent role in India’s economic growth. More interestingly, it makes the Indian economy ideal for subjection to Malthus’s theory regarding population control.

For the past couple of decades, India has been riding on its population growth story. For some time now, India and China have been used as comparative models for both population as well as economic growth, especially since both have historically been agricultural economies. Two prominent themes that are recurrent in any analysis of population and economic growth between these two nations are that  a) China has been making conscientious efforts to decrease their population growth while India is adopting no such measures b) China’s economic growth rate has been much higher than that of India’s growth rate. While there is no necessary causation between these two findings, it is hard not to see a correlation between China’s growth story and Malthus’s population theory. In fact, Malthus emphasises measures such as delaying marriages and reducing family sizes which echoes China’s one-child policy measure that has aided in controlling its population.

Interestingly, India’s historical data of population growth rate and GDP growth rate show a stark agreeability with Malthus’s ideology. Mapping[2] the population growth rate and the GDP growth rate every ten years since 1961 shows a negative correlation between these two measures. It seems that the years where population growth is rising, economic growth is occurring at a diminishing rate and vice versa. In fact, this trend is vividly evident even while analyzing the annual population growth rate and the annual economic growth rate over the past ten years. In the past decade, India’s population has been growing at a diminishing rate at an average of about 1.4%, while the economic growth rate has been continually increasing. There are however, two points where this trend does not hold. One is the year 2008, which can be explained by the economic downturn in the US which had a devastating effect on the global economy. The other one is the year of 2011, where the GDP growth rate dipped from a high of 9.5% in 2010 to a low of 6.8% at the end of 2011 which has no such significant explanation. Since India has made no efforts similar to that of China’s in its population control, Malthus’s theory offers an alternate explanation for this trend as when nations do not make conscious efforts to maintain an optimal population, natural measures spring into action.

Malthus says that natural measures such as disease, famines, and floods, tend to check population growth in order to ensure that it aligns with the available resources required for the population to subsist. Given India’s recurring droughts without alternative water sources, lacking medical infrastructure, lacking sanitation systems, Malthus’s natural population check mechanisms can be attributed to India. However, this is not a measure that should be responsible for curtailing the increase of a population in the era that we live in. With the surge of medical improvements, the awareness regarding sanitation and hygiene, the development of water recycling and reuse mechanisms, India should be able to provide its population services to keep it healthy. It should in fact adopt other measures such as family planning and birth control to check its population when it is needed to do so.  

Another natural measure, besides natural disaster or diseases, that Malthus suggests checks the population of a land is that of immigration. With the global changes that the recent recession brought, the developed economies have imposed stricter immigration norms for foreigners. The USA for instance, has reduced the number of work visas that it offered to internationals to work in the country. It is also attempting to pass laws in order to make it more difficult for internationals to receive green cards and citizenship. With Europe experiencing its prolonged recession, it is also enforcing stricter immigration laws making it more expensive for companies to hire internationals. Additionally, the instability of the developed world has made it less desirable for migrants because of fewer job opportunities and less lucrative careers for non citizens and non residents. Such changes make immigration a less dependable measure of population control.

It is apparent that the lack of appropriate population check measures in India may be a cause of concern. Considering India’s growth story, it is important to think about whether India’s economic growth is being adversely affected because proactive measures are not being taken to ensure that India remains a land of optimal population. In this technology driven twenty first century, the success of an economy does not rest on increasing the nation’s population, but rather on a population that is skilled, healthy, and globalized. It is worth wondering whether such a phenomenon requires any action on population control as the Chinese took back in 1979. As projections say, India will overtake China in terms of population by 2025, despite the fact that India’s total land area is only one third of China’s land area. With population explosion models such as Bangladesh neighbouring India, it is surprising that policy makers, academics, and the public are not making enough efforts to ensure that India does not suffer a similar fate. Maybe it is time India takes Malthus more seriously and understands the devastating implications unchecked population growth can have on the progress and development of a nation.
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