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India's population dynamics

POPULATION - The Ultimate Resource: Barun S. Mitra - Editor; Liberty Institute, J-259, Saket, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 180.

THE LIFE AND WORKS OF A DEMOGRAPHER - An Autobiography: Chidambaram Chandrasekharan; Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Company Ltd., 7, West Patel Nagar, New Delhi-110008. Price not mentioned.

I PREDICT: Vasant Gowariker; Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Pune Kendra, 407-408, Dr. K. M. Munshi Marg, Shivajinagar, Pune-411016. Rs. 75.

THE CROSSING of the billion mark in May this year has brought to the centre-stage the issues relating to India's population once again. On this eventful occasion the Government has announced a revised Population Policy statement and the setting up of a jumbo-sized National Population Commission. Only the passage of time will show whether the new policy would deliver the goods. In this context, the three books under review, which present the population problem in different perspectives, should help in a proper appreciation of the issues involved.

By a coincidence, the first book, which seeks to view population as a resource and not as a drain on our limited resources, has been brought out around the time the Maharashtra Government announced its decision to deny a number of benefits, including rationed food and even healthcare, to families comprising more than two children. This is meant as a disincentive for parents who do not adopt the small family norm. The underlying intention is understandable. However, this goes counter to one of the lessons learnt over the past five decades of implementation of the population control programme that disincentives not only do not work but can also be counterproductive. That is why the latest Population Policy statement avoids any mention of disincentives, though it envisages some incentives by way of rewarding the panchayats and the families adopting the small family norm. Its focus is on a range of programmes covering different sectors like strengthening the primary healthcare service, reducing maternal and child mortality, development of the girl child, improving access to education for all and meeting the unmet needs of contraception to motivate people in favour of the small family norm.

In a sense, the philosophy underlying the latest Population Policy statement can be said to reflect the basic thesis propounded in the first book. It is dedicated to demographer- economist Julian L. Simon of the University of Maryland, who had challenged the Malthusian fear of the planet being devoured by a growing population way back in the 1980s. The debate raised by him has not ended with his passing away in 1998. The present book seeks to keep it alive by presenting reprints of Simon's speech at the Freedom Workshop organised by the Delhi-based Liberty Institute in 1997 and three other articles by him published in other journals, besides papers by Lord Peter T. Beur of the U.K., Deepak Lal, Nicholas Eberstadt and Sauvik Chakravarti, who all shared Simon's views.

As Barun Mitra, managing trustee of the Liberty Institute and editor of this volume, notes in his introduction, Simon viewed people to be the ultimate resource, ``People do not come with just a mouth but also a mind. They are not just consumers, but also producers,'' says Mitra and quotes Simon to show that while population has increased, the natural resources have also become more abundant, instead of getting depleted. Mitra recalls how Simon genuinely rejoiced at the potential, which every new life brought. ``He (Simon) wondered how many Michaelangelos or Newtons would be lost to the world because of misguided preference for birth control policies,'' observes Mitra.

On the face of it these observations would seem difficult to digest, particularly when the nation as a whole has been fed with the thesis that population explosion is the root cause of all the ills facing it. However, as one goes through the essays presented in this volume one cannot but see some force in the thesis propounded by Lord Peter Bouer that rapid population growth has certainly not inhibited economic progress either in the West or in the contemporary Third World and the contention of Deepak Lal that population growth has had no impact on India's economy, particularly agriculture and the argument of Sauvik Chakravarti that population growth causes prosperity and that urbanisation and free trade are suited to absorb the diverse potential of the increasing numbers.

If one were to recall the various stages of evolution of India's population policy over the years one would find that the basic thrust of the strategies pursued had all through been people- centred and motivational in nature, except for a brief period during the Emergency when State-driven coercion was unleashed with disastrous consequences. An insight into this is provided in the second book, written by a demographer, whose career has been closely intertwined with the evolution of India's population policies and programmes.

The author's close association with the evolution of India's population policy began when he was with U.N. Population Division on deputation and was assigned the task of conducting the well- known Mysore Population Study and subsequently, as Director of Demographic Training and Research Centre in Bombay, which was later upgraded into the International Institute for Population Sciences with the status of a deemed university. He recounts the various strategies followed from time to time and analyses their impact. This volume would be invaluable to those seeking a better perspective of the growth of demography in India and a proper appreciation of the vital link between cultural practices and population stabilisation efforts.

The third book, authored by a well-known scientist and science communicator, also takes an unconventional view of the population growth. As the author describes in his prelude, it is a third incarnation of the book Science, Population and Development, which was brought out six years ago as a companion volume to his presidential address to the Indian Science Congress in 1992. While demographers viewed the 1991 census figures as heralding doom for India, Gowariker read in these a positive trend of population being under control. Many eyebrows were raised by his thesis that India's population growth rate was fast declining and that on the population front Indian people had turned the corner democratically rather than by force. The point he made was that people on their own were choosing to have fewer children because they knew that was good for them. His thoughts presented at the 79th Indian Science Congress were brought out as a book titled The Inevitable Billion Plus. The present book is a condensed version of this brought out on the death anniversary of the industrialist H. K. Firodia.

After a detailed presentation of the views of academics, intellectuals and experts on the complexity of India's population dynamics, Gowariker presents his conclusion that demographic transition has already set in and is moving to its final stage and India has accomplished the first phase of transition, namely reduction of crude death rate to a level comparable to that of many European countries. Based on these, he predicts that with the birth rate of 21 per thousand, death rate of eight per thousand per year and the natural increase of 13 per thousand, India will reach the Net Reproduction Rate of one within a decade from 1999. According to him, the 2001 Census should clearly signify how close the country is to this momentous stage of demographic transition. He rejects the prophecy that India will become the most populous country in the world. In his view, India's population will not exceed that of China. It is not that Gowariker advocates complacency; he does not want to present a gloomy picture. He suggests massive training of innovative communicators to convey population-related messages to the people, achievement of total literacy and making the country surplus in power for all times to come over the next five years.

All the three volumes seek to bring about population stabilisation without recourse to coercion or disincentives, which are coercive in nature. All those who remember the traumatic experience of compulsory operations performed on all and sundry irrespective of whether they were in the reproductive age group or not and victimisation of government teachers for failure to achieve the targets, would support the ideas presented in these three volumes.


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