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Demographic Dividend Or Drag? - Outside View by S.S. TARAPORE
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Demographic Dividend Or Drag?
Nov 19, 2014

Since Independence in 1947, India has endeavoured to tackle a number of sensitive socio-economic problems, but the biggest problem viz. population control, remains a subject, which, for certain unfortunate reasons, is not even discussed. From 1947 to 1977, the need for population control was openly recognised not merely by demographers and social scientists, but also by the political class. All this changed after the Emergency of 1975-77 when the compulsory sterilisation programme was implemented. The extent of damage during 1975-77 is staggering.

There is a path-breaking article in the Business Standard of November 8, 2014, by the eminent journalist TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan, 'The gorilla in the room'. The article is relevant not only to specialist social scientists, but also the common person. He calls the population problem politically the hottest problem of all. Since 1977, the population problem has ceased to be part of the political agenda of all parties.

Staggering growth of population

Between 1947 and now, India's population increased from 350 million to 1,200 million. In the 1940s and early 1950s, it was fashionable to talk about the virtues of India's teeming millions. Likewise, China also emphasised the strength of a rapidly growing population. But soon the Chinese recognised that a population explosion would be disastrous and an explicit and effective policy of population control was initiated.

India's experience up to 1975

India had an effective population control programme up to 1975. In states like Maharashtra, the voluntary programme was successful and the masses became aware of the benefits of small families. It is unbelievable that in the 1960s and 1970s, mothers-in laws were so enlightened that they would cajole their daughters-in-law to restrict themselves to two children. All this changed after 1975. No government was willing to explicitly endorse an effective population control programme.

Problems of an ageing population

Demographers now talk about the adverse effect of strong population control policies as a large segment the aged population has to be supported by a small segment of actively working population, as shown by the experience of Europe and Japan.

Demographic dividend

Indian economists and social scientists wax eloquently about the paradise of a demographic dividend of a large proportion of the population actively working and supporting a small segment of an aged population. This sort of argument is used to justify a low-key family planning programme.

Population drag

We need to reflect on the implications of a sharply rising population. It is argued that with a growing population, there would be a larger segment in the active work force which would spread prosperity, and over time, people would be enlightened enough to enable the population to level off. Are we to wait till this happens when the Indian population rises to 2,000 million or 3,000 million? The so-called demographic dividend will require a massive increase in jobs and a staggering increase in the socio-economic infrastructure. The economy will just not have the wherewithal to generate the required number of jobs.

While those willing to work would increase, the requisite jobs will just not be created resulting in large unemployed youth which would generate uncontrollable social tensions which would ultimately explode. In our hope of eventually entering into a paradise of prosperity, we would have a long living hell of squalor and misery. This distils into a choice of saying, 'Let us die today so that we see a better tomorrow.' We cannot be serious about such an approach.

Golden mean on population control

Surely a population policy cannot be on the basis of compulsory population control, nor can we allow the population to explode. There must be some kind of Aristotle's 'Golden Mean.' A system of gentle incentives/disincentives could be evolved, which would ultimately lead to the emergence of smaller families. Housing, education, health and other social services could be provided on a preferred basis to those with smaller families. Similarly, employment opportunities and subsidies could be channeled to smaller families. The challenge is to devise a well-structured programme, which would voluntarily veer the population to opt for smaller families. If the per capita income of China is way above ours, smaller families is the most important factor accounting for the higher Chinese standard of living.

Need for a national debate

There is a need for an open national debate on how India should develop its population control programme.TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan needs to be congratulated for triggering an open debate on a subject which has become taboo.

Please Note: This article was first published in The Freepress Journal on November 17, 2014. Syndicated.

This column, Common Voice is authored by Savak Sohrab Tarapore. Mr. Tarapore, is an economist and he runs his own Multi-Language Syndicated Column. Mr. Tarapore's other column, which appears in The Hindu Business Line, is titled Maverick View.

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