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Population: Who cares?

Feb 19, 2001

The year 2000 probably witnessed the arrival of the one billionth Indian. The politicians took the opportunity to highlight that India is the largest democracy in the world, a congregation of different cultures and a great nation. The media got its headline. And the common man… what about him? Unfortunately, the positive thing about India breaking the one-billionth mark is limited to politically influenced comments. In a nation where 36% of the population lives below the poverty line this response is well founded. Just to put things in perspective, 36% of the population corresponds to 360 million individuals. To support these 360 million people, the government incurs an explicit subsidy bill of Rs 228 bn (how much of that reaches the target audience is difficult to say but that is another matter). Additionally the government incurs expenditure of Rs 26 bn and Rs 9 bn for ‘education’ and ‘health & welfare’ respectively.

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    The problem, however, lies not in allocation of expenses, but in its demand. This is apparent from the fact that India's expenditure on these two accounts (as a % of GDP) is comparable to other more developed countries including Singapore and Malaysia. India’s pressing problem, as is apparent, is not a lack of resources, but the abundance of demand. Worse still, it seems that demand is only going to increase, putting more pressure on the limited resources of the government – the population is anticipated to jump from a billion in 2000, to 1.25 billion in 2016.

    The fast pace at which the population is growing highlights several issues. First ofcourse is the dismal growth in the per capita income. This basically means that a very large group shares the ‘pie’, leaving each individual, on an average with a very small absolute share. The result of this is a low standard of living.

    CountryPer capita GNP (US$)*
    Sri Lanka820
    Source: Statistical Outline of India

    Second, and a very recognised issue, is that despite the gravity of the situation our politicians have failed to address the issue in any significant manner. And, as responsible citizens, we must accept the blame for this.

    Consider this. The budget is around the corner and there are a lot of wish lists doing the rounds. However, not one of them makes an attempt to highlight the pressing problem of deterioration in social services like education and health facilities. The talk is centered around sops for the sector, depending on who is making the wish list. Talk of funding population control it seems has been relegated to the fund starved non-governmental organizations or to the Planning Commission, which again is dependent on the union budget for funding.

    Given the growth rate, India should become the most populated country in the world before 2050. By then, hopefully, our politicians would not be reveling in the thought that they preside over the most ‘populated’ country in the world. The sooner they realise the real problem, the better.

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