TCS Daily

The Best Contraceptive

By Vijay Dandapani - December 1, 2003 12:00 AM

India's billion-strong population never fails to elicit a schizophrenic response from the ruling class. From an economic perspective, there is a general consensus that population growth is a negative factor. That perspective is turned on its head, however, when a geo-political or a religious agenda is put forth. In the latter instance, the billion-plus number is played up with a view to asserting strength. An example of that thinking is the argument that sheer numbers warrant a seat for India on the United Nations Security Council.


But it is the misguided refrain of over-population as a barrier to economic growth that bears scrutiny. Apart from being basically wrong and defeatist, it reveals an appalling contempt for our greatest resource: people.


The manifestos of all the major political parties view the exponentially growing population as a problem -- if not the principal obstacle to India's economic growth. The ruling BJP's manifesto calls for the implementation of a National Population policy by implementing the recommendations of the obscure National Development Council as well as a report from the expert-group headed by Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, the famed scientist who revolutionized Indian agriculture through cross-breeding of high yield seeds. Despite substantive changes, the report suffers from the same fundamental flaw inherent to a population policy: the attainment of a "stable demographic goal."


Ironically, that element of the BJP's manifesto was to have been show-cased by former Prime Minister Gujral, who had a well-founded belief in state sponsored solutions. The dissolution of the Lok Sabha in 1997 mercifully stayed his hand. The Congress party, not particularly known for fresh ideas, remains mired in the old notion that more people represent problems, not opportunities.


In a breathtaking affront to privacy, there is renewed talk of introducing the 79th Constitution Amendment Bill, originally drawn up in 1999, that called for a state-mandated limit on two children to all those seeking state and central government office. That the government knows best in the matter of numbers in a family is a hoary idea dating back to the times of Pandit Nehru and born of contempt for the economically disadvantaged. Rather than allow the now well-proven entrepreneurial ability of Indians to flourish, Nehru's ship of state charted waters of its choosing. That discredited notion of state planning included advancing an arbitrary population number that was presumably sustainable.


Population alarmists rely heavily on the fertility rate -- a key assumption in most demographic projections that offers little by way of an empirical framework for prediction. The assumption of linear growth of population without a viable predictive basis can only serve to cloud the debate on the real factors underlying poverty.


Rather than revive discredited "Malthusianisms," policy-makers in India ought to consider how economic growth in countries such as Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan and South Korea among others has resulted in a dramatic lowering of the fertility bar, from very high levels in the 1950s and 60s. Most of that was achieved with an emphatic focus on economic growth. The late development economist, Peter Bauer, an ardent advocate of the idea that aid in any form represented overwhelming condescension towards the Third World, went against the orthodoxy of his times by stressing that over-population was not the cause for poverty. He rightly noted that sub-Saharan Africa's population density was a tenth of Japan's. North Korea, a sparsely populated country, has a fertility rate of 1 percent that falls well below the replacement level. Its GDP growth rate is best left unmentioned.


The present Indian initiative as well as the many policy mistakes made in the past fail to acknowledge that the best contraceptive is economic growth. That can best be brought about by more freedom from government intervention in the economic and social spheres.


Vijay Dandapani is a New York-based businessman.

TCS Daily Archives