Reading between the numbers

July 11 has been designated by the United Nations as World Population Day. The UN chooses one aspect of population to draw attention to each year; this year the theme is access to family planning.

As someone who teaches a semester-long course on ‘population dynamics’ (the changing interplay of population size, growth and distribution), I want to underline three related but distinct reasons why we should, or should not, as seekers of a healthy, wealthy and wise world for all its inhabitants, keep population dynamics in mind.

Let’s set aside for the moment the UN’s projection of India’s population size overtaking China’s by 2024.

First, any development planning with a time horizon of more than a few years has to factor in the changing size of the base population and, therefore, the changing size of the resources needed to meet the requirements even if the per capita requirements remain unchanged. A simple and glaring example of this obvious calculation not having been made can be found in the insane competition for college admissions in our towns and cities, as the rise in the number of seats has not kept even modest pace with the rise in the number of those finishing secondary school and wanting to go on to college.

Demographic dividend

Virtually every development sector that requires investments will need a larger amount of such investment in different areas — like clinics, hospital beds, homes, schools, colleges and training institutes, jobs, social security, rural banks, piped water and policemen — as the absolute size of our population increases.

It is not just about numbers, of course. What matters is how these additional numbers are distributed — by age, gender, education, income, marital status, geography, and so on. And we are still potentially at the peak of at least one of these distributions — that by age. Thanks to falling birth rates and only slowly rising longevity, we have this ‘window of opportunity’ or ‘demographic dividend’ during which the working-age population as a proportion of the total population is large enough in principle to supply many of these additional resources.

That advantage will begin to erode soon enough. Worse, even now, some of it is merely notional — we have a large number of young people but we do not have the skills or jobs for this to translate linearly into larger economic output. Indeed, what we might have instead is a translation into poorer social output as the rising per capita frustrations of life feed into antisocial behaviour — my euphemism for the ghastly outbreaks of amoral and immoral mob violence that it seems can be instigated at a moment’s notice these days.

Second, our population size and growth require us to reflect more deeply on the implications of this size and growth for development. Are we exceeding our carrying capacity nationally and globally? Are the rising population densities increasing the spread of infection through too much close contact between people? Are we using up water and forests and energy faster than we can replenish them?

These are important questions, but get neglected by well-meaning researchers who, rightly, fear that any uncomfortable findings will quickly translate into a call for policies that penalise the weakest and the most vulnerable members of society and increase the already vast controls on women’s bodies. We see this fear being justified in several official attempts to clamp down on the fertility of the poor or otherwise marginalised, Assam being the latest example of this kind of crude intrusion into private decisions. An even more horrifying recent example comes from the coercion and callousness that resulted in the deaths of several women in sterilisation camps in Chhattisgarh in 2014.

What our research needs is a better understanding of what population growth does to resources given the vast disparities in consumption between the rich (and usually low-fertility) and the poor (and high-fertility) populations. Second, it needs to publicise better the non-coercive and much more effective interventions that we know lead to falls in fertility everywhere — girls’ education and women’s easy access to voluntary contraception in particular. As more women get educated, several of the economic and social reasons for wanting many children begin to seem less important and it organically results in fewer births if the means to achieve this are known and available.

The third prong of interest in population and population growth comes from the dangerous competition for power and strength that pits different groups increasingly against one another in India today. This tragic competition plays out in some gruesome ways, of course; but it is also fuels a medieval belief that power lies merely in numbers. This quest for power means each group seeks to increase its own numbers and decrease those of ‘others’; short of genocide, the latter cannot be easily done by deliberately increasing the death rate; so the other arm of population growth, births, is targeted. And we thus have the spectacle, for example, of presumably celibate and childless religious leaders of all hues (male as well as female, it appears in the case of Hindus) exhorting their followers to step up childbearing while condemning the unbridled reproduction of the ‘other’ side. In a world run by knowledge and technology, not only is this a foolish way to gain advantage, it again shifts the responsibility for group power on to women’s exhausted bodies, their own desires and health be damned.

Denial of agency to women

We are not alone in this attitude. This reasoning lay behind the denial of contraception and abortion to ‘Aryan’ women in Nazi Germany even as pregnancies in others were often forcibly aborted; it lies in the recent call by the President of Turkey to Turkish immigrants in the West to multiply more rapidly; it explains the rash of incentives many European and East Asian countries now offer to women to have a second or third child to delay the inevitable fall in population numbers in these countries as long as they refuse to countenance immigration to replenish their labour forces.

All these are poor examples for India to follow, for ethical reasons and because they more often than not boomerang. What women need is the right to make their own childbearing decisions and to have the information and services to make these decisions wisely and well. If this truly happens, the ‘population’ question will take care of itself.

Alaka M. Basu, a professor in the department of development sociology at Cornell University, is currently senior fellow, United Nations Foundation