Deepmala 48 – Balancing the Population and Resources

People are living longer today. The world is becoming increasingly urban. Unfortunately, the population is growing fastest, where people do not even have the bare necessities of life. More than 100 crore people live in slums worldwide. About one out of every three children under five years of age in the developing world is malnourished. Of the net 8 crore people added to the world’s population last year, just 10 lakh live in the industrial world. Sufficient nutrition, shelter, water and sanitation will have to reach people in slums. If this does not happen, then increased migrations, conflicts, and disease seem inevitable.

The current global population of 620 crores is expected to grow to 930 crores by 2050, and 98% of this growth will be in the poorer countries. Some 37% of the world lives in either China or India, where the industrial growth is accelerating the use of resources and consequently having a serious impact on the environment.

By 2050 there will be more older people than children. The number of people who are 60 years of age or older is expected to increase by four fold. Thus out of population of 930 crore, over 200 crore will be older than 60. This will put stress on retirement and health care systems worldwide. The industrial world grew rich before it grew old. The success of birth control programs in many parts of the developing world will mean that the developing world will grow old before it grows rich. This will pose its own problems in this part of the world.

The life expectancy has increased by about 30 years over the last century. Further, medical and social advances will promote even increased longevity. As people live longer with fewer working people to support them, the economic burden on younger generations will increase. This will hurt the poorer nations the most.

If more mouths have be fed, then agricultural efficiencies also have to be improved with high-yield agriculture, micro-credit system, social safety nets, and resource conservation. In the next 30 years an additional 20 crore hectares will be needed to feed the growing populations in the tropics and subtropics. Yet only 9 crore hectares are available in these nations for farms to expand – and much of that land is forested and should be preserved.

In India, we have not given adequate attention to this problem. The problem is acute in some states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, etc. I am writing this column after giving the Nehru Memorial Lecture on 12 November in Allahabad. While traveling by road from Varanasi to Allahabad, I saw scenes that were worrysome. I saw lots of young children on the road, which were semi-clothed and were walking barefoot. They were on the streets, when they should have been in the schools. I saw a woman, with four young children surrounding her. The eldest must be six years old – the difference in ages between each of them could not have been more than one year. I see similar scenes as I drive from the Kolkata airport to my guesthouse, which is one hour away. Surely, there is a crisis looking ahead, which we must deal on a war footing.

In areas with higher birth rates, the factors that reduce population growth need to be reinforced urgently. These factors include increased income, improved literacy, diminished infant mortality, empowerment and education of women, improved and inexpensive contraceptives, family planning, and equal rights for women. This has to be in the top of our agenda.