India's billion-strong population never fails to elicit a schizophrenic response from the ruling class. Seen from the economic perspective, there is a general consensus that population growth is a negative factor. That perspective is turned on its head, however, when a geo-political or a religious agenda is put forth. In the latter instance, the billion-plus number is played up with a view to asserting strength. An example of that thinking is the assertion that sheer numbers warrant a seat for India in the United Nations Security Council.
However, it is the misguided refrain of over-population as a barrier to economic growth that bears scrutiny. Apart from being basically wrong and defeatist, it reveals an appalling contempt for our greatest resource --- people.
The manifestos of all the major political parties view the exponentially growing population as a problem if not the principal obstacle to growth. The ruling BJP's manifesto calls for the implementation of a national population policy by implementing the recommendations of the obscure National Development Council as well as a report from the expert-group headed by Dr M S Swaminathan, the famed scientist who revolutionized Indian agriculture through cross-breeding of high yield seeds. Despite substantive changes, the report suffers from the same fundamental flaw inherent to a population policy – the attainment of a 'stable demographic goal.'
Ironically, that element of the BJP's manifesto was to have been show-cased by then prime minister I K Gujral who had a well-founded belief in State-sponsored solutions. The dissolution of the Lok Sabha in 1997 mercifully stayed his hand. The Congress party, not particularly known for fresh ideas, remains mired in the old notion that more people represent problems, not opportunities.
In a breathtaking affront to privacy, there is renewed talk of introducing the 79th Constitution Amendment Bill, originally drawn up in 1999, that called for a state mandated limit on two children to all those seeking state and central government office. That the government knows best in the matter of numbers in a family is a hoary idea dating back to the times of Pandit Nehru and born of contempt for the economically disadvantaged. Rather than allow the now well-proven entrepreneurial ability of Indians to flourish, Nehru's ship of state charted waters of its choosing. That discredited notion of State planning included advancing an arbitrary population number that was presumably 'sustainable.'
The present initiative as well as the many policy mistakes made in the past fail to acknowledge that the best contraceptive is economic growth. That can best be brought about by more, not less freedom from government intervention in the economic and social spheres. Apart from revealing a stunning lack of faith in the people of India, population control programmes from the government presume a zero-sum game in the artificially constructed resource-people continuum. Not only does it fail to acknowledge people as a resource, it also ignores the fact that, since Independence, most metrics for India in the matter of food, irrigation and education are improving.
Population alarmists also rely heavily on the fertility rate --- a key assumption in most demographic projections that offers little by way of an empirical framework for prediction. The assumption of linear growth of population without a viable predictive basis can only serve to cloud the debate on the real factors underlying poverty.
The West is not without its share of population Cassandras. In 1999, the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, a quasi-racist and socialist think tank, made the shrill assertion that population growth will not slow down till the death rate, caused by a poverty of resources, increases. Gratuitously, the institute even offered a solution predicated on reducing defense expenditure. This was in keeping with a long history of Western racism manifested in population control initiatives from such luminaries as Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood's founder who advocated the sterilization of 'genetically inferior races.'
The Indian elite is guilty, if somewhat unintentionally, of similarly disgraceful thinking in prescribing population control for the poor. This is a strain of thought that presupposes the poor have nothing to contribute, that their poverty represents a poverty of ideas.
Rather than revive discredited 'Malthusianisms,' policy-makers in India ought to consider how economic growth in countries such as Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan and South Korea among others has resulted in a dramatic lowering of the fertility bar, from very high levels in the 1950s and 1960s. Most of that was achieved with an emphatic focus on economic growth. The late development economist, Peter Bauer, an ardent advocate of the idea that aid in any form represented overwhelming condescension towards the Third World, went against the orthodoxy of his times by stressing that over-population was not the cause for poverty. He rightly noted that sub-Saharan Africa's population density was a tenth of Japan's. North Korea, a sparsely populated country, has a fertility rate of 1% that falls well below the replacement level. Its GDP growth rate is best left unmentioned.
Instead of participating in discredited and possibly coercive population control incentives, a focus on global competitiveness is far more likely to achieve the much sought-after replacement fertility levels. The World Economic Forum recently listed Finland as the most competitive economy in the world, ahead of the United States. That is simply breathtaking, given the Finns' ascendancy could only have started in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. That their subsequent, impressive economic gains came from within is evident from the fact that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Finland either lagged behind or equalled India in many economic areas.
In 1992, one year after the demise of the Soviet Union, Finland had a negative GDP growth rate of 0.1% while India enjoyed a 4.5% growth in GDP. Our imports and exports were almost identical to that of Finland. Further, given the insignificant size of the Finnish population, they had an extraordinary unemployment rate approaching 15%.
It is clear that the gains achieved by Finland, in little over a decade, in the three principal economic factors used by the WEF, macroeconomic environment, public institutions and technology, came about due to the implementation of enlightened policy prescriptions. There is no reason India cannot do the same and explode the myth of the population bomb once and for all.
Vijay Dandapani is Chief Operating Officer Apple Core Hotels, New York. These are his personal views.