A billion issues and development
Meeta Rajivlochan

A Billion is Enough: India’s Population Problem—a Way Out
by Ashok Gupta.
Ajanta Books, New Delhi. Pages 139. Rs 195.

A Billion is Enough: India’s Population Problem—a Way OutThe methods for depopulating India seem to excite the Indian elite no end. In Kaliyuga, there will be no benedictions to have a thousand sons. That is the only possible reason why the author of this beautifully argued book on human development in India thinks it fit to title it as one on the population problem of India. Perhaps he has been swayed by the tremendous saleability of ideas about depopulating India. Therefore, the author hangs various strands of his data on India’s changing population figures and insists that he is providing an answer to the population problem. Otherwise, much of this book is about the condition of life in the country, about how the position of girls and women needs to be improved and providing social security for all.

There are comprehensive suggestions on how to improve the Indian economy and living conditions in general. Also welcome would have been a few suggestions on how to make these ideas operational especially when increasingly government is seen to be an obstructive institution rather than one that promotes the welfare of its people.

The bracing for these arguments comes from an eclectic and often contradictory set of authorities, including people as diverse as Osho, Utsa Patnaik, Lester Brown, Pravin Visaria and Paul Kennedy. Much of the power in the argument, therefore, is the consequence of the author’s own experiences in the field as an administrator.

For the rest, the book follows in the footsteps of that long-standing elitist myth in India, which concerns the size of its population. This myth presumes that the most important contemporary problem facing our country is its large population. Even though there is no evidence to support such a myth. Problems, such as there are, could be for many other reasons, uppermost of which is the utter inefficiency and substantial lawlessness of governance. Nevertheless, everyone who is anyone in our decision influencing and making machinery seems to believe the myth with great conviction.

Following a 200-year-old Malthusian tradition, they argue that the resources with India are too few for its population. They give little thought to the fact that such resources as we have we manage in an abominable manner. Even less considered is any idea on how best to use our large population for productive and creative purposes. While throughout human history a large population was considered a major asset we have now, in our modern wisdom, begun to presume it to be a disaster. This even after we know how a limited population in Europe is becoming a threat to their very existence and that the success of population control in China will ensure that it becomes a labour-short country in the very near future.

A few infelicities have crept into this book. The author does notice that Malthusian prognostications failed for England in the 18th century. He attributes some of this to the large-scale emigration from England to the various white colonies, implying that Indians have nowhere else to flee. Historians, however, tell us something different. The emigrations were minor and it was population growth of the 18th and 19th centuries, which substantially fuelled the industrial and agricultural revolution. In addition, it is not enough to notice the inflow of foreign capital to China. It is also important to notice that much of it is actually non-resident Chinese capital. It is not "purely foreign".

The author concludes his book by asking the state to intervene. There are even two concrete suggestions: One for Haryana, which has been implemented and another for Punjab that is still pending with the government. These are about how to safeguard the girl child. If you take good care of the girl child and provide adequate safeguards for grown women to have a proper, civil existence, the so-called population problem will take care of its own.