January 3, 2022

Addressing the Core Issue: Reducing Population

Written By: Dhruv C Katoch

The debate on the impact of population growth essentially centres around two contrary views. The Malthusian view[i] is predicated on the proposition that human population grows in geometric progression whereas food supply grows in arithmetic proportion. Food supply will hence run out, giving rise to the need to curtail population growth. Malthus believed that high rates of population will permanently condemn societies to a perpetual state of under development. This theory received the support of economists such as JS Mills and JM Keynes. Karl Marx, however, gave a contrary view, which was supported by sociologists. Marx stated that the widespread poverty and misery of the working-class people was not due to an eternal law of nature as propounded by Malthus but to the misconceived organisation of society and by the unequal distribution of the wealth and its accumulation by capitalists.

The debate essentially revolves around four key issues:[ii]

Do small families improve the prospects of children?

Is a rapidly growing population detrimental to economic growth?

Is high fertility a result of low income and poverty?

Is rapid population growth a symptom, rather than a cause, of poor economic performance?

Food shortages, of which Malthus expressed concern have been largely overcome by advances in science and improved agriculture. However, this does not take away from the fact that larger populations require greater consumption, which stresses the environment, pollutes the atmosphere and causes environmental degradation, which is already causing concerns to people across the globe.

The population of the world, which stood at around 2.6 billion in 1950, took just 37 years to nearly double to 5 billion in 1987, adding an additional 2.4 billion people to the planet. The next billion was added in just 12 years, making the world’s population touch the 7 billion marks in 1999. By 2050, the world’s population is expected to increase to 9.7 billion, and peak at around 11 billion by 2100.[iii]

In the Indian subcontinent, an examination of the populations of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, between independence in 1947, to the present times, reveals that the population of India increased fourfold during this period. The population of Pakistan, for the same period, increased seven times and Bangladesh, six times. In India, the rate of population increase was not uniform, increasing about six times among the Muslim population and three times among the rest.[iv] There is a view that the unbridled growth of population in India and in other parts of the world has adversely impacted development initiatives to reduce poverty and has also led to substantive environmental degradation.

In her book, Building the Population Bomb (Oxford University Press, 2021), Emily Klancher Merchant states that overpopulation has been blamed for everything from climate change to poverty. She however posits that it is not population growth but global socio-economic inequality and environmental degradation that are the causative factors and that society incorrectly blamed a “population bomb” for problems that had other causes. “A wrong diagnosis,” she avers, produces ineffective solutions. In this, she echoes the Marxian viewpoint.

That is perhaps an oversimplification of a problem which has multiple dimensions, but Ms Merchant is not the only one who believes that reducing poverty will ipso facto, lead to a reduction in population. In their book, ‘Population and Development, Dennis Ahlburg and Robert Cassen note that, while it is believed that more rapid population growth increases poverty by reducing real wages, the relationship with poverty is ‘neither obvious nor well established’. They question the assumption that an increase in the labour force necessarily reduces wages, but caution that the relationship between population and poverty varies considerably across regions, countries, growth sectors and policy environments.[v]

In a study carried out, examining the link between population and per capita income growth and poverty, a case study of Uganda is instructive. Uganda achieved reasonable economic growth while also experiencing high population growth. However, the evidence garnered in the study also suggested that “the currently high population growth puts a considerable break on per capita growth prospects in Uganda”. The study further went to state that high population growth led to low achievement in poverty reduction, which concomitantly, made it very difficult to make substantial improvements in poverty reduction and per capita growth.[vi]

There is no gainsaying the fact that unbridled population growth hinders poverty alleviation programmes, attenuates consumption and waste and has a negative impact on societies and the worlds eco-system. The examples of South Korea and Taiwan—two countries which have successfully controlled population growth, are instructive in this regard. Both these countries have seen rapid increases in per capita incomes as birth rates declined, giving them a positive demographic dividend.[vii]

There is a need to control population growth through policy initiatives through expanding education and health care, especially for the girl child, and on implementing voluntary family planning programmes. This can succeed, as seen in an experiment conducted in the Matlab region of Bangladesh, in a controlled population group, a portion of which was provided with free services and supplies, home visits by well-trained female family-planning workers, and comprehensive media communication. The programme also had an outreach to husbands, village heads and religious leaders to obviate any backlash from the male population. The results indicated a substantial decline in fertility rates—1.5 percent— between the targeted population and the non-targeted population in the controlled area. This shows that family planning programmes can succeed in conservative societies. Other countries such as Iran and Rwanda too have shown similar results.[viii]

Over the years, based on empirical data, a causal relationship has been established between rising prosperity and declining fertility. Both East Asia and some countries of South East Asia are examples of this trend that as incomes rise, fertility tends to fall and between national income growth and falling birth rates as also between family incomes and fertility. Improved economic conditions, therefore, do lead to a decline in birth rates.[ix] But for the converse to hold true, would require good governance models. In any case, the debate should now focus on both aspects: Good governance and taking measures to reduce the birth rates. Both should go hand in hand, simultaneously.

India should lay emphasis on population control measures that are enlightened and in the interest of women. Improved education and health care for the girl child, better and improved access to reproductive health control, a concerted media campaign on the need and necessity for small families, sensitising religious and local leaders on the issue and making them part of the programme, are some of the initiatives which could be taken. Alongside, must be legislation to encourage the small family norm, through incentives and disincentives. The recent bill passed in parliament, bringing the age of marriage of girls on parity with boys to 21 years is a welcome step.

The resources of the earth are limited and population control is the need of the hour. This is also in conformity with the goals as laid down by the United Nations. While population trends are not explicitly mentioned in the SDGs, but several of the SDGs are directly or indirectly related to future demographic trends. As humans are the only polluters in the planet, restricting their unbridled growth must remain the core issue for India and the world.

Author Brief Bio: Maj Gen Dhruv C. Katoch is Director, India Foundation and Editor, India Foundation Journal.


[i] Based on the book, An Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Robert Malthus.

[ii] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2781831/

[iii] https://www.un.org/en/global-issues/population

[iv] Data interpolated from census of India and from other sources.

[v] Ahlburg, Dennis & Cassen, Robert. (1993). Population and development. International Handbook of Development Economics, Volumes 1 & 2.

[vi] http://www2.vwl.wiso.uni-goettingen.de/departmentpaper/NO_133.pdf

[vii] John Bongaarts, Development: Slow down population growth, available at https://www.nature.com/articles/530409a

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Note 2.


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