Learn some crucial lessons

The 29th anniversary of the United Nations Development Programme's declaration of an annual World Population Day - to draw attention to population as a key factor in development and welfare -was on July 11. In 1989, the world had an estimated 5.24 billion persons (of which 1.15 billion lived in China and 852 million in India). Today, the global population estimate is 7.6 billion, with 1.43 billion in China and 1.35 billion in India. In 2030, these three figures are expected to rise to 8.4 billion, 1.45 billion and 1.48 billion respectively, and India will have overtaken China in one respect at least.

By Alaka M. Basu
  • Published 8.08.18
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The 29th anniversary of the United Nations Development Programme's declaration of an annual World Population Day - to draw attention to population as a key factor in development and welfare -was on July 11. In 1989, the world had an estimated 5.24 billion persons (of which 1.15 billion lived in China and 852 million in India). Today, the global population estimate is 7.6 billion, with 1.43 billion in China and 1.35 billion in India. In 2030, these three figures are expected to rise to 8.4 billion, 1.45 billion and 1.48 billion respectively, and India will have overtaken China in one respect at least.

What do these numbers imply? From the 1960s to the 1980s, population size and growth in poor countries were seen by the Western world as a major security threat because their unwieldy populations would be ripe for communist influence. They were also seen by more altruistic researchers as putting a break on national development, perhaps even leading to Malthusian conditions if food production failed to keep up with population growth.

On the ground, the result of this dual concern was large amounts of support to and pressure on the governments of poor nations to push aggressive family planning programmes, of which the Chinese one-child policy and India's mass sterilization drive during the Emergency are the most glaring examples. A backlash from feminists and NGOs at the 1994 UN Conference on Population and Development in Cairo led to a change in terminology and the focus shifted from this macro concern with 'population' to a more individual-centred concern about 'reproductive health'.

But the macro concern was soon back in new forms, and influential enough even for reproductive health advocates to increasingly justify their demand for services by pointing to the lower 'population' growth rate that would mediate between such services and development. Indeed, the term, 'reproductive health' (which includes a gamut of sexual and reproductive health services, of which contraception is but one important part), has been increasingly replaced with 'family planning' even by agencies like the UN: the WPD theme this year was 'Family Planning is a Human Right'.

The generic word, 'development', has also morphed into today's central global concern - environmental sustainability and climate change - and the research, activism and policies around family planning are now busy drawing connections between the latter and climate change. Once more, the most popular demonstrations of such linkages have 'population' as an important mediating variable; that is, family planning access reduces fertility and therefore reduces population growth rates and it is this that, in turn, reduces the consumption of non-renewable resources as well as the emission of greenhouse gases.

In principle at least, this current version of the population-environment connection is women-friendly and against coercive family planning programmes. It operates on the assurance that there is a large 'unmet need' for family planning; that is, there are millions of women in poor countries who want to stop or delay childbearing but do not have the means to do so. If these women are helped with safe, effective and affordable birth control, population growth will come down.

We all know that the worst offenders on climate change are the rich (countries and people): in 2011, the United States of America consumed 7,000 kilogrammes of oil equivalent energy per capita, compared to 600 in India and 2,000 in China. The rich-poor gaps in consumption within poor countries are likely to be as large. But even while acknowledging these disparities, organizations like the World Bank simultaneously set out to 'prove' that the biggest victims of resultant climate change are or will be the poor (countries and people) and, as such, family planning services will soften the blow to them as well as to the environment.

Bringing the population question into such a context becomes an excuse to draw distinctions between 'them' and 'us'. Ignoring for the moment the rich country-poor country discourse on the environmental perils of population growth, even within developing countries, the ushem distinction is alive and well. We all hear enough from the urban middle classes about the breeding propensities of the 'servant class' (that quaint term has no time for political correctness). Much more invidious is the transference of the 'them' label to social and religious minorities, with Muslims being the favourite target of any population growth explanation. From the highest reaches of political power to sundry political sidekicks to drawing room companions, people in the 'us' camp agree that the Muslim 'them', with their injunctions against family planning, will take this country down the economic drain.

Never mind that at least a part of the higher (but rapidly slowing) Muslim population growth is accounted for by their lower infant and child mortality (in spite of worse socio-economic conditions) and lower rates of female foeticide. The 'us' camp should learn some lessons on these two kinds of behaviour from 'them' instead of harping on the need for 'them' to learn from 'us' to have fewer babies.