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Population Conundrum

Population Conundrum

Yoga Guru turned Business honcho, Baba Ramdev, wants people with more than two children to be disenfranchised – Imagine leaving aside all sorts of criminals and clamping down on good citizens just because they choose to have a larger family! Some time back, 125 ruling Party MPs petitioned the president to press for a strict two child rule that goes to the extent of making it punishable by imprisonment. It wasn’t a surprise therefore when Prime Minister Modi, in his Independent day speech, highlighted “Population Explosion” as a worrisome challenge for the country.

Baba Ramdev and his ilk may be scratching far from where it’s actually itching; perhaps their target is a particular community. But isn't it also a common refrain to blame our large population for all the ills that we cannot fix? Mention the problems of poverty, unemployment, the crumbling infrastructure or poor services etc., and the same old clichéd excuse is given. The idea of perceiving population as something negative has been systematically drilled into our minds since long with frightful terms like “Population Explosion” thrown around indiscriminately.

A developed country primarily means the people of the country have progressed not despite the population but because of this most important and precious resource! If America is a great prosperous nation, it’s because they have judiciously used their human resource to produce wealth. India’s real problem is not the large population but our ineffectiveness in harnessing this great resource to produce enough to meet the material needs of everyone. Any kind of economic activity requires investment in machines/ tools, skills and knowledge. An alarmingly large percentage of Indians are not productive enough simply because either they don’t have access to capital or they are not skilled or educated enough. And as long as blatant corruption thrives in the country, all efforts to empower the masses to create wealth for themselves and the nation will be rendered ineffective! What the country actually needs urgently is a harsh clampdown on corruption and not coercive measures to contain population.

A look at Goan society over the years in terms of family size, economic prosperity, general well-being and happiness may help in better understanding the dynamics of large families on socio-economic progress. Goan families of yore produced an offspring with unfailing regularity every year, literally like the annual calendar, and the Portuguese Government encouraged this trend with incentives & rewards. Goan seamen, who got home right on time every year to celebrate the christening of their last born, seldom joined back without ensuring a new addition to the family before they returned! The poor and middle class households of the 1950s, 60s and 70s were resonating with life with a large brood of seven to eight children being the norm. In comparison, the affluent sections of rich landlords had much smaller families – in fact if the first born was a son (still considered the torchbearer of family legacy), the landlords would often hung up their ‘boots’ prematurely, probably to avoid the family property from getting divided. Those were the tough days when it wasn’t rare to see children walking barefoot long distances to school.

But as the age old saying goes, there is no better school of life than being part of a big family. While the affluent sections of Goan society, the landlords, remained where they were (in many cases the land is all gone, only the lords are there), the common people of Goa made rapid progress on the socio-economic front. Today, Goans are the most prosperous lot with the GDP per capita of Goa being the highest in the country! Goa is a fine example to show that large families do not necessarily mean getting trapped in the vicious inter-generational grip of poverty. Today, the fertility rate of ethnic Goans is rapidly falling far below replacement levels. And if not for the migration from mainland India, Goa would have come to a grinding halt long time ago simply due to sheer shortage of manpower.

India is a young country in the sense that most of our people are in the working age group – this means more hands, more minds, more ideas, more factory workers, more farmers, more people to provide the services and even more soldiers to guard our borders. This Demographic dividend can catapult India to prosperity, but only if we can contain the scourge of blatant corruption - a la Singapore. Before Singapore attained independence in 1959, it was a poor country mired in corruption. The PAP-led Govt stepped up measures to eliminate corruption, at the centre of which was the Prevention of Corruption Act enacted in June 1960 that significantly strengthened the State in enforcing anti-corruption measures. One of the first victims of this new legislation was a highly ranked minister who was invited by a businessman to join him on a foreign holiday. The minister was promptly arrested on his return, investigated and sent to jail simply because he accepted the invitation. Singapore has seen little corruption since this exemplary case and is today amongst the least corrupt countries of the World. Rather than waging a war on population, India needs to wage a war on corruption and that too starting from the very top!

The world will always have enough for everybody's needs; in our country itself, there is abundance of land that can give three yields a year, lying fallow. If some countries have surplus population, many others are battling the serious problems created due to falling or ageing population. Pretty soon China’s rigidly implemented one-child policy will come to bite the Chinese. Soon senior citizens in China will start out numbering the working population, posing a serious challenge in providing health care to the seniors. The one-child policy has also created a serious gender imbalance in China as couples resorted to sex-selective abortions to ensure that their only child is a male. A time will come when 25% of Chinese will have to carry the burden of providing for the other 75%, comprising of senior citizens and dependents. The fate of the children of China’s one-child policy, when they grow old, can only be imagined!

China’s experiments with social engineering provide many lessons. All said and done, education is by all means, the most effective population control measure – wherever the literacy levels have gone up, the fertility rates have fallen sharply. Every child is a gift; human population should be allowed to grow freely without coercive State controls.

(Published on 26th August 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 35)