India has experienced extraordinary population growth. Between 2001 and 2011 India added 181 million people to the world, slightly less than the entire population of Brazil.
But 76% of India’s population lives on less than US$2 per day (at purchasing power parity rates). India ranks at the bottom of the pyramid in per capita-level consumption indicators not only in energy or electricity but in almost all other relevant per capita-level consumption indicators, despite high rates of growth in the last decade.
Much of India’s population increase has occurred among the poorest socio-economic percentile.
Relatively socio-economically advanced Indian states had a fertility rate of less than 2.1 in 2009 — less than the level needed to maintain a stable population following infant mortality standards in developed nations.
But in poorer states like Bihar, fertility rates were nearer to 4.0.
Does this growth mean India can rely on the ‘demographic dividend’ to spur development?
This phenomenon, which refers to the period in which a large proportion of a country’s population is of working age, is said to have accounted for between one-fourth and two-fifths of East Asia’s ‘economic miracle’ as observed late last century.
But India is not East Asia. Its population density is almost three times the average in East Asia and more than eight times the world average of 45 people per square kilometre.
If India has anywhere near 1.69 billion people in 2050, it will have more than 500 people per square kilometre.
Besides, in terms of infrastructure development India currently is nowhere near where East Asian nations were before their boom.
In terms of soft to hard infrastructure, spanning education, healthcare, roads, electricity, housing, employment growth and more, India is visibly strained.
For example, India has an installed energy capacity of little more than 200 gigawatts; China has more than 1000 gigawatts and aims to generate 600 gigawatts of clean electricity by 2020.
To make matters worse, many of the newly installed power stations in India face an acute shortage of coal, and future supply is not guaranteed.
Can India manage?
China mines close to four billion tonnes of coal per year, which has a negative effect on both local and global air quality.
At some stage, it is probably inevitable that India will need much greater capacity than its present rate of mining 600 million tonnes of coal per year, which is also causing local and global pollution levels to rise — parts of India face air quality problems similar to those in China.
On oil, India imports close to 80% of its crude oil requirements, while it also runs an unsustainable current account deficit of more than 5% of its GDP, and reserves for new energy sources like shale gas do not look promising either.
India’s food supply is in an even worse position.
As a member of India’s Planning Commission put it, ‘we have a problem and it can be starkly put in the following way: “around 2004–2005, our per capita food grains production was back to the 1970s level’.
“In 2005–07, the average Indian consumed only 2,300 calories per day — below the defined poverty line in rural areas of 2,400 calories a day. The trend in recent years is for Indians to eat even less”.
So, for India, treating lightly Malthusian predictions about food supply until 2050 or beyond may not be prudent.
Worldwide food prices have been on the rise to unforeseen levels, and India too has been suffering from high food inflation.
Finally, even if India manages to feed its burgeoning population, its growth may not be ecologically sustainable.
The global demand for water in 2050 is projected to be more than 50%t of what it was in 2000, and demand for food will double.
On average, a thousand tons of water is required to produce one ton of food grains. It’s not surprising, then, that international disputes about water have increasingly been replicated among states in India, where the Supreme Court is frequently asked to intervene.
So have the policy responses been proportional to the gravity of the demographic, ecological and developmental problems facing India?
The probable answer is that policy makers have failed miserably on all measurable counts.
If one compares India to China this becomes clear.
While China’s one-child policy has been criticised as against human dignity and rights — and there is no denying that such measures should be avoided as far as possible — the history of human civilization teaches us that extreme situations call for extreme actions.
There will be ample time for multiple schools to have their post-mortems on the success and failure of the one-child policy, but it has helped China to control its population by a possible 400 million people.
The US Census Bureau estimated in 2010 that China will hit its peak population of 1.4 billion in around 2026.
China’s fertility rate has been lower than the replacement rate for more than two decades now.
That means the one-child policy will have taken nearly 40 years to stabilise or reverse China’s population trend. How long will India take to get to that stage?
There is a distinct possibility of irreversible and unsustainable population growth and big question marks remain over how India will provide nearly 1.7 billion people with their basic minimum demands.
In this environment to raise an alarm that turns out to be false is better than relying on comfortable slogans like the demographic dividend.
The longer India delays acknowledging the severity of these problems and dealing with them head on, the graver the consequences are likely to be. – By Ranjit Goswami for eastasiforum.org