PM, walk the talk, please

POPULATION CONTROL: Today, when the free flows of capital, goods, ideas have made the exclusive control of territory hard, it is time to bring in pop

At the first meeting of the Gujarat Population Commission formed in 2004, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, called the problem of exploding population growth the “biggest national crisis" and said that the time had come to initiate "revolutionary steps.”

Now 10 years down the line, it’s time for Modi as PM to walk the talk. To realise the proposed sustainable development goals (SDGs) by a UN working group to be achieved by 2030, stabilising population is the important first step. The Union health ministry under UPA in 2011 expressed fear that India would miss its target of reaching population stabilisation by 2045 and instead looked at 2060 as a plausible target. To put the matter in perspective, Thailand, China, Brazil and even Iran have already achieved the replacement level fertility of 2.1 children per woman.

In the 2011 census, India’s population crossed just over 1.21 billion people. India’s population density is more than eight times the world average of 45 people per square km. If India gets any close to the UN projected mark of 1.69 billion people in 2050, it will not only have more than 500 people per sq km but providing decent living conditions for an additional 500 million people will be the most formidable sustainable development challenge for that calls for a literal overhaul of its infrastructure development, spanning issues of education, healthcare, energy, housing and employment.

One worries that in the din of the new-fangled issues, basics must not be lost sight of. As per an estimate, in the two decades since India liberalised its economy, India’s population grew by 365 million, outnumbering the total population of USA and growing by around 17 to 18 million every year. What it essentially means is the resultant loss of India’s handle on sustainable development and diversion of national resources impinging on the quality of public services such as education, health, sanitation, provision of safe drinking water, housing, food production etc.

Health being a state subject, it is not obligatory for an individual sate to embrace Centrally approved National Population Policy, 2000. A study of population control measures showed eight states that followed their own independent population policy registered an average population growth of 20.55 per cent during the decade between 2001 and 2011 while the states that followed the central population control policy registered on an average, 16.76 per cent growth during the last decade. While this might not be a guarantee that an integrated population control policy would work better, but attempts must be made to plug the socio-economic disparities accounting for varying population control performances.

But how can one regulate the size of a population spinning unsustainably out of control? Sadly, no one in the new political dispensation under Prime Minister Modi is taking up this time-worn issue, no matter the gravity of the state of things.  Could we replicate the Chinese model of awarding attractive incentives in the field of education and employment to couples following the “one-child norm” and penalising those who do not?

Force might never be an option. In view of the horror of Sanjay Gandhi’s crude experiments in controlling population growth in the 1960s and nationwide backlash, we need to devise innovative ways to put a leash on our population size. Recently, the botched sterilisation of women in Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh has brought to the fore the severe gender bias of the mass sterilisations in India.

The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) of 1994 held in Cairo stressed that population issue is not a fertility control issue but a “development issue”. The logic was, population growth automatically reduces as societies develop because it brings in education, awareness and medical facilities. All free and democratic societies of the world – even a dirt-poor country like Bangladesh – have reduced their fertility rates without force or penalties by embracing development – aptly described as the best contraceptive as well an antidote of poverty.

Literacy rate
In Bihar, with literacy rates below the national average – to 60 per cent for males and 33 per cent for females – the total fertility rate notches up to four children per woman. Conversely, Kerala with 94 per cent male literacy and 88 per cent female literacy, has reached a below-replacement-rate fertility at only 1.9 children per woman, as a case accounting for why ‘developed’ southern states have witnessed lower population growth as compared to the backward and the ‘underdeveloped’ ones like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan.

As the number of people grows and the amounts of goods and services provided per person increase, the associated demands on resources, technology, social organisation, and environmental processes become more intense and more complicated, and the interactions among these factors in India are posing enormous burden on India’s economy. It is the interactions – technology with employment, energy with environment, environment and energy with agriculture, food and energy with international relations, and so on – that have been seen to be the most vexing aspects of civilisation's predicament in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Malthusian views lay behind India’s concerns about its populationgrowth both prior to and after independence. Resource scarcities – in arable land, later also in other natural resources – were seen as always looming on the horizon and were brought nearer by demographic expansion. Today when the increasingly free flows of capital, goods, ideas, and elites have made the exclusive control of territory both more difficult and less decisive and when boundary disputes, cross-border migration, and claims to minority rights roil international relations, it is about time we strictly implement population control policies.

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