(Cartoon downloaded from internet)
(This article was originally written more than four years ago but the issues raised are valid for a long time to come.)
Mankind’s first biggest challenge is the ever-increasing population. More population means more poverty, more hungry, sick and uneducated. The load-bearing capacity of the earth is not unlimited. There is an urgent need to restrict the right to reproduce.
I had heard this story long back, sometime in 1963. JRD Tata, head of the Tata group of industries, commissioned a study to estimate long-term demand for structural steel used in building construction. The study team assumed that in future most, if not all, of the Indians would table live in modern houses. When JRD saw the report, he was stunned. of course, there was going to be a huge demand for steel but what shocked him was the unmanageable size of the population the country would have in future. He shared his concern with his friend Jawaharlal Nehru and requested him to do something before it was too late. Nehru, looking at the lush green garden of his palatial house, Teen Murti, remarked, ‘aabadi to desh ki takat hoti hai.” (Population is the strength of the nation.) JRD must have got a bigger shock after hearing his friend. The Nehru government attached little importance to population control and to the quality of people born ( because education too got low priority). The legacy continued for a long time.
True, too little population could be a drawback. We cannot think of the USA with a small population of, say 2 or 3 crores, as the world power. At the same time, as we know now, overpopulation has become a curse. Economic prosperity followed by better health care resulted in the rapid growth of population since 1800 and more so in the 20th century. Between 1800 and 2011, the world population increased by about 600%. Compared to the rest of the world, the growth rate has been higher in India. Between 1951 and 2011, while the population of India increased by 235%, in the rest of the world it increased by 162%.
Despite the decrease in the growth rate since the 1980s, the world population increased by 1121 million between 2001 and 2015, as against by 1000 million from the beginning of human life to 1804 A.D. The growth rate has been faster in India than in rest of the world. Today we constitute 17.34% of the world population, up from about 14% in 1951. The seventh-largest country in terms of geographical area, we are the second largest in terms of population and are expected to move to number one position by 2028 and maintain that position thereafter. In terms of density of population, we are second only to Bangladesh.
Will the population go on increasing, and if so at what rate? There are wide variations in estimates. In 2014 the United Nations estimated that there was an 80% likelihood that the world population would be between 9600 million and 1230 million by 2100. Most of the increase will be in Africa and southern Asia. India’s population is expected to be 1657 million in 2050. It would be highly unrealistic to assume that the growth of the Indian population would stabilise even by 2100, the rate may decline though. Even increase of 6% per decade (2015 onwards, as against 5.12% between 2011 and 2015) would push India’s population to more than 2060 million by 2100 i.e. around 19% of the world population (assuming it is 11000 million). Let us for the present not hazard any guess beyond 2100.
The rising population raises a question about the Earth’s carrying capacity, the capacity to sustain the population. In a 2010 study, some researchers concluded that “there are not (and will never be) too many people for the planet to feed”. Others argue that technological developments will take care of losses of natural resources. There have indeed been remarkable improvements in several fields. Thanks to green Revolution, world food production steadily went up until 1995 and per capita world food production was much higher in 2005 than in 1961. During the period world population doubled from 3000 million to 6000 million, in the developing countries daily calorie consumption increased from 1932 to 2650 and the percentage of the malnourished people fell.
However, there is a limit to the Earth’s carrying capacity. We are already witnessing disastrous consequences of overexploitation of the Earth’s resources: deforestation and loss of natural grasslands, soil erosion (reducing productivity), pollution, water deficit, etc. Scientists have started questioning the wisdom of further population growth. To provide proper diet to the growing population, more deforestation would be needed to create arable land. According to some experts, the maximum carrying capacity of the Earth is 16000 million. Other estimates put the figure between 7700 million and 9800million. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Global Footprint Network, the world population is already more than the Earth’s carrying capacity. This is despite the majority of the world population having a low standard of living. The WWF’s “Living Planet Report” (2006 ) pointed out that ‘for all humans to live with the current consumption patterns of Europeans, we would be spending three times more than what the planet can renew. Humanity as a whole was using, by 2006, 40% more than what the Earth can regenerate.’ The earth’s known sources cannot provide a good standard of living to the entire population even today. It is estimated that if China and India were to consume as many resources per capita as the USA, in 2030 they would each require another Earth to meet their needs. According to the Global Footprint Network, ‘today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use.’ In 2009 a British scientist predicted that ‘supplies of energy, food and water will need to be increased by 50% to reach demand levels of 2030’ and according to the FAO, ‘food supplies will need to be increased by 70% by 2050 to meet projected demands.’ With the decline in resources, food security will become a problem and there would be a shortage of edible oil, nutrients, etc. Many of the minerals presently being used for a variety of products may not be available in future. So much to give a broad idea of the bleak prospects we are facing.
The real problem will be in the developing countries like India which are facing the twin problems of rising population and the increasing number of poor. According to the FAO, in 2014, of the 805 million hungry people in the world, 98% were in developing countries. India is home to the largest number of hungry and malnourished population. About 190 million people go hungry every day. 25% of children are malnourished. 58% of children are stunted by two years of age. About one-fourth of under-five deaths are in India. According to the latest thinking in the NITI Aayog (successor to the Yojna Aayog), about 40% of the Indian population needs subsidy for survival.
It is true that even in the developed countries there are poor and homeless but the percentage of such people is insignificant compared to what we find in the developing countries. Even the well-intentioned democratic governments feel handicapped to improve the lot of the poor due to two major constraints: growing population and increasing disparity between rich and poor. Let us first consider the disparity.
The rich people of the world are consuming more at the cost of their fellow humans. Less than 20% of the world population consumes 80% of the resources. In other words, today more than 5800 million depend on just 20% of the Earth’s resources. Assuming the same percentage, in 2100, around 8800 million would be depending on 20% of the Earth’s resources. In 2008, the New York Times had pointed out that the developed countries consume natural resources like oil and metal 32 times more than the developing countries. According to the Oxfam America Inc., at the end of 2014, the richest 1% of the world population held 48% of the global wealth, up from 49% in 2009; during 2014 alone they added Rs. 5.7 trillion ($ 92 billion) to their wealth. On the other hand, about 1.4 billion people live on less than Rs. 77/day.
The super-rich is powerful enough to influence governments’ policy decisions. They amass wealth by all means, fair or foul. The governments of developed as well as developing countries have been struggling to collect more taxes from the rich but the success rate is very low. It is in poor and developing countries like India who suffer most due to financial constraints faced by democratic governments, even if the latter’s intentions are good.
With the growing population, the number of those deprived of bare necessities such as adequate food, water, shelter, education, and health-care is also increasing. The poor people lack resources – land, tools or money – to grow or buy food for survival. Poverty causes malnourishment that makes mothers sick; they give birth to sick babies resulting in high infant mortality rate. The productivity of malnourished people is lower. Malnourished children are unable to fight disease and complete their school education. The rich people can take care of any number of children. It is the poor who reproduce poorer and expect the state to take care of their needs as well as the needs of their children. A democratic government has to take care of all their needs, from pre-natal to death. The stray instances of talent emerging out of slums and poor families cannot be cited to lessen the magnitude of the problem.
The number of undernourished people in the world increased from 832 million in 1995 to 923 million in 2007. In sub-Sahara, the number of malnourished people increased from 170.4 million in 1990-91 to 203.5 million in 2001-02. There are nearly 226 million stunted children – shorter than they should be – in the world. The world population increased by 1163 million between 2000 and 2015. According to WFF, there are 805 million hungry people in the world in 2015. Theoretically, at least, had the world population is stabilised in the year 2000, there would have been no hungry people today. During the same period, India’s population increased by over 243 million. It is estimated that 119 million Indians go hungry every day. Theoretically, at least, had India’s population stabilised in by 2000-01, no one would have been hungry in India today. Despite the significant increase in the number of houses, there is a shortage of nearly 19 million houses in the country.
The million-dollar question is how to solve the problem of a growing population and increasing poverty. The traditional methods of population control such as monetary incentive and punishment have not succeeded much. China is the only country in the world which imposed ‘one-child’ norm. The suggestions to the UN to make it a world norm did not find any favour. China could do so because the Chinese Communist Party has total control over political affairs. Empowerment of women and education may be effective but we do not have time to wait for the result of that slow process.
Besides the UN agencies, numerous NGOs and philanthropic organisations are working to help the poor. They all claim the need to fight poverty on a war footing and published statistics to show their achievements but all these efforts are just marginal, making no serious impact and providing no permanent solution. The poor depended on the state subsidy in the Roman Empire 2000 years ago. They are depending on the state subsidy even today and will continue to depend.
To expect the rich to sacrifice part of their consumption to help the poor consume a little more is stupidity. Moreover, the availability of consumables cannot be increased beyond a limit.
Whatever the optimists may claim, if the population goes on increasing the number of those depending on the state support would also be increasing. Imagine the scenario in our own country in 2100 which is not very far. Time flies. Many of those born today would be alive in 2100. By that time India would be the most populous country and home to the largest number of poor in the world. The increasing shortage of food, water and shelter may lead to clashes for survival. Man, after all, is not as social an animal as academics would like us to believe. The history of mankind is the history of humans killings each other, not just during wars but even in day-to-day life. A day may come when the government would have only two functions: to prevent clashes for food, water and shelter and to keep the poor somehow alive. Even the entire resources of the state would be insufficient to meet the challenge. Democratic institutions would be under severe strain.
Socialism, especially of the Marxist variety, claims to provide an answer to poverty but the world experience is that even if the state can control political life of the citizens, it has failed miserably to control and direct economic activities to the benefit of the poor. For decades, the Chinese Communist Party tried to solve economic problems of growth and redistribution through state control but ultimately had to abandon its monopoly. Politically, China remains a totalitarian country but for economic growth and development, it has accepted the increasing role of capitalists.
I fear that in India, no democratic government would be able to solve the twin problems of overpopulation and poverty. Notwithstanding all the tall promises to solve India’s problems, in a democratic setup, even a very sincere, honest and work-alcoholic leader like Narendra Modi cannot achieve a miracle. In Singapore Lee Kuan Yew could not have succeeded had he allowed liberal democracy to thrive. As Aldous Huxley warned in 1958 in his famous essay “Brave New World Revisited”, overpopulation would weaken democracy and lead to a totalitarian state. In India, a day will come when the situation will become so alarming that the government will have to force people to stop reproduction.
The question is, should we wait for such a situation or should we take preventive measures right now? Should we continue to bring more people on the earth to lead a miserable life? Life is beautiful provided one has means to live well. Life is hell if every day one has to struggle for bare survival. If any couple has no resources to look after their children, why should they have the right to reproduce? Right without duty leads to anarchy. The answer is that every couple should need a license to reproduce and the state should have the right to deny the right to reproduce to those who cannot look after themselves or their children.
The suggestion may sound inhuman but is there any alternative to check the swelling number of humans living in human life?
The bottom line is that politicians for whom people are mere voters and who adopt all tricks of (political) trade to increase their vote bank balance to win elections are unconsciously digging their graves and that too at a fast rate.
I gratefully acknowledge the contribution of my wife Mrs Chhaya Narain who years ago had given me the idea to write on this subject.
Mankind’s second biggest challenge: Chronic hunger slowly killing millions
Some commentators (not here) have remarked that the real problem is mal-distribution as well as wastage of resources. There is some merit in the argument but the rapidly growing population is the biggest culprit. Moreover, ‘man does not live by bread alone.’ Humans need basic facilities for living like humans.
This is Part I of two essays on the biggest challenges before the mankind. Part II is “Chronic hunger is slowly killing millions”