In his column last week, writer Amit Varma wrote that Indians considered their population as a problem and not their strength. Differing with Hindutva hardliner and Begusarai Member of Parliament Giriraj Singh’s tweet that controlling our population had to become a “movement”, Varma said when all political parties agreed on something you knew there was a problem. This writer demurs with Varma’s argument and Singh’s remark: both have their problems.
First, the issue with Singh’s statement is that the population question means different things to different people. Sanjay Gandhi tackled this question, personifying radical evil with his forced sterilisation methods of poor minorities. In the face of such a legacy, can comments like Singh’s mean sectarian targeting? Indian politicians have got us to a point where an extremely important issue like population is wrapped in majoritarian murk.
Second, citing the work of thinkers like Robert Malthus and much later Paul Ehrlich and others who characterised population as a problem, Varma said they were wrong. Ehrlich, who was a fan of India’s family planning programme, had wondered how India would feed itself. Varma said none of those fears came true. Well, perhaps they didn’t come true fully.
The surge of unemployment, the agrarian crisis in Maharashtra and central India, and the struggle to create jobs have all been covered in some of the hallmark Indian journalism of the 1970s and 1980s. It marked the beginning of the farmer-suicide era. Flawed, dangerous and selective, what else was family planning but an acknowledgement of India’s population as a problem?
In recent months, there has been detailed reportage on things that Varma claims may not be an issue. In Maharashtra’s Beed district, women cane-cutters have removed their wombs to avoid being fined due to menstruation. Last month in Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh, two children died after eating mud as they did not have any food. As was widely reported, India ranked 103 out of 119 qualifying countries in the 2018 Global Hunger Index. India has 200 million hungry people.
In the 21st century, India still has starvation deaths! With what face can we tell fellow Indians that they are our strength and not a problem? Varma may need reminding that India is facing record unemployment at a 45-year high. So how can we argue that our population—our very existence on Earth—is not a problem? At the very least, the population is a concern if not a problem.
Later, Varma says there is no correlation between population density and poverty. He finds Monaco and Qatar to be the best instances of that, forgetting that both are among the richest countries in the world, and at least one of these is not a democracy. Both countries have not battled issues of the kind India has faced since Independence, and surely not at India’s scale. It’s so fetching to look at their population density and say human progeny is your greatest resource. Come on.
Nearly most of the thinkers he cites from looked at the population question from their vantage. While they may not have been accurate in predicting India’s population problems, the facts out there don’t show them as being way off target, especially if one views them from the economic and health conditions of India’s weakest and poorest.
Yes, it’s certainly possible to say that the reasons I cite here differ from Varma’s viewpoint. For one can say these are not issues of population per se, but delivery mechanisms, governance or bureaucratic efficiency. Varma and those who agree with him may say that my argument is about governance failure more than the population as a problem. That may be a more focussed discussion.
But if generations of all sections benefitted from being Indians, then there wouldn’t be any cause for blight, no hunger-related deaths, no unemployment at a 45-year high, and universal access to quality education and healthcare. Certainly not in a democracy. But all these goodies have gone to fractions of Indian society and have been distributed unevenly. So unevenly that our population seems a problem.
Governance and democracy haven’t malfunctioned since Independence, they have been made to function poorly and unfairly. So, when generation after generation of poor Indians know there is little value to life as an Indian and death is so easy and close, why do they reproduce? Why do they do this knowing government after government at the Centre, state and municipality level have failed them? With what hope do perennially suicide-prone farmers bring more children into the world in some of India’s poorest, driest, hungriest parts, when they are treated like beasts or less?
Varma’s view of this country’s population may just be about the aspiring middle-class. But recent statistics as the unemployment report make even their future look bleak. If India’s population is a resource and not a problem, it begs the question: what part or segment are you speaking of? And if it means something, the action has to show on the ground. Otherwise, all talk of the population as a resource is nonsense.