Malthusian Fear in The Modern Era

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The World Health Organization [WHO] in March 2020 declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic, wildfires have engulfed the US west coast, climate change looms over us, Are these ‘positive checks’ being applied to reinstate balance? – has the forgotten Malthusian fear become a reality now?  

The Malthusian theory was published in 1798 in “An Essay on The Principle of Population”, wherein Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus laid out the theory; the growth of population will outpace the growth of resources that enable the sustainability of humankind. He quoted that food is a necessity for the existence of mankind and there is no denying that a burning “passion between the sexes” exists, which is going to prevail for a foreseeable time in future. Insinuating that a man will continue to eat and reproduce, though, not in a constant ratio but such as, that population grows in a geometrical progression while food supply grows arithmetically, which ultimately leads to destitution, a social evil.  

He added that a correction would take place to mitigate this problem; positive check-in forms of diseases, natural calamities etc.. and preventive checks which include family planning, celibacy etc.. These checks would then lead to something known as a Malthusian Catastrophe enabling the population to circle back to a sustainable level. He promoted moral restraints such as delayed marriages and sexual abstinence until adults were able to economically safeguard their children, however, ignoring ravaging diseases, subjecting the poor to live in swamps indicated his utter disregard for the poor. In an attempt to slash the growing population he proposed barbaric measures, which were often disregarded on moral grounds.

Post his death in 1834, the Industrial Revolution had completely reformed the west- an unprecedented growth of about 1.25% per year was observed as opposed to 0.2% earlier.  This was characterised by an abundance in the food supply, rational investments in sanitation, education, and hospitality, technological innovation and a reduction in child mortality rates. Angst was rising, as escalating prosperity and small family sizes were disproving the theory. What he failed to register was the role of human ingenuity and technological innovation in increasing the food supply and finding ways for controlled procreation.

In the early 20th century, as mortality rates were constantly declining, a ‘eugenic’ movement  emerged which prohibited the ‘inferior’ rural people from reproducing. The US alone observed nearly 70,000 sterilizations after implementation of it’s eugenic law. Eugenicists and Neo Malthusians often allied in policymaking, because they both preached that  childbearing should be limited to only those who were perceived to be deserving under their moral compass.In 1960s and 70s, as world population surged to 4 billion, the governments of rich countries started to fear that the rapid convergence of the poor countries might deplete the world’s limited resources and hence they started evaluating policies that encourage curbing the  accelerating population.  

The huge growth of the population did not come as a surprise, with declining mortality ratios and unregulated fertility, population explosion was bound to happen. With this realisation and apprehension that this explosion might dampen the living conditions, there was a rising demand for policies to regulate fertility. Consequently, Neo Malthusian thinking ignited in many parts of the world and policies were sought after in countries where such surge in population was expected to occur, particularly Asian countries like India and China. During the three decades of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, grave policies were implemented in these countries to address the problem of accelerating population. It would be interesting to apply the consequences of Neo-Malthusianism and study the coercive population control measures applied by these nations. Was it necessary to partake such strong brutality? 


Neo-Malthusianism fomented a fear; large population sizes may result in a humanitarian or an ecological disaster, if not ameliorated at an early stage. This thought stirred support for coercive policies that would curb the population.

The late 1960s and the ‘70s saw a wave of Neo-Malthusianism; this engendered human right abuses across the globe. Two instances stood out gravely, China’s one-child policy (1979-2015) and India’s infamous forced sterilizations during its emergency period of 1975-77. While both of these policies outraged the public, in 1983, the United Nations Funds For Political Activities (UNFPA) presented Indira Gandhi, India’s then prime minister who declared a national “Emergency” that suspended civil liberties and mandated sterilizations on a massive scale, and Qian Xinzhong, head of China’s State Family Planning Commission and the man in charge of the country’s one-child policy, with its “population award” for restricting an ever-increasing population. 


In the 1970s, China was heralded as one of the fastest-growing economies, to this taste the ruling party accentuated the need for population control. This led to the disreputable one-child policy in 1979, backed morally and financially by UNFPA. Lauded by the west, this policy ignored all charges of coercion ; “ Population experts have praised the program” posited an article in a US-based Journal of Public  Health Policy in 1988.  In 1989, Sadik, then the executive director of the UNFPA, claimed that the Chinese  program was “totally voluntary”.

The Chinese government estimated that it prevented around 400 million births through strict enforcement. The benefits and the penalties imposed upon local administration during inspection made the program largely successful.  Wage cuts, demotions and dismissals were juxtaposed against huge bonuses and promotions. 

It indeed paints a  gruesome picture, when one is forced to ponder over the predicament of the women being subjected to monstrous disarrangement of their bodies in the forms of intrauterine devices,  painful surgeries, forced hysterectomies and abortions. It’s nothing but the sheer violation of the basic human rights of an individual and their being. Well over 300 million abortions took place in China over the period of the one-child policy, more than half of which were coerced. Not just human rights were abused, it further led to child abandonment, illegal adoptions and trafficking along with lingering cases of sex-selective murders, female infanticides, all of which contributed  China to be one of the top countries with a negatively skewed sex ratio, and compels to delve on the fact of 50 million “missing” women in China.  

While the findings show the worst abuse of human rights in the past, the present doesn’t paint a  rosy picture either. China veiled their single-child policy under the wraps of two children policy in  2016. However,  women in many provinces are still subjected to undergo periodic pregnancy tests,  birth permits need to be obtained, single motherhood is still banned and the violators are till now subjected to “coercive” repercussions. A bleak future is what one could foresee.  


A big population jump was observed in India during the 1962 census which brought it under the radar of UNFPA and encouraged the then Prime minister Indira Gandhi to control the delirious state of a rapid increase in population. Consequently, Emergency was imposed for the period 1975-77 that recorded sterilizations for around 11 million men along with many forced IUDs in women. Young and jovial, Sanjay Gandhi, then PM’s ambitious son, took it into his own hands to take the campaign further and initiated “coercive” repercussions if married couples were found to increase their family size beyond 2 children. Most of the operations were conducted on the poor population by torturing them in ways like withholding the irrigation water for their fields, threatening to captivate their lands, forfeiting their salaries, etc. until they undergo sterilization. Nobody liked the idea of sterilization, nonetheless, people didn’t have any choice. 

It too paints a similar picture like China in the 70s and once again presses the need to question the moral obligations of the atrocities imposed upon the citizens. While these policies were duly punished in the forthcoming elections of 1977 where Indira Gandhi lost with a heavy margin, even today despite being a democratic country it’s citizens are mere puppets in the hands of the ruling party. Though coercive policies are illegal now, there are still many states where disincentives continue to be a prominent part of the family planning programs. Many families are lured with positive and negative incentives to restrict their family to two offsprings. Another tactic is the malapportionment of political representatives from the state that has very high birth rates as to penalize them, and much in line with China, in India too there are sex-selective abortions and female infanticides recorded each day.  


In China, as recorded in 2019, the birth rate reached a 60 year low, which is quite exemplary in itself,  and China’s National People’s Congress aims not to allow any further “coercion” in civil code.  While it is equally essential that one coercion does not get interchanged with another with a limit to childbearing being transformed into minimum birth quotas for increasing the workforce.  

On the other hand, in India, as discussed earlier, the Neo-Malthusian mindset is still pretty apparent in its existing policies, though not as coercive as before. Our Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi too addressed the issue of “population explosion” but at the same time did mention about the boon of the demographic dividend, yet to be realized. So, in a way, this is a step forward and away from coerced sterilisations in the past, which was utterly distasteful. 

Concluding, every family in every sphere of the world has a right to choose how many offsprings to produce without any government meddling, let alone force or coercion. With rapidly changing times, people are themselves concerned about their mental and financial well being and take childbearing decisions prudently and moreover, the evidence does suggest that growing population is in line with the world’s resources, so the world as a whole can breathe a sigh of relief, though not unabashedly. Rationality must be encouraged and not forced! Civic liberties must remain intact.  

Thus, there is a need to address the fears pertaining to neo Malthusian mindset and counter them, because mere revamping of policies, like discussed in the case of India and China is not sufficient.

There is a need to end the outroaring biases and prejudices like anti-muslim in India stressing upon Hindus to increase their representation on the country map, or deranging the civic rights of the people like internet ban, bribes and threats to guard one’s own shortcomings as in China.

It is the need of the hour to bury the Malthusian mindset and let the ingenuity work its magic and let not our worst Malthusian fears come out to be true. Though we are ‘coerced’ to be masked now, all we could do is exercise caution, distance ourselves from brutal measures and sanitize regularly to wash off the deadly virus of indifferent thinking and policymaking, and perhaps the world as a whole could breathe a sigh of relief!

Note from the Editor:

Pop Culture Alert!

For all those Avengers fans out there, you might remember all the important incidents from Infinity Wars – Gamora’s death, Star Lord’s impulsive mistake, Doctor Strange handing over the Time Stone, Thor failing to kill Thanos, etc.. However, there is another important tidbit to remember when Thanos says “The universe is finite, its resources finite, if life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist”,  where he seems to reiterate the Malthusian thought. Thanos’ idea to wipe out half the population as we mentioned above is immoral on a lot of levels, therefore it calls to action Earth’s mightiest heroes in the movie. Read more to find out about Thanos, Infinity Wars and Malthus and why he was wrong.