Population as a resource

Published : Feb 14, 2003 00:00 IST

At a school in Tamil Nadu. Education is the key to moulding a population of young, creative people, the most valuable resource a country can have. -

At a school in Tamil Nadu. Education is the key to moulding a population of young, creative people, the most valuable resource a country can have. -

India can turn its burgeoning population into an asset by taking positive measures, especially in the arena of education.

INDIA'S population is at present about 1,000,840,000. Only around 52.5 per cent of this huge number of people are literate - not educated, but literate. The vast majority of these are, in other words, barely able to read and write.

This would appear to most people to be a major disaster, a population so large that the economy will, sooner or later, collapse under the weight of these numbers. However, so far it has not. In fact, the country is actually producing more food than it needs, and is consequently able to export rice and wheat. That we still have people dying of starvation in Orissa and Rajasthan is not because there is not enough; it is a terrible instance of the failure of the administrative system in these States, where godowns are full and yet the bureaucracy is unable to provide enough to people to keep them alive.

But the huge population does cause concern to many, as it ought to. After several years of vacillation, the Central and State governments seem to have decided to take concrete action to control the growth of the population while placing an equal emphasis on the care of mothers and their newborn infants. This involves the development among women, in particular, of choice, of making them aware of the importance of determining how many children they want to have.

An interesting and revealing facet of this is what has been reported as the reason for the relatively low birth rate in Tamil Nadu. Many years ago, in a decision more populist than anything else, the then Chief Minister, M.G. Ramachandran, introduced a scheme to provide a mid-day meal to children in schools. It had nothing to do with population growth, but became, in fact, a potent factor in the decline of the birth rate.

Apparently, the scheme was seen by mothers in villages and small towns as a convenient means of feeding their daughters free; like most conventional mothers in the country, they saw daughters as liabilities and kept whatever food they had for their sons. The result was that girls went to school, and, with their free lunch, got enough of an education to make them realise that they had to limit the size of their families. Additionally, they were able to find some work - at least, some of them - after they left school and, becoming breadwinners empowered them sufficiently to determine how many children they would have.

This may well be apocryphal, but there is a kernel of truth in it - the birth rate in Tamil Nadu is one of the lowest in the country and many demographers feel that in a few years it will reach replacement levels as Kerala already has.

Having said this, however, one needs to go back a little to the country's huge population and ask if it is necessarily something that ought to cause panic and hysteria. In the early 1980s, Julian Symons wrote in his book The Ultimate Resource that the per capita income was likely to be higher with a growing population than with a stationary one, both in developed and undeveloped countries. The argument was that, even though it cost more to educate more children, eventually there would be a larger number of educated and productive young people, and even if there are two or three truly ingenious and creative people among a hundred of them it would be better if the population was larger than smaller for obvious reasons.

Of course, as Paul Kennedy pointed out in his book Preparing for the Twenty-first Century, while population growth encourages economic expansion in some cases, the chief weakness of this argument is not in itself, but in its context. While a growth rate of 2.5 per cent is seen as acceptable for this sort of argument, growth rates of 7.0 per cent as in Nigeria, or 7.8 per cent in Syria or 8.3 per cent in Rwanda cannot be. Tragically, we seem to be seeing an enactment of the Malthusian theory of population in the last mentioned country - the horrific genocide is now being followed there by the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) epidemic that is sweeping through Africa and will, inevitably, bring down the numbers.

Kennedy argues that unlike animals and birds, "human beings destroy forests, burn fossil fuels, drain wetlands, pollute rivers and oceans, and ransack the earth for ores, oil and other raw materials". Given this, current patterns and levels of consumption cannot sustain "a population explosion".

There are two things wrong with this. The first is that there is no population explosion; the increase in growth has already occurred, and even if India, China and the African countries were to attain replacement levels by some miracle, the growth of the world's population would still push the numbers to extremely high levels, perhaps eight billion, by the middle of the century. We have to live with and among these billions, and decide how best we can do so. The other thing, as Kennedy himself mentions, is that most of the consumption of the world's natural resources is done by developed countries, where the population growth is either static or is coming down. Perhaps he fears that increasing prosperity in the Third World will mean the adoption of similar lifestyles, which the planet cannot sustain.

This is not very different from the anxiety the nuclear powers have to prevent other countries from acquiring nuclear capability while doing nothing to reduce their own nuclear arsenals. But without getting into that argument, let us look at the increase in India's population and its implications. The logic of Symons' argument would seem to be particularly relevant here, except that we need to look very closely at our system of education and ensure that it is just that - a system of education, and not the caricature of one which it is in most of the country. The key is here.

This is what needs to be understood. If the education given to our young is even tolerably worthwhile, the results will inevitably augur well for the country.

We need not look with apprehension at the flight of bright young people to more prosperous countries; there will be a good number in the country to develop the economy in different ways. That brings us to another question - the use of natural resources. It is true that the current patterns of consumption involve a larger use of natural resources, but a good part of this is really the result of patterns of consumption in earlier decades.

The use of wood is an example. These can be changed, the essential nature of development can lose the accepted images it has and evolve its own. Attempts by youngsters to produce fuels from substances other than hydrocarbons need not cause amusement; one of them may well produce a viable alternative to conventional fuels, just as synthetic rubber has replaced natural rubber to a very large extent. Genetically modified foodgrains can, like cotton, become the norm, and the earth can create and nurture far more resources than it loses.

One needs to repeat that the key is education. It is time that our rulers and policy-makers paid more attention to this, and less to running airlines, hotels and other services. Educate our young and we will have created over time the most valuable resource a country can have - a population of young, creative people, aware of what is possible and what is not, what is destructive and what is sustaining and nurturing. If we invest half as much here as we are now doing in fields which fetch us nothing, we will have secured the future of the country.

But the future has no vote. That, of course, is the trouble. Children have no vote. And it is this that makes one truly apprehensive. Do we have any statesmen left who will see beyond the votes he needs to stay in power and steer the country through conventional reactions to what is seen as a problem, the growing population, and turn it into a resource? One is not for a moment saying that the efforts to control population growth should stop, far from it. More determined and imaginative efforts are needed to make people actually take steps to limit their families. But we must make the best of what we already have, the huge numbers which will not go away. Instead of wringing our hands we could take some steps to make living with these billions a workable proposition and not a disaster.

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