By Barun Mitra:

Economic Times-Tuesday, 24 September 1998
Debate topic: Is there a population problem?

If there is one issue on which facts and opinion on it diverges
dramatically, it is population. And ironically, even at a time of
increasingly fractured polity, rather than fuelling a debate this
anomalous situation seems to be contributing to a broad consensus.

Consider the unanimous resolution of parliament, last year, on the
occasion of the 50th year of Independence. Or the National Agenda for
Governance of the present BJP-led coalition government which speaks of
"a suitable and judicious mix of incentives and disincentives for
population control shall be presented early so that national commitment
on this critical issue is obtained". Or the recent Panchmari resolution
of the Congress. All agree that population growth is one of India's most
serious problems. 

We have surely moved a long way from the 1950s, when Pandit Nehru had
reportedly told J.R.D. Tata, one of the earliest advocate of population
control in India, that population was India's strength. 

The intellectual underpinning of this Malthusian line of thinking is
that population growth puts a strain on limited national resources and
significantly negates the developmental efforts of the state. This is
patently false, and exposes the prevalence of the mind-set that even in
these times of liberalisation, tends to look at the state for promoting
economic development. Consequently, this shows the degree of arrogance
with which our political and intellectual establishment look down up on
our own people, particularly the poor (since they are often accused of
unrestrained reproduction). By passing the blame on to the population
for prevalence of poverty in the country, and much of the other ills,
our leaders conveniently ignore their own culpability in framing
policies that restricted freedom and choice, and chained the
entrepreneurial skills of the people to solve their own problems.

Lets take a look at some of the fallacies. First, that of natural
resources. As noted demographer and economist, the late Prof. Julian L.
Simon of University of Maryland, USA, Lord Peter Bauer, and others have
repeatedly pointed out, there is no meaningful scarcity in natural
resources although the world's population has increased rapidly over the
last few centuries. Prof. Simon in 1980 had a famous bet with Prof. Paul
Ehrlich and a few others over the price of a few select natural
resources. Prof. Ehrlich and his associates have been at the forefront
of 'population growth leads to resource scarcity' point of view. The bet
was settled in 1990, and it was seen that the real prices of all the
five metals had indeed fallen often dramatically. 

Not comfortable with the economic argument, many population control
advocates these days point to Kerala as the model. Better health care
and education facilities apparently induced a lower fertility rate.
However, such social successes have not led to any comparable
improvement in the economic sphere. No wonder that even the foreign
remittances from Keralites are invested not in any regenerative manner
but mostly in real estate and gold (two most valued assets in turbulent
times!).

Rather than focussing on illusory problems like population growth, it is
time we realised that people are not just consumers, but also producers.
That more people does not only lead to greater problems, but they also
find solutions to these problems. 

As Julian Simon often said, "more people do cause problems but people
are the means to solve these problems. The ultimate resource is people,
especially skilled, spirited, hopeful young people who will exert their
will and imagination for their own benefit and in doing so, will
inevitably benefit the rest of us as well." And the brake is our lack of
imagination because of which we devise policies that restrains freedom,
curtail choices, and dampens the spirit of the people. 

So let freedom reign! Let there be a consensus that if we are still
among the poorest in the world, it is not because of our population, but
because of our policies. We have been wasting one of the most precious
resource possible - the people. That is our problem.