A buoyant India dares to ask: Is a billion so bad?

Anand Giridharadas – The International Herald Tribune

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
MUMBAI, India Even as China backpedals from its draconian one-child policy, two large Indian states are preparing their own variations on the theme.
India’s wealthiest state, Maharashtra, recently adopted a law requiring farmers with more than two children to pay a 50 percent surcharge on irrigated water.
And in March, the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh dovetailed population control with a crackdown on female abortion, approving grants of 100,000 rupees, or $2,300, to couples who have a single baby girl and then have themselves sterilized. The money will be paid to the child at age 20.
Jurisdictions across India are following suit. Some disqualify too-fecund parents from local government posts. State hospitals in Mumbai, the former Bombay, deliver two babies free but levy a charge of 500 rupees, or $11, for the third, said Ravi Duggal, a social worker who is contesting the fee in court.
The policies are a response to the sobering fact that, since India gained independence in 1947, its population has tripled, to 1.1 billion.
And its multitudes have ever-increasing effects on the world: With the economy blossoming, Indians’ increasing purchases of automobiles, motorcycles and gas stoves are helping to keep global oil prices around $50 per barrel.
But the states’ new population-control tactics come as a growing chorus of academics, business leaders and writers question the conventional wisdom from which population control flows: the very idea that a billion is too many.
“For decades, India’s burgeoning population has been blamed for dragging down the country’s growth and acting as a drain on its resources,” The Times of India said recently.
“But has it really?” the paper asked, then concluded that it had not.
Most historians blame successive governments as neglecting family planning. They also criticize the most aggressive proponent of family planning, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, whose government in the 1970s led forced sterilizations of the poor, generating a political backlash that stalled population control for years.
“There is still a feeling in the government that the population is too large,” said a senior state government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But the emphasis on a very aggressive population control is a lot less. That of course is passé now. It’s more to encourage people with positive incentives.”
Curbing population would appear uncontroversial to anyone with experience in India, where even the small towns teem and whose population density is 10 times that of the United States and more than twice that of China.
Yet some now question the very utility of curbing births. The shift is based in part on the reality that family planning often serves as a cover for female feticide. But there are some who call India’s billion-plus population a competitive advantage.
“I’ve always felt that population is not a problem. It’s an asset,” said Jerry Rao, who is chairman of Mphasis, an outsourcing firm.
Two factors explain a growing attachment to what Rao calls the revisionist view.
The first is simply the stature that comes with a population of a billion.
“The biggest mistake the Pakistanis made was that, by making their country small, they lost out,” Rao said, referring to the neighbor that gained its independence along with India in 1947. “In India, having many people makes us a big country, gives us a bigger canvas, gives us world attention.”
Of late, that attention has been coming in large doses. The Bush administration recently forecast that India would be “a major world power.” The Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, described India as China’s partner in building an “Asian century.”
Diplomats have taken pride in a recent wave of visits by leaders from Pakistan, Japan and China, as well as Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
India’s rising influence derives from the prospect that, by 2035, India could replace Japan as the world’s third-largest economy, valued at $7.8 trillion, behind China and the United States, according to the investment bank Goldman Sachs.
Even then, India’s major-power status would rest on unusual footing: being a big nation but not a rich one. In 2035, its per capita gross domestic product would be $5,327 in 2003 dollars, less than that of Panama and half that of Poland.
The second factor is that the surge of children born as a result of family planning’s failures is increasingly seen as India’s hope for catching China’s booming economy. Economists describe India as having a “window,” beginning in 2030, when the Chinese economy could cool off as the result of an aging population.
“This is China’s big negative, its rapidly aging population as a result of its severe one-child family policy,” Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, said in a recent speech. “There is no precedent for a country to grow old before it has grown rich.”
India is and will remain one of the youngest countries in the world. In 2020, the average Indian will be only 29 years old, compared with 37 for Chinese and Americans, 45 for West Europeans, and 48 for Japanese, according to an unpublished analysis provided to the International Herald Tribune by the investment bank Morgan Stanley.
Deepak Phatak, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, observed that there are more Indians aged 6 to 19 today than there are people in the United States.
“It’s a sort of moving window,” every year pulling as many as 29 million Indians into their school-going years and spitting out up to 24 million into the work force, he said.
And so as the world’s rich nations age, confronting the burden of caring for growing numbers of retirees, India will continue to have more and more workers entering the highest-producing, highest-consuming phase of their lives.
A Goldman Sachs report forecasts that, as a specific consequence of its growing population, India’s economy, alone among major economies, will continue to grow at least 5 percent a year for the next 50 years.
Lee, of Singapore, said that India, “still with much faster population growth, will enjoy a bigger demographic dividend, but it would have to educate its people better, or else the opportunity will turn into a burden.” His warning is echoed by many. It is not that population worries have disappeared but that the debate has shifted, from limiting the quantity of human beings to investing in the quality of human capital.
“You have a growth rate that more than replaces the number of people who are dying, which is a great asset,” said S. Parasuraman, director of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.
“Now, what do you do with the young people? If you give better health care, if you give better education, if you clothe them, then they can produce.”
But not everyone is a convert to the focus on absorbing workers rather than curbing births.
“It’s a very in thing to say – stop talking about population,” said Kalpana Rao Deswal, a Mumbai-based adviser to leading nongovernment organizations, including Oxfam. “It’s very modern and very hip to sit in a drawing room and say, ‘We’ve got to get people absorbed.”‘
“In India,” she said, “when you’re walking through the streets, you feel the reality that population is a problem.”


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