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Solving the Puzzle of Overpopulation

‘India is overpopulated’ is a phrase that we have been using for the longest time. A recent twitter trend blaming overpopulation as the biggest problem of India inspired me to understand the nature of the population. Hence, I write my thoughts on redefining the way we usually perceive the idea of population.

Well, India with a population around 1.3 billion is definitely struggling to cope with the pandemic. Imagine one square kilometre having 462 people and the entire responsibility of the population being an obstacle for the growth of our nation takes us to the basics of economics. The problem of scarcity!

In the late 18th century, economist Malthus (popularly considered Thanos of economics) suggested if population growth rate exceeds agriculture growth then you clearly have less food to feed people. The primitive social system would stabilize the population because people die of hunger and poverty. ‘Malthusian Trap’ is still a relevant concept when a country’s production and growth is much slower than the number of people. But a human-made miracle happened during the same century that challenged his theory. Industrial revolution!

Waves of Revolution

The first industrial revolution used hydro and steam power to mechanize production. The second one used electric power for mass industrial production. Mechanized production enabled Europeans to mass-produce and feed more people. As the scale of production increases, productivity improves and cost falls. The shift from agrarian to the industry is supported with a spillover effect in agriculture too. To illustrate, with a small piece of land a farmer could only feed his family. If his family starts to farm while the land size and produce remain the same, he will be pushed to poverty. As industries started producing machinery to increase productivity, the farmer can send his kids to school and still feed his whole family. This changed the entire paradigm of the way society functioned. It is interesting to note much of the popular scientific inventions happened during the times of high population. Progress was not limited to science, Between the 17th and 19th century was the period of  ‘enlightenment’. How could one imagine that just by making sure people have enough food can transform the entire country making it the most powerful in the world? The key to this revolution was undoubtedly science. As the age of ideas proceeded, many countries escaped the ‘Malthusian trap’ during different time periods by investing in science. 

While stumbling upon a few papers, I found an interesting comparison between China and Britain. How Britain managed to industrialize before China? When Britain was investing in Research & Development and making technical progress, people in China were preparing for government exams. Scientific breakthrough clearly reduces the constraint placed on the natural resource. Opening the economy is also an important aspect to achieve sustained growth. The third wave of industrial revolution- using electronics and automation of manufacturing- China leapfrogged to achieve growth. Fourth and the current wave is the digital revolution which is very distinct from the past three waves. Now getting back to solving the puzzle of overpopulation- to begin with, if a resource becomes a burden that implies a conspicuous flaw in management. Looking back, India certainly made scientific progress multiple times but the Colonial period indeed reversed the entire process. 

An important point to note is that every country with excess population escaped the trap to sustain growth and proceeded to become more powerful. 

India’s Population Dilemma 

The main reason why India’s population did not stabilize similar to 17th century Europe is that the world life expectancy has increased and there is comparatively better healthcare. India’s population are basically residuals of policy mistakes made during the past.  India.  I do not think sterilizing men and letting poor people die of hunger is a stabilizing factor for overpopulation. Countries including India have tried the draconian policy but I believe that it becomes futile without making progress in being a part of a revolution. The revolution that we missed to actively participate in has resulted in such a high residual population.  But the good news is we can comprehend and learn from the past.  It is clear that countries manage to get out only by capitalizing the ongoing revolution. The fourth revolution, unlike the other three, is very distinct in scope and velocity.  The exponential growth of digital revolution makes it extremely hard for any country to cope up without substantial efforts being put in. Acknowledging the intensity of this wave, I see this as an opportunity for population-dense countries to come out even stronger in the right direction.   Missing this revolution might actually end up trapping India with a high population. An organic process of recognizing people as human beings and advancing knowledge to manage population is much needed at this point.

We are the generation to witness the transition and innovation. Just like the cultural revolution, India needs a revolution to cultivate more innovators. This would organically transform the demography of India for the better of our children.

Manjari Balu
Economics enthusiast and a coffee lover aspiring to build a network of like minded thinkers across the world.