Population is not just about numbers, it's about prosperity

In 1969, the United Nations member states approved the creation of a UN Population Agency.

By Argentina Matavel Piccin

Published: Sat 21 Sep 2019, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Sat 21 Sep 2019, 10:03 PM

Population theories can be both alarmist and reassuring. Countries with fertility below replacement levels (say two children for each woman) worry that suddenly everyone will turn grey and the streets will be filled with people hunched over walking canes. Here, some blame the fall in fertility on 'women who are not fulfilling their role of having children'. Countries with higher fertility levels complain that there are too many mouths to feed and point to 'those women-usually from the poor and marginalised sections of society-who are having too many children'.
But what is the optimal size of a country's population? Is there a role for a 'policy-directed' intervention? And do we know what that magical optimal number is?
Throughout history, this very question has consumed economists, philosophers, policy-makers, and lately, the public in general. Population and sustainable development have been inextricably linked in both ancient and contemporary thought: from Aristotle's argument for state-sponsored birth control to maintain social order to Karl Marx's belief that mankind's greatest adversity was unequal wealth distribution. In 1969, the United Nations member states approved the creation of a UN Population Agency or the UNFPA, which would assist governments in their efforts to 'control' population growth. Twenty-five years later, in 1994, at the landmark International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), 179 member states approved what became known as the ICPD Programme of Action. By then, there was a growing realisation of the complexity of the population issue and the need to take a holistic, life-cycle approach that would take into account determinants of peoples' decision-making on matters of family size. Hence the emphasis on universal access to education and to sexual and reproductive health services, so that women, girls and young people would be able to make informed choices about if, when, and how many children to have.
If a burgeoning population exerts pressure on the ability of countries to provide universal access to health, education, housing, sanitation, water, food and energy, then unequal distribution of resources too, adversely affects population dynamics. Given this equation with the very determinants of the quality and the future of our lives, population policies occupy a central role on every government's agenda.
In India, the population has quadrupled over the last century to reach 1.3 billion people. According to the United Nations 2019 World Population Prospects, India will surpass China, to become the world's most populous country in 2027. The big question remains: Is this good or bad? A challenge or an opportunity?
The pressure that an inordinately large population exerts on development and economic growth is certainly a cause for worry. What of the 1.3 billion people? The answer lies in this enormous figure itself. Harnessing the capabilities and skills of India's 365 million young people should be the driver of its growth and development. Today, European countries and some closer to home in East Asia wish they had more young people. But the policy needed to capitalise on this youthful workforce needs to be drafted with a microscopic view, keeping in mind every state's individual population dynamics. This is because the window of demographic dividend (the period during which the greatest proportion of people are young and in the working-age group) varies significantly from state to state and a 'one size fits all' strategy will simply not work.
When India's states are clustered together in terms of fertility levels, what emerges is a predominantly youthful north and a maturing south and west. Of the 628 million that will be added to the population during 2001-2061, two-thirds will be only in six north-central states. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar alone will add 270 million. Compared to this, the four southern states together will add only 50 million in the same period. Based on these estimates, the north-central region will soon be the reservoir of India's workforce. Thus the key lies in noting these variations and adjusting policies and investments accordingly. While in the south policies need to focus on ageing issues and facilitating in-migration to fill any labour-force gap, the north should focus on addressing rights-based healthcare, quality education for both girls and boys, skills development and job creation.
This investment in the young will ensure economic prosperity for the entire country in the years ahead. At the same time, India needs to be careful that the wisdom and experience of its ageing workforce is not lost. In conclusion, population size cannot tell the whole story. A country can have a very small population and still be very poor. Or have a large population and be equally poor. When the full potential of every girl and every boy is unleashed, then, and only then, will a country attain the much dreamed of future where no one is left behind.
-Open magazine
Argentina Matavel Piccin is the Representative of the United Nations Population Fund in India

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