(Brig (retd) GB Reddi)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for a refreshing change, from the ramparts of the Red Fort on the occasion of 73rd Independence Day on 15 August 2019, highlighted increasing population “poses various new challenges for us and our future generations.”
Modi ji could have hit the “Nail on the Head” had he highlighted that extraordinary “Demographic Transitions (population explosion and migrations (legal and illegal)” are sweeping or engulfing India – the mother of all “STRATEGIC CHALLENGES”.
“Demographics are Destiny” is the quote invoked by French sociologist and father of positivism Auguste Comte, who lived from 1798 to 1857. Nowadays, quite a few experts invoke it.
In retrospect, demographics govern the destinies of nations to include: politics, economics, technology and military power – sum total of national power.
In reality, demographic transitions are the root cause for all India’s national security threats, challenges and opportunities: poverty, illiteracy, pollution and climate change, water scarcity, food security, epidemics, and jobs and so on. Over the past 72 years, all alike in the decision making loop were fully aware of the consequences of the uncontrolled population growth, yet, they failed dismally to address the issue boldly and squarely out of fear of losing their minority vote banks.
Rightly so, Modi ji has emphasized that “Sometimes decisions are taken keeping in mind political advantage but they come at the cost of growth of future generation of our country. Time has now come that we should take challenges head-on.”
Demographics trends are a key element in how most societies and analysts think about the future of war and conflict, fears about climate change and environmental stability. Combined with warming-induced droughts, storms, and shifting weather patterns, depleting acquifiers, these trends are major strategic concerns that cannot be brushed under the carpet for eternity.
Let me review some of the perspectives of experts to provide a backdrop to population explosion in India. Malthus’ 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population argued that growing numbers of people were a looming threat to social and political stability that would lead to starvation, privation, and war, which would eventually lead to population contraction, and then the depressing cycle would begin again.
The burgeoning of global population in the past two centuries followed almost precisely the patterns of industrialization, modernization, and, crucially, urbanization. But, not so in India as yet
Next, Paul Ehrlich, a biologist at Stanford University in his book “The Population Bomb stated: “In the 1970’s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked on now.” Ehrlich’s prophecy, of course, has been proved wrong. The green revolution, a series of innovations in agriculture that began in the early twentieth century, accelerated such that crop yields expanded to meet humankind’s needs.
Now, as per Western experts, the population bust is going global almost as quickly as the population boom did in the twentieth century: “We do not face the challenge of a population bomb but a population bust.” Already, the signs of the coming bust are clear, at least according to the data. Almost every country in Europe now has a fertility rate below the 2.1 births per woman that is needed to maintain a static population.
Fertility rates in China are now at or below replacement levels. So, too, are fertility rates in other populous countries, such as Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico, and Thailand. Sub-Saharan Africa remains an outlier in terms of demographics, as do some countries in the Middle East and South Asia, such as India (Fertility Rate 2.4) and Pakistan.
Few among them opine that India’s population will peak short of 1.5 billion in 2030 and then stagnate. They are shortsighted by real numbers growth.
In reality, India’s population is expanding; but unlikely to contract by 2030. No tectonic reversal in population growth trends is likely. One can only expect population stabilization and contraction in India by 2050. So, we are too late in preparing for more people @ 135-140 million per decade increase.
Also, consider the Indian financial system that is already exceedingly fragile. The fallout of trade war between USA and China are already inducing negative economic growth globally. There is industrial capacity in excess of what is needed, and trillions of dollars expecting returns when none is forthcoming, could spell a series of financial crises even in India. Add to it, effects of automation and artificial intelligence, which are already making millions of jobs redundant.
Thus, the challenges to address and the opportunities to seize and exploit are numerous. Undeniably, it is not the “Quantity” of population per se but the “Quality” of population that determines national power. A thorough grasp of fundamentals is vital. And, the fundamentals include not only the size of population but also its characteristics and their sum total that determine national power.
Fact – India’s size of population is over 1370.89 millions (Fertility Rate 2.41), larger than combined total of North American countries of 589.39 million (39 to include Mexico, Central American, Caribbean and others island territories), 432.04 millions of South American countries (14), Russia at 145.87 millions, and Australia at 25.130 million: total 1,167.3 million well below India’s population. China’s population is 1,420.79 million (Fertility Rate 1.61).
In territory, India is 1.24 million square miles (barely 2% of earth surface). In contrast, territory-wise Russia is 5 times more at 6.6 million square miles; USA, Canada and China each are 3 times more at 3.8 million square miles; and Australia over 2 times at 2.9 million square miles. All of them have natural reserves to exploit whereas India’s natural resources have all been exploited and depleted.
Yet another significant variable is the human development index – “Quality” of human resources. As per 2018 Report, India stood at 130 rank out of 189 countries with HDI value in 2017 at 0.640. In contrast, almost all Western nations HDI are over 0.900.
Viewed holistically from the above variables, the strategic management of the ever increasing population engulfing India is a Himalayan challenge. It, therefore, goes without saying that all sections of society must unite with single minded focus to stem the rot of population explosion. No use in indulging in blame games of Center or State Subject and excessive politicization. Modi, at best, can only inspire.
Ipso facto, there are conflicting perspectives over demographic transitions in India. Pessimists believe that it is an unmitigated disaster due to depleting natural resource base and elephantine economic growth trends what with land bearing capacity already over burdened. Municipal utilities and amenities are on the verge of collapse. Just distribution of wealth and social justice may remain a mirage. “Brain Drain” or “High Quality Human Resources (HQHR) flight” is yet another crucial dimension.
Optimists view it otherwise. As per agro economic experts, India has the potential to sustain the predicted growth. So, there is no need for undue concern and alarm. Their prognostication will be true when viewed from breakthroughs in biotechnology envisaged. Food may sustain expected population explosion and generate economic stimulus, but they cannot alone upgrade quality of living standards.
There are others who place faith in human inventiveness and resourcefulness to bale India out of the trap. Paul Kennedy articulated the global challenge succinctly – “the greatest test for human society as it confronts the twenty-first century is how to use ‘the power of technology’ to meet the demands thrown up by ‘the power of population’. Technology is expected to provide economic stimulus.
Paul Kennedy’s prognostication is relevant to India. There is no alternative for Indian leadership but to expediently find solutions on all fronts – human resources development; immigration and settlement policies; and agricultural, industrial and technological revolutions.
Viewed in the above framework of inevitability of demographic transitions, let me briefly review the challenges in broad outline. First, politics and demographic transitions are inextricably linked to each other goes without saying. After all, composition and interplay of races, castes, communities and classes dictate political outcomes in democracy. Sharing of political power will depend on their vagaries. A slight change of traditional equilibrium of social groups can cause dramatic shifts. They can fuel tensions/violence among ethnic, communal and caste lines.
Second, the issue to resolve at macro level is “Who should manage the demographic transition strategy – the Centre or the States?” The state-centric obsession is narrow by conception. There are four reasons why it should be tackled in a holistic manner to include: national security strategic issue; Central Governments primary responsibility to counter illegal immigration from neighboring nations, whereas states are responsible for monitoring, detection and identification illegal immigrants; immigration and resettlement policies must be made in joint consultation to prevent identity crisis from haunting locals; human resources development must be uniform throughout states and regions; and financial planning and budgetary allocation for family planning and health besides human resources development cannot be left alone to states to manage.
Third, consensus is vital between the States and the Center whilst redefining population control objectives, ways and means to achieve them. The “Hum Do, Hamara Do (We two, we will have two only)” approach of 1960s has outlived its utility. Majorities grudgingly accept family planning, as the dire need today that was politically unacceptable in the past. There is a significant shift in the traditional outlook even among rural poor. The need is simple: below one percent TFR by 2025 and 0.7% growth rate thereafter. Even then, the population will cross the 1.5 billion marks. In fact, the current population size determines net increase in real numbers even at reduced growth rates.
Extrapolate the present rate of 1350 million increasing at 1% per annum for the next 10 years, the net increase would go well past 1350 + 135 = 1485 million by 2029; and 1485 + 148 = 1633 million by 2039. Perforce, the need is to define population targets by real numbers over specified time frames. For example, 1400 million by 2021 A.D. or 1450 million by 2031 A.D. with a view to reach hypothetical stationary population of 1500 million by 2051 A.D.
Startling it may appear that if Indian national product makes a 20 times jump in 50 years, people will barely be able to maintain current standards of living. If living standards are to be enhanced threefold, India needs to increase its national product sixty fold. Both expectations fall in the realm of virtual impossibility for India.
Be that as it may, human deluge will be real in India. Consequently, demands will double covering almost all sectors to include: food and drinking water; land reforms; house sites and houses; clothing; education; power; fuels; infrastructure; mineral resources; industries; and so on. After all, consumption levels have been improving due to improved quality of living. Food security, water security (both for drinking and irrigation), energy security, job security, health security challenges will unfold numerous unforeseen crises. India cannot escape the Malthusian trap.
Fourth, forging a national consensus is an uphill task – virtually inviting political hara-kiri. Perhaps, the only way is to take recourse to administrative measures. Issue of ration cards, free assignment of land and house sites, house allotments under various schemes, subsidies/loans, and reservations in educational institutions and jobs be restricted to the one-child families only. Government employees, who do not comply with prescribed family norms, be denied privileges enjoyed under different labels. If individuals want to uphold their religious sentiments over national interests, they cannot demand as their right privileges extended by the nation to law-abiding citizens.
Fifth, the rapid urbanization is inevitable. The upper class, communities and castes have mostly migrated to urban areas. So, there is a bitter conflict among historic-traditionally depressed and oppressed groups to occupy the political vacuum in rural areas. Now, they are demanding a fair share of political power based on proportional representation.
Finally, there is also a debate to reformulate the basis of political representation to promote ‘smart governance’. There are some big constituencies with 35 Lakhs of voters electing a single MP. Surely, one single representative cannot over watch planning and implementation of development programs. So, there is a growing demand for a change in the electoral system.
Mahesh Rangarajan, Delhi based political commentator, has identified and reviewed three emerging dimensions. One, if the present levels of political representation of the states are frozen, then someone is bound to ask if representation, which is not in line with population, is not against natural justice. Two, if representation is to be in line with population, then states with larger populations, like UP, Bihar, MP and Rajasthan, will exercise greater political clout than what they have always been enjoying. Smaller states cannot dream of gaining political equality. Three, interstate disparity may well lead to demand for redistribution of taxation to funnel some of the wealth from the West and South to less endowed regions of BIMARU states. Those states, which are implementing population control measures effectively, cannot be forced to pay for the inefficiency of others.
The road to prosperity is through literacy – real qualitative or functional literacy. The current focus of adult literacy programs is a bogey. Most critical is to ensure rapid transformation of educational system to superior quality standards to promote high quality skilled work force and highly educated technology pool to exploit opportunities out of the large pool of manpower. Of course, India has the one of the largest pool of scientists, medical professionals and technicians. They hold the promise for converting the potential into real capability.
It must be accepted that cultivable land and water have been largely utilized. Incremental additions are possible by reclaiming few barren tracts and deforestation. Deforestation is an environmental security threat. Water resources are scarce for drinking and irrigation. Thus, Modi Ji’s focus on water conservation and utilization strategies is laudable.
Its implications are obvious. Indian economy will remain agriculture based even in the near future, mostly seasonal intensive-rain fed cultivation. Development of large-scale irrigation projects and canal irrigation systems have benefited some tracts, but at high-costs, time over runs and political disputes. Yet, vast tracts are subject to vagaries of weather.
Most important, India is besieged by a national migration crisis – the Islamic Crescent Envelopment all over and Baptization in the East. Illegal migrant influx has already dramatically altered demographic equilibrium in the Northeast. Erstwhile majorities have already turned into minorities in sensitive border-states of our East – Assam and Bengal. The Bengali Hindu influx into Tripura and Silchar tract of Assam has turned indigenous majorities into minorities. Even the Mongoloid people of the Northeast view outsider’s entry as a threat to their own future security and suffer from “identity crisis” syndrome. Once across the borders, they gain political patronage due to compulsions of vote bank politics. In fact, political parties vie with each other to provide illegal migrants with shelter, ration cards and enlistment in the voter’s list. Being PQHRs, they have no respect for population control.
Of course, human migrations are civilization evolutionary processes. Migrations, as per classical school, are also the consequence of outward expansions due to population explosion. As per Myron Wiener, “migration flow, once begun, induces its own flow”. In the past, people shifted from more developed region to less developed region. In fact, massive human migrations were responsible for the raise of many nations to their current status – USA, Canada and Australia.
Now, the reverse sweep is taking place. People are moving from less developed regions to more developed regions in search of employment and prosperity. History is already being rewritten without much ado in three regions of the world: Mexican influx in the South West USA; Chinese in Siberia in the Far East Russia; and the foreigners in India’s Northeast. Similarly, from less densely populated areas to more densely populated areas. It is rapidly inducing uncontrolled migrations from rural areas to cities in pursuit of employment, education and improved quality of living. Urbanization is the emerging challenge for every nation to overcome.
The reasons for the human influx are environmental, economic and political. In Bangladesh, the population density is over 800 persons per sq.km. By contrast, Assam has over 280 per sq.km. The Hill States barely cross over 20 per sq.km. Naturally, outward population movement is taking place as per classical demographic theory.
India’s population migration and settlement policies are archaic. The settlement policy for the less developed mountainous or Island Territories region revolves around “Inner Line Permit”, which is mandatory for Indian citizens to gain entry only. Indian nationals are debarred from owning properties or carrying out economic activities in the name of protecting the interests of the local people.
Indian analysts and scholars have been suggesting a number of responses to stem the tide of migrations which include: issue of “Work Permits” and “Visas”; provision of development aid to neighboring nations; and “barbed wire fencing”. “Border fencing and Work Permits” cannot stop illegal migrations, particularly in Riverine and jungle covered mountainous terrain conditions. There is hardly any scope available for India to extend grants in aid to neighboring nations. There is no alternative left, but to issue citizenship ID cards nationwide to permanent citizens.
Even, migration policies for India’s Island Territories need to be separately formulated. More than 90% of islands are uninhabited in the Andaman and Nicobar Territories. The existing policies are totally devoid of imagination necessary for promotion of their growth and their integration with the national mainstream. They should be based on induction of high quality human resources on selective basis and aided with investments to promote growth as islands of prosperity.
In sum, what has been attempted is to provide a ‘snap shot’ into extraordinary range of threats, challenges and opportunities due to demographic transitions sweeping the nation. There are no easy solutions to overcome the “Mother of all Strategic Challenges – Demographic Transitions”. Modi Ji has identified the problem and given it the importance that it deserves. Now, it is for the society to take it forward to logical end.