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Exploding earth

MRINAL PANDE

Resources are in short supply everywhere. Such problems have less to do with population growth than with specific instances of maladministration.


The blame for most of the earth's ills is laid at the doorstep of the population explosion in the Third World.

IT is not only Indian Prime Ministers who author bestsellers. Pat Buchanan, the former U.S. presidential candidate has also produced a book (The Death of the West, How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil our Country) that is being ranked among Amazon's top ten bestsellers. The chief reason for the book's success lies in an alarmist message about the fabled population bomb ticking away in the Third World and its implications for the human civilisation. The prognosis, according to the book, is grim. The increase in world population in the next half a century, Buchanan feels, will come entirely from Asia, Africa and Latin America, while a puny one hundred million people of European stock who have curbed their fertility, shall eventually vanish from the earth. The birth control pill, a favourite of working women in the West, may according to Buchanan, one day come to be seen as the suicide tablet of the West.

Living in a Third World country, one gets used to such facile and racist outbursts, some of which may come from people in high places, who should know better. In 1968, the Population Bomb, a book by a Stanford University biologist, Paul Ehlric, had similarly warned that mankind was breeding itself furiously into oblivion, and went on to plead for a stringent application of global population control measures, especially for the non-white races who were fast depleting the earth's available resources. Buchanan is but the latest link in that Malthusian Chain.

Actually the myth of white races gently fading away into the mists of time, as the black, brown and yellow races breed fiercely and overpopulate the globe to the point of extinction, is one of the most pervasive myths of our times. It lays the blame for everything, from environmental degradation and hunger, to economic stagnation and political instability, firmly at the doors of the Third World. It propagates paranoia about the Third World's dark intentions to gatecrash and infiltrate the Western World over a period of time, and take it over eventually. "Today's young Americans," laments Buchanan, "will live in a Third World America."

The idea is compelling, but like many simplistic notions, it is based on fear, not understanding. Writers like Buchanan and Ehlric automatically identify countries with a relatively small pool of resources, with perennial hunger, ecological degradation and political instability. Then they blame the victim. The poor are getting poorer, their logic goes, not because we, the rich, are getting richer but because the poor create misery first by over breeding, and make it permanent by being lazy and indifferent. Thus they absolve the rich of all responsibility and free their readers from any compulsion to notice the subtle complexities of the global population issue. This is similar to the paradigm patriarchy has been using through the centuries, vis--vis women. Women, the philosophers of patriarchy have claimed, are their own worst enemies, so much so that the poor men have no choice but to take things in hand.

Ultimately both the myths — of overpopulation, and of traditional womanhood — are destructive, because they block creative thinking and an honest sharing of the blame. And this makes any cooperative strategising about a complex problem and finding workable solutions, impossible. Worst of all, this mindset supports both sexism and racism, and eventually turns the reproductive lives of poor women everywhere, into a political battlefield.

Of course, superficially the fears about population "explosion" are borne out by demographic statistics. There is also a considerable discrepancy between birth rates in the First World and the Third World. But the fact is that today birth rates are falling in virtually every area of the Third World, and the four southern States in India have now touched near zero rate of growth. According to the Second National Family Health Survey conducted in 1998-99, India's growth-rate peaked in the period 1961-81 and has since shown a gradual downward trend. Today, 48 per cent couples practise family planning, most of which comes in the form of female sterilisation. The reason population in the northern States seems to be "exploding" is that with advances in medicine, public health measures and good nutrition, along with social restructuring and land reforms, our southern States have reached what is called the "replacement level of fertility". Even in the north, the urban elite has been able to adopt the small family norm successfully, for the same reasons. High birth rates in some of our badly administered northern States like U.P., Bihar and Orissa should actually be viewed as a distress signal. People are over breeding there, since the survival of the people, especially young mothers and infants, is endangered.

No one wants a world of standing room only, where land, water and energy are perennially in short supply and people are rioting for food and water. But we must realise that while these troubles are real and extremely serious, they have less to do with population growth than with specific instances of maladministration and profound systemic inequities.

There are no simple prescriptions for ensuring population limitation. Such changes require complex processes, that must involve subtle socio-cultural transformations and even so, some of them may result temporarily in sharp struggles between castes, classes and sexes. One thing is clear however, neo-Malthusianism such as Buchanan's, blocks all good development programmes, because how one poses the population problem has a major effect on how the First World supports, or withdraws support from concrete efforts of the Third World people to improve their lot.

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