Culture Society

Overpopulation, or The Great Indian Lie

Unlike what Western “experts” (and increasingly Indians themselves) think, India isn’t over-populated. It’s merely under-governed.

I have a bone to pick with Hasan Minhaj. I don’t particularly like his comedy but I don’t really hate it either. He’s like this ex-Indian dude who thinks he sees things that Indians don’t notice because they’re too used to it. He combines elements of observational comedy with a casual, city babu approach which results in an oversimplified, somewhat lazy understanding of Indian people and politics. Case in point: the video below, where he talks about how there are too many Indians holding redundant jobs and doing what he sees as useless activities.

This isn’t an entirely horrible joke, but that’s not why the people are laughing. They’re laughing because they recognize the scenario and agree with the observation. Click the links for more about the evolutionary and social purposes of laughter (good read).

He alludes to a pernicious notion among foreigners and Indians alike: India is overpopulated. It’s almost a truism in policy circles, and a regular topic of discussion in upper-class family discussions. If only maybe 30% of those other people could just do us a favour and die without any trace, we’d all be so much better off. Even as most Western economies are at less-than replacement levels of fertility, Indians (and Indian women in particular) are constantly chastised for having too many kids. At various points in our history, leaders have made attempts to address what they saw as a fatal flaw of Indian society: the extreme fecundity of its populace. As recently as during the 2019 Independence Day speech, the Supreme Leader of India sought to make overpopulation a key issue for his government:

There is one issue I want to highlight today: population explosion. We have to think, can we do justice to the aspirations of our children? There is a need to have greater discussion and awareness on population explosion

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, 2019

To be fair, this misconception isn’t exactly new: even the British government saw India’s population as a nuisance. Never mind that the British saw themselves as separate from the native Indians and thus at a numerical disadvantage. This constant sense of vulnerability gave rise to all sorts of weird relics that we still live with – I’m looking at you, Police Act of 1861. While Gandhi and Nehru saw the vast oceans of people as a force for good and thus harnessed them in the Indian freedom movement, subsequent generations weren’t so forgiving or thoughtful. Nehru’s daughter Indira defaulted to the British impulses of population containment. During the Emergency, her son – an omnipotent pustule, automotive engineer and cultivator of ‘chamchas‘ – Sanjay Gandhi put in place a program of forced sterilization where the state sent officials and doctors to round up men and snip their pipes. At its peak, the program was responsible for the sterilization of hundreds and thousands of Indians every day. Although the exact numbers are hard to come by, it remains independent India’s worst episode of state overreach (I have a whole theory of how this program essentially sealed the Congress’ fate in the 90s and created the space for the subsequent rise of the BJP, but that’s a post for another day).

The Indian government, as a result of state-sponsored sterilisation drives, held an effective monopoly over the production of condoms until the late 90s

Why they’re wrong

It’s an open secret that India has delusions of grandeur. A common pastime among Indian chachas is to sit around in front of TV sets gazing into their navels and gawk at the greatness they see inside. The nauseating refrain I hear is that India is going to beat China in the next 20 years. How, exactly? By treating people as pests living off the land and multiplying like crazy? No; India’s future is tied to its investment in its population.

Modern obsession with Asia’s overpopulation is born out of European colonizers’ misplaced understanding of human populations. Nearly everybody who believes Asia is overpopulated believes in some form of the Malthusian theory of population:

By nature human food increases in a slow arithmetical ratio; man himself increases in a quick geometrical ratio unless want and vice stop him. The increase in numbers is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence. Population invariably increases when the means of subsistence increase, unless prevented by powerful and obvious checks.

Thomas Robert Malthus

Most economists and public policy experts agree that this theory is not true, and that there’s no real limit to the maximum population that any piece of land can handle. Human ingenuity, technological progress and cultural attitudes all play a role in determining how large societies get before they face any issues. Malthus’ understanding of Britain may be true, but Britain is a small island stranded off the coast of a sparsely-populated woodland. Europe was never as fertile as Mesopotamia or the Nile Valley, and neither was as resource-rich as India or China. For a more detailed (yet accessible) discussion of how chance features like terrain, rivers and coastlines have a strong bearing on nations’ fate, read Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall.

Aided by geography, China grew to its present state because of its immense population; not in spite of it. The higher population gave China a huge head-start over much larger economies like the US and allowed China to leapfrog from a backward, poor, poverty-stricken medieval playground to the modern-day hyper-urban wonderland it is today. All in less than the 70 years that China has been a modern nation-state. If we ignore the years under Mao’s failed experiments from the 1950s to the late 1970s, China’s history really only begins in 1979 with Deng Xiaoping’s liberalizing reforms. So, China reached modernity in 40 years while European nations achieved it in 400 years and America in 200. There are several explanations generally offered for why – world politics, geography, historical connections through the Silk Roads, Chinese historical cycles etc. While all of these theories have a kernel of truth to them, none would ever make any sense without China’s manpower. China’s population was its passport to greatness.

Today, there’s not a single shred of evidence to show that Indian society is being strained by its population. India’s economy is in decent health, per capita consumption of energy and food are not egregious (unlike in America and Australia), forest cover is increasing (though only marginally), urban areas don’t sprawl (again, unlike in America and Australia), urbanization is proceeding at a rapid pace but is contained to a few large clusters, there’s a fairly robust legal framework to protect the environment and provide compensation to displaced peoples, and the number of refugees from India is a minute proportion of the number of refugees worldwide. So, the number of people is not really an issue right now. I agree that at some point, it may very well become one but as things stand now, India’s population is a non-issue.

But hey, you may object, if population isn’t an issue, why does India have hundreds of millions of homeless people? What’s with the unemployment and malnutrition? Why do so many children go hungry? Why are schools so crowded and underfunded? Why are graduates leaving the country in droves? Why is crime so prevalent yet under-reported? Why are Indians so blase towards violence, death and misery? Why is there so much filth on the streets? If not for population, why has India been an “emerging economy” for the past several decades? The answer is simply under-government.

State capacity

India’s state performs poorly in basic public services such as providing
primary education, public health, water, sanitation, and environmental quality. While it is politically effective in managing one of the world’s largest armed forces, it is less effective in managing public service bureaucracies.

Devesh Kapur in “Why Does the Indian State Both Fail and Succeed?

During the 19th and 20th centuries, it was common to refer to China as the “sick man of the East“, but in the 21st century, the term is more aptly applied to India. And all of India’s ailments come down to one simple diagnosis: a profound lack of state capacity born out of a misplaced zeal to appear “efficient” at the cost of being “effective”.

It’s not just me saying this, and neither am I some sort of a discoverer. Every single person in India is aware of it. I can very confidently state that most non-Indians know it as well. Writing about India’s weak state has made many journalists’ careers, and continues to be the raison d’etre for every BBC reporter in the country. But to the casual observer, India’s overpopulation and weak enforcement of laws are two separate issues. Most people – including our friends Hasan Minhaj and Narendra Modi – don’t appreciate that a weak state is the common cause of both problems.

Let’s consider for a brief while how deep it goes and how many aspects of Indian life are touched by a lack of state capacity. Consider for example the corrupt, inept and oft-maligned police. As I mentioned earlier, the police force in India was created (and still operates by) rules and procedures contained in the Police Act of 1861. That’s a 150 year-old law that is still largely the same as it was then. A law whose primary purpose was to protect the British state from the population. So, India’s policemen don’t “protect and serve” anybody other than the state. In the traditional “three pillars” understanding of government, policemen are in the border between the executive and judicial branches. But in India, the colonial nature of the force means that in reality, the police are at the intersection of executive and legislative. Their primary goal at all times is to protect their asses and serve their political overlords. But let’s say we forget this for now and just hire more policemen. Not just a few thousand, or a hundred thousand. I mean at least a couple million more, to bring the total number of policemen and women to well over 3 million individuals, possibly 4 million. What would that do to society?

I saw these all over Bangalore during a recent trip. I didn’t see it then but I realize now that this is a perfect example of a lack of state capacity. Why do you need a mannequin, especially when the government says it has a severe shortage of policemen, and there’s growing concern over unemployment? Why not employ a real person to stand around in filth and not do anything?

Bring out the crystal ball

First, existing laws can be enforced, property rights overseen and its women protected if the state hired more policemen. The extra policemen wouldn’t all be out on the streets patrolling; most would just sit behind desks filling out paperwork and taking complaints. Western police forces are more effective because they have people both out in the streets and behind desks. In India, they’re usually either out there or behind desks. So, when a non-urgent case (like sexual harrassment, rape, domestic violence etc.) is brought before them, policemen prefer to not go to the scene. They couch their laziness and ineptitude behind pretences of family values, “private matter” and all that.

Second, if you follow supply-demand logic from Econ 101, as the supply of police jobs is increased, the societal value of being a cop reduces. So, they stop enjoying exalted privileges. If every street has a policemen living around there, it reduces to just another profession, like being a tailor or a teacher. For one, a policeman cannot demand money for just doing his job. For another, off-duty cops will be more likely to be caught in random shootouts (or “encounters”), which reduces the willingness to engage in such vulgar displays of power. So in one stroke, employing several thousands more policemen would not only reduce corruption, but also extrajudicial abuse of power. No more Nirbhaya and no more Sohrabuddin.

Third, these policemen need to be paid, which means that a robust financial services network is needed to ensure timely payment of salaries and pensions. So now, you need ATMs and bank branches in more places. Where not economical, you will see the growth of cashless economies. Whereas the disastrous demonetization drive of 2017 created a scenario where regular transactions were replaced by cashless transactions (for a short while), our scenario would see the growth of a cashless economy that doesn’t compete with the cash economy.

Finally, it would spur economic growth. because there are many more policemen now, they spread out to every part of the land and start families in all sorts of unlikely places. With policemen comes a sense of safety, which dampens the urge to migrate to cities. Instead, this safety encourages local investment and small-scale entrepreneurship. Farmers don’t have to worry about theft so they invest in high-yield, high-value crops, which improves agricultural productivity. Even if all of this seems a bit far-fetched, hiring 2 million policemen at the rate of 10000 rupees per person per month is equivalent to giving the economy an additional 20 billion rupees per month. Even if the household savings rate stays at 30%, that means that over 14 billion rupees gets spent on goods and services, which would have a huge ripple effect that creates new jobs, industries and entirely unknown markets. Yes, there will be inflation, but economic growth needs inflation.

And all of this is just from hiring 2 million policemen. Imagine how radically India would transform if it hired more teachers, peons, janitors, cashiers, land inspectors and marketers; funded more scientists and researchers, trained more doctors and nurses, conducted more workshops and health clinics. India’s greatest successes – the eradication of polio, the creation of the Aadhar system, the postal system and the general elections where over 900 million people take part in a convoluted and boring spectacle – are all examples of India using its people as resources.

A conclusion

India’s population is its greatest asset. Centuries of colonialization have convinced us otherwise but we must shed this baseless, outdated, racist and often self-flagellatory opinion if we are to grow as a nation and expect more out of our leaders. In a way, a slim state is another instance of India’s socialist nature clashing with its capitalistic state – resulting in a system that claims to serve everybody but doesn’t have the necessary resources to serve anybody but itself. Decades of IMF loans, World Bank investments, US aid funds and numerous balance of payment crises have resulted in a state that almost apologises for its very existence, and hesitates to spend on even the provision of basic services. In trying to ape Western, advanced economies, Indian policymakers are only too eager to talk up efficiency measures, while saying nothing about being effective.

It’s about time we changed this. The nation needs its politicians to spend more on capacity building, which will inevitably require massive levels of public spending and job creation. But all of this can only begin when we stop talking about overpopulation and start talking about undergovernance instead.