Sometime this decade, India is set to overtake China as the most populous nation on Earth. Below, a reader from India reflects on what these immense numbers mean for his country’s future. Despite being in the position of being able to have a family of his own, he chooses not to in protest. For him the onus must be equally shared by the government and the people in keeping the birth rate in check.
My name is Gaurav Bhatt and I live in the bustling city of Mumbai, India.
I was born in 1986 when the population of India was 801,000,000. Currently it is somewhere around 1,393,000,000 and counting. Growing up, we as kids never heard of the words overpopulation or climate change. But living in my city you could always feel the sense of rush, crowds, noise, ever rising.
I started sailing on merchant ships pretty early in my life at the age of 18 which caused me to be away from the country and my home for long periods of time. But every time I got back after a tenure on the ship, I felt things thickening, tightening.
Now being 34 years old, my city looks and feels like a can of sardines. It has been like this for a while. Rivers of people almost climbing over each other just to get to work. This is just my city. One city in a country of over a billion people. And growing. And so my question: how much is enough?
In a world with fast depleting resources, all ecological systems in decline, progress has to be measured with its impact on the environment. I ask, when are we going to address the numbers? I very early in my life decided to never have children of my own. But I know this isn’t a decision that can be or should be imposed on anyone. Life is precious. Having children is precious. It’s what living organisms do, procreate.
But have you thought about what kind of world we are giving our children to inherit? I know a lot of my friends and people in general share the same concerns that I have, but eventually end up going down the same road of having their own children and somehow thinking the over-population problem will go away on its own. Or in some cases, they blame the poor and uneducated, other religions, in short anything and everything except looking at their own selves. This is human nature. And I do not blame them or anyone.
The on-going COVID crisis has already shown how much pressure the population puts on the health system. But at all times it’s putting pressure on all other systems that exist! Natural or man-made! We have to understand that growth of any kind, economic or human population, cannot be endless. There has to be a limit. We can choose to limit the birth rate.
I feel a very important thing to do right now is to first and foremost bring this problem of overpopulation to the forefront. Most people listen only when they are bombarded with something and when it’s everywhere they go. Nowadays anyone you talk to has some idea about global warming and other ecological issues. But they hardly ever speak about birth control. And even if they do, they always talk about the “others” who are worsening the population problem.
I feel the youth of today can sense something is terribly wrong, but they need direction. The older generation still is stuck to their ways and more often than not will enforce their world views onto their kids. I know a few women who regret having their second child but were forced to have them as “one child will have no one to play with” amongst other reasons. I know there isn’t anything wrong with having two children. But you can see how this mentality shapes a nation.
We have a very diverse cultural and religious mix of people in my country, where there are a lot of caste issues and animosity towards other religions, above all in the Hindu/Muslim divide. When I declared to some members of my family that I would never have kids of my own, I was subjected to taunts such as – “no wonder the Muslims in our country are increasing when Hindu boys like you are refusing marriage and kids.” Not one person asked me if I made such a decision for environmental reasons.
So you see there has to be a better sense of ecological responsibility. We have very strong associations with lineage and carrying forward the names of our forefathers. And how the population of the people who belong to our religion should never be less than the people of other religions. But this, like other outmoded notions, has to be superseded by thoughts about the big picture, which is our planet and its resources.
My view is to have the hierarchy of allegiance changed, wherein Mother Earth moves upward in that ladder to almost the number 1 position. This is what we must pass on to our children. We will not survive on a dying Earth.
The way forward
I think the most important factor for our country or any country for that matter should be to have a target. Policies and the people of the country should strive to keep the population hovering around that ideal value. That sets a visible goal for everyone to aim for.
Well, what is the ideal population bracket for the country of India? I am not sure of that figure: 1 billion, half a billion? It should be somewhere around a figure where the government feels confident that it can sustain that number of people in good living conditions of health, wealth, education, with minimum impact to the environment.
But I am very strong in the belief that now the term ‘overpopulation’ and birth control have to be in the faces of everyone living in my country. The government can help make policies, but it finally comes down to us to each do our part to reach that target.
But we do not see it. No major news television networks in my country raise this issue. No celebrities talk about it. No Instagram or Facebook influencers talk about it. Why? I ask myself this every day. We will talk about everything in our country except explicitly talking about population. The reason I believe is power. Many political parties refuse to touch this subject as they know doing so will ensure them not winning the next elections. But this has to change. I want to see this issue being raised in the way that racism, gay rights, rights for women, climate change and other issues have gotten their voice out to everyone at that large scale which brought about real change. All these above-mentioned issues were first raised by the People. Which then led the governments to change.
Why should we expect the issue of population control to be any different?
In my country we talk about limiting a family to two kids. Well what about families that are having zero kids but adopting instead? What about people who are refusing to have kids in protest of this population explosion? I want to change the dialogue when it comes to population from just policy to the people themselves. We must find a platform where people can come together and create solutions along with government policy. We must not confuse quantity with quality.
If we talk incentives, why not offer them? Why not offer health benefits and pension and early retirement along with free education to their children to couples who adopt instead of having their own kids? Similar incentives for people who choose to have a single child? Such are among the incentives the young population needs today. And I know they will respond. Once they hear the alternatives, they will stop listening to the old advice which is causing this population explosion to run unabated.
People of India, how do you think we can get everyone talking about birth control? Let us get the conversation started.
12 thoughts on “Past, present, and future population: a personal account of India”
Thank you Gaurav. I feel people should be limited to one live child per person. But as you say no government will take this on as it would be political suicide. Meanwhile we are committing environmental suicide, and scratching around at the very big margins (fossil fuels, plastics, waste) but never addressing the real world concerns – our sheer numbers and the inevitable use of all resources. This is at the expense and in a growing number of cases, extinction, of other species, both plant and animal, plus loss of environmental amenity.
That is reflected in all the overcrowded cities around the world and the loss of healing, uninhabited swathes of natural landscape. It has been going on for millenniums, but has been patently obvious in my 76 years.
Wars and pandemics are natures attempt to limit population impacts. Given mankind’s ability to overcome such events, we should be able to recognise a better approach, population limitation.
Hopefully younger generations such as yours will achieve this.
But governments CAN make all the difference. If they give top priority to the welfare of their citizens through universal basic health care, including family planning, then our numbers will stabilise. Many countries have shown this including very poor ones: take Bangladesh, for example. If we focus on people’s wellbeing we won’t have to panic about numbers.
WOW…. This would be widely published if we had a truly responsible press.
I suggest not talking about overpopulation” but instead focus on welfare:better living standards, access to education, jobs etc, if people are enabled to have real choices about having children. That way the sectarian arguments can be bypassed, since it is the health and strength of a community and not its numbers that will count.
I don’t favour financial or other incentives, especially when so many poor people do not have access to what would really make a difference: universal health care, including excellent quality family planning services. And public information campaigns and dramas, especially on radio, to discuss the issues and inform people about what is possible. It has been done successfully in West Africa and elsewhere, and should be done in India as well. This would require the commitment of State and local government (with international support), if national government is dragging its feet.
My argument stems from the fact that no government can provide welfare for all if the numbers are beyond the resources. By incentives I don’t just mean financial. They can take many forms, which could mean free education, pension plans, insurance plans. These can be offered through these better quality family planning services as you mentioned.
One of the reasons why there isn’t universal healthcare in countries such as mine is due to the numbers. Its saying that there is a direct correlation between population and accessibility to a good standard of living. So we have to address issues on both sides of the equation.One helps the other.
And I completely agree that all these issues have to become mainstream. We have to spread the word.
Many poor countries have given priority to health and family planning, with excellent results. If you say there are just too many people to do this then we are all doomed!!
I did appreciate your reference to Hindus having a population race with Muslims. Sectarianism and religious competition is behind much pro-natalist thinking. Surely there are enough people now, what is critical is a healthy, well educated and hopefully more prosperous people.
I’m glad you have taken the initiative of writing this down. This one step will resolve majority of the issues which our country is currently facing. I completely agree with the fact that if this issue is raised in the right way and people start understanding that this needs to be addressed immediately then I definitely think the government will start taking it seriously.
Thank you for this very good article. Unfortunately, it is now fashionable to say that worrying about human overpopulation is “racist”. I believe that all human beings of all colors and nationalities would benefit from a world with less people and more nature and resources.
Such is the state of the debate that a white person cannot say that India is overpopulated, but an Indian can. For what it’s worth, I’m from Italy and I’ve been saying that my country is overpopulated for a while now.
Yes I completely agree. We have to address this on a human level. The problem is going to affect us all no matter where we live.
Which is why I would like to see there being optimal “population targets” which a country should set for itself and ask all citizens to make changes in their own lives to help reach those sustainable targets. And in turn international organisations can help create a global target which all the people can come together to help achieve.
This would also help address one of the main reasons governments promote population growth: the fear of being “outnumbered” by faster-growing “others”. It’s happening between Israelis and Palestinians (there’s a chapter on this on the very good book “Countdown” by Alan Weisman), it’s an argument that factors in migration debates in the West, and in many other places and within countries too, wherever there’s tensions between different ethnic or religious groups (my understanding is that it was for example one of the factors shaping the possibly genocidal policies against the Uighurs and the Rohingya, though maybe it was just propaganda). As repellent as these arguments are, sometimes there’s some truth to them, at least potentially: Erdogan actually and publicly told the Turks in Europe to have many children and take over the continent. Whether it’s to limit births or to encourage them, whether there’s a serious threat or it’s just provocation, it’s scary to see population numbers deployed to stoke tensions between humans.
If we could all agree to set limits and fluctuate around those, we’d avoid such conflicts. Still, since human groups change in composition and identity over time, we should be careful not to be too strict about exact numbers and specific ethnicities or nationalities, in order to avoid making the situation worse rather than better.
Ideally, we would figure out a carrying capacity and a standard of living for each inhabited region, including of course the rights of other species and even of landscapes, and set numbers around those.
I have my doubts about targets: look at the mess of China’s “one/two/children” policy and the suffering it caused. People have to have the means to make the best choices and it is a great coincidence that when this happens birth rates fall, sometimes dramatically. Any hint of targets or coercion would be counterproductive as well as unnecessary.
A big part of the suffering in China was due to male preference, which meant millions of girls were neglected or killed. The same happened in India, where there was no such target or one-child policy, but people resorted to selective abortions and other practices in order to have more sons (those who couldn’t afford more children, and were having females, got rid of them to try for males).
Not all cultures have this male preference, and even those that do can change.
Targets do not necessarily refer to single families. We could, for example, decide as countries or regions what is a “good” number of people that guarantees a good life for all, future generations included, and room for wildlife. If we grow past that target, right-based measures could be implemented to either reduce immigration or convince people to have fewer children, or both.
I agree, however, that non-coercive, flexible measures are to be preferred. Unfortunately most governments use non coercive, flexible measures to convince people to have more, not less, children. In Italy families with children are very subsidised (though we always hear that it’s not enough).