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Population Growth | Can the ghost of Malthus be exorcised?

In the absence of immediate action, India’s fast-growing population will further deplete resources on account of high dependence of the poor population on natural resources

July 27, 2022 / 05:48 PM IST
India is expected to become the world's most populous country in 2023, surpassing China. (File image: Reuters)

India is expected to become the world's most populous country in 2023, surpassing China. (File image: Reuters)


Madhu Verma and Anandi Mishra

According to the recent United Nations report, India is expected to become the world's most populous country in 2023, surpassing China. Currently, both countries account for about 40 percent of the global population. Both have faced devastating famines, particularly under colonial rule, and for some time, it appeared as if the Malthusian theory of population found validation.


Thomas Malthus, the 18th century economist and cleric, famously spelt doom in his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population. He highlighted how the world’s population will multiply faster than the available food supply, which, he predicted, would cause human misery.


India’s Green Revolution, and China’s food self-sufficiency, coupled with advancements in agricultural output in other post-colonial societies, consigned Malthus to history.


That is, until recently, as Climate Change, war, and disease, appear to upend a seeming sense of material abundance, once again raising the spectre of hunger, and famine.


According to a recent study, global food demand is expected to increase by 35 percent to 56 percent between 2010 and 2050, while population at risk of hunger is expected to change from −91 percent to 8 percent over the same period. It further reiterates if Climate Change is considered, the range changes slightly (30-62 percent for total food demand, and −91 percent to 30 percent for population at risk of hunger).

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For India, it’s a double whammy with a high rate of population and Climate Change directly affecting its limited resources. Devoid of any better livelihood options, this has resulted in the country’s poor communities reproducing at a higher rate than their middle- and high-income counterparts, so as to have more earning hands until the checks and balances come into play. Simultaneously, due to weather extremes, globally, there has been a rise in Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs). The term climate refugees has gained currency, though it is yet to be categorised by any multilateral agency.


India is now home to 18 percent of the global population, but has only 4 percent of its water resources. The per capita nutrition supply in India is among the lowest in the world.


The Union government has initiated many schemes over the past few years to alleviate poverty, and these have been largely successful in addressing various societal, economic, and agricultural issues. Despite these, the current pace of population growth continues to counterbalance interventions proposed to achieve various Sustainable Development Goals, especially poverty, zero hunger, good health, and well-being by 2030. This also includes fulfilling various parameters like clean water, sustainable consumption and production, climate action, etc.


In the absence of immediate action, India’s fast-growing population will further deplete resources on account of high dependence of the poor population on natural resources. GDP of the poor — an estimate which encompasses sectors such as forest, water, soil, etc. from which much of the developing world’s poor draw their livelihoods and employment directly — will face constant decline.


Tackling it from the global lens, since India is already performing poorly on various parameters (71 percent Indians cannot afford a healthy diet), it will be good to start by balancing out the scales. Pertinent to the nutrition basket is the super-food millets as 2023 has been declared the International year of millets after UN General Assembly adopted the India-led resolution aimed at raising awareness about the health benefits of millets, and its suitability for cultivation under changing climatic conditions.


Some of the measures can be: making healthy diets available for more Indians, improving living conditions for India’s informal housing communities, maintaining blue-green infrastructure, setting up community-based conservation, as well as pacing up landscape restoration.


This calls for an urgent need to not only take stock, but also to readily implement policies that take in account equity as a vital aspect of India’s increasing population. Providing nutritional security to large swathes of the population, elevating the general empowerment index, and curbing excessive dependence on automobiles alongside infrastructural development, will be the basic requirements to get the current situation up to speed. This also includes mapping and matching resources according to the population size.


At present, India is truncated to the bare minimum for survival, and has far from ideal living conditions. The way forward relies heavily on us being able to flatten the curve, plateau the current rate of population growth, and subsequently slow it down. This will require collaborative efforts not just in the space of controlling numbers, but also in creating a better, more environmentally, nutritionally, and economically healthy India for all.

(This is the first in a series of articles discussing India’s growing population.)

Madhu Verma is Chief Economist, and Anandi Mishra is Senior Communications Associate, at WRI India. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.
Madhu Verma is Chief Economist, WRI India. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.
Anandi Mishra is Senior Communications Associate at WRI India. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.
first published: Jul 25, 2022 01:17 pm
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