It is all very well to talk about conserving water and protecting its sources to ensure availability for all living beings, but it cannot just be limited to that. It is like sitting in the general compartment of an Indian train where one is asked to ‘adjust’ to accommodate more people. The more one adjusts, the more claimants there are for space!
It is the same with the world’s natural resources – no matter how much people conserve, it makes no sense if the number of people just continues to increase. India’s natural resources were abundant for its population at the time of Independence. With improvement in technology and better utilisation, the quality of life of the people would have gone up manifold had the population remained the same. Instead, the number of people living off the same resource base has gone up more than four times! Technology has made it possible to utilise these resources more effectively, but there is a limit to how much it can do, particularly in a poor country where capital to make changes is lacking.
Nature has ways of limiting populations that disrupt the food chain. However, animal populations that no longer have natural predators left in the forests are culled as there is a limit to how many places they can be translocated. However, this is not an option in the case of human populations where there is civilised governance. It is important, therefore, for such societies to take steps to curb population growth before everything collapses.
There is a school of thought that claims India’s growing population is a ‘demographic dividend’. There may have been a few benefits from having a younger population today as compared to other countries, but the advantages would have been far greater had the population stabilised at half or three-quarter billion.
There is no point in lamenting over the policy mistakes of the past that have allowed the population to reach its present unsustainable levels. Development economists affirm that improvement in the quality of life and an increased material lifestyle will eventually lead to a drop in the rate of population growth. This fact is being borne out by the trends visible in India’s middle-class. Yet, it makes no sense if improved amenities in cities and states lead to the migration of large number of the poor not just from India’s poverty stricken villages, but also from neighbouring countries. This leads to tensions of the kind that discriminate between those of ‘local domicile’ and others. Yet, if the trend continues, such sentiments are inevitable and dangerous for the idea that is India.
The world has seen how China has dealt with its population problem – in largely draconian ways. However, these have worked. The time for incentives is gone. It is more important to bring in some disincentives. An entire culture of disapproval needs to be built around large families so that people should not feel encouraged to occupy space merely because others have ‘adjusted’. General compartments are just that big, they can’t get bigger!