12 May 2017 14:18:33 IST

A long-time ‘deskie’, Baskar has spent much of his journalism career on the editorial desk. A keen follower of economic and political matters, he likes to view economic issues from a political economy lens as he believes the economic structure of a society is deeply embedded in its political and social ethos. Apart from writing the PolitEco column for BLoC, Baskar writes book reviews and articles on politics, economics and sports for the BL web edition. Reading and watching films are his other interests, though the choice of books and films are rather eclectic.  A keen follower of sports, especially his beloved Tottenham Hotspur FC, Baskar is an avid long-distance runner.  He hopes to learn music some day!

From population bomb to people matter

With a large population now a ‘demographic dividend’, the debate has come a full circle

Those of us who grew up in the 1970s would remember the high decibel family planning propaganda dished out by the government of the day, which of course was the Congress, led by the formidable Indira Gandhi.

Hum Do, Hamare Do ’, which was very helpfully translated as ‘We Two, Ours Two’, was a slogan you would have found difficult to miss if you were around in the 1970s. The slogan with its cartoonish illustration of a moustachioed father, mother , a daughter and a son — which epitomised the happy Indian family — adorned hoardings, public buses, walls, and government offices. The Films Division also got into the act by producing innumerable public service advertisements which warned of the perils of having a big family.

The Tamil Nadu government went a step further by coming up with a stark slogan – ‘Athigam Peratheer, Avadhi Padatheer’ – which can be roughly translated as ‘Don’t have more kids and suffer’!

During the 1960s and 1970s, there was a real fear that population growth would far outstrip food production, so in many developing countries population control became a cornerstone of public policy. There was a lot talk of a population ‘bomb’ ticking. China ruthlessly implemented its one-child policy, whose social and cultural implications are being felt now after one generation, with its skewed sex ratio and gender imbalance. In India too, the forced sterilisation camps during the dark days of the Emergency are well documented.

Population and growth

But by the 1980s, there was a subtle shift in the government’s stance. Though family planning was still being propagated, it was not pushed with the same vigour as it was in the previous decade. This was partly because India had become food sufficient and was no longer reliant on food imports and also, the crude Malthusian fears of population growth seemed exaggerated.

In fact, in the 1980s, access to food became a more important issue than its availability. Also by the 1980s, thanks to better nutrition and healthcare, population growth started falling world over, including in India and China.

In this context it is interesting to see how falling population growth now in being seen as a reason for falling growth rates especially in the developed world.

Economist Ruchir Sharma, in a recent column, argues that, “the underlying difference between fast and slow growing economies is explained more by differences in population growth than productivity.”

He gives the example of the US where he says that its massive productivity gains compared with Europe and Japan in the recent decades has been due to its population growth. He says the implications for a country like Japan are particularly stark, whose population has stopped growing. Japan has been stuck in an economic morass for over two decades saddled with an ageing population. What makes things more complicated for Japan is its excessively restrictive immigration policy.

The case of the US

Sharma argues that but for population growth, the US’ growth trajectory in the last two decades would have resembled that of Europe and Japan. Of course, Sharma in his column makes these arguments in the context of the increasing paranoia over immigration in the Western world and how it is ultimately self defeating, as immigrants accounted for a major chunk of population growth in these countries and by implication, boosted their productivity.

In his much reviewed and talked about book, The Rise and Fall of Nations , published a couple of years ago, Sharma devotes an entire chapter on population growth titled, ‘People Matter’. He argues that the reason why the US was unable to achieve the pre-2008 crisis growth rates even after five-six years, despite several other indicators moving positively, was the collapse of population growth. Sharma goes on to show that most countries that have shown at least six per cent of growth over a decade had a working population growth rate of at least two per cent.

Many countries in the recent past, including China, have tried to boost fertility rates by giving all kinds of incentives to women to have more children, but the success of these policies has been patchy.

Much has been made of India’s huge size of young population and demographic dividend, where more than 60 per cent of the population is below 35 years. And yes, India is uniquely positioned to leverage this dividend. But there are two caveats here. One, as several commentators have remarked, the government needs to invest heavily in enhancing the skills of this young population. Two, there should be enough jobs created to absorb this young working population.

Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman recently said that the Prime Minister, while assessing proposals presented during Cabinet meetings, specifically asks about the number of jobs that are likely to be created, which shows that the government is taking this issue seriously.

So the population debate has come a full circle since the days of ‘We Two, Ours Two’.