Bhaswati and I are old friends; we were at school and college together. Back then, there was only one way to think about population in India. It was a problem. Modern medicine and the end of famines meant death rates fell, but everyone still had a lot of babies. Population grew at over 2% per year. We learned the theory of demographic transition: That economic growth would slow population growth, and until that kicked in, the population would just keep expanding. Economic growth was half-swallowed by the needs of a growing population. It was difficult to see how the second part of the transition — where birth rates fell in harmony with falling mortality — was going to happen. India’s government pushed for “family planning” — encouraging people to have only 2 or 3 children rather than the 7-9 or more they might have otherwise.
(The graph above is from UWC- Marathon’s Keith Montgomery.)
During the Emergency, India’s brief fall from democracy, the late Sanjay Gandhi earned himself a terrible reputation — in part because of allegations of forcible sterilization. He set aggressive targets for field workers, who rounded up men and had them vasectomized, apparently in some cases without their consent. After the Emergency, the whole thing became a politically tender sore spot.
Population growth was politicized in other ways. I’ve heard Hindus blame Muslims because Indian Muslims are allowed four wives. “Naturally they have more children if they’re polygamous,” one such person argued. “A man can have 3 or 4 children by each of his wives.” Clearly the speaker was no demographer. The constraint on population growth isn’t the average reproductive capacity of the man. It’s the average number of children borne by each woman that counts. Since the wives must share the attentions and purse of one man, polygamy could actually reduce this average. (The wives are seldom wage-earners in this scenario.)
THE DEMOGRAPHIC DIVIDEND
But that’s all moot now. India is instead talking of the Demographic Dividend. In a world where the developed countries all have low reproductive rates and aging populations; where India’s big competitor, China, implemented a one-child policy just long ago enough that these only children are today’s adults; in such a world, India is the only major country with a young population. A young population means workers and consumers. Energy. Instead of being a liability, it’s a selling point. From her speech:
“India will be the largest contributor to the world’s workforce — all 136 million people — over the next 10 years (fully a quarter of the entire world’s additional workforce). According to projections, the demographic dividend will spur the rise of middle class population to half a billion people over the next two decades. “
It isn’t just India that changed in the 30+ years since I studied about demographic transition. It’s the world. The tidy theory I learned was that after the population bulge, birth rates would fall and then population would stabilize at the new level, and everyone would live long happy lives in a world that was again in balance.
But what we’ve seen is that it doesn’t stabilize at the new level. People don’t have babies to improve their nation’s demographics. Instead of 7-9 babies or 2-3 babies, people have 0 or 1.The birth rate falls some more, until it goes below the replacement rate. That’s what happened in Japan and across much of Europe. It may be what’s happening in China; will the state-imposed one-child policy prove addictive once it’s lifted? Will people have gotten out of the habit of having larger families? Will the social support structures for child-rearing have attenuated?
Here’s the demographic transition graph, with an addendum, from Wikipedia. It adds a fifth stage: A falling population. What lies beyond? We don’t know, really. Will birth rates pick up again? Will having more babies become fashionable and economically attractive? Will population gradually fall to pre-industrial levels? No telling. It’s the world our grandchildren and their heirs will live in.
But meanwhile, for another two or three decades, there’s the Demographic Dividend for India…
…where its huge young population, juxtaposed with India’s political and economic structure, its democratically elected pluralistic Governments and its rising economic and entrepreneurship strength demonstrates a new reality – That if India’s economy, with its young population, grows as it is growing now, it will change the world.