The unprecedented time of covid crisis has compelled us to think how far behind we are in the race of developing nations. Whether it is education, livelihood, employment, health, gender index, research and development etc we are lagging behind in each and every sector and aren’t able to work to the best of our ability.
What could be the probable reasons for this happening? Well, the prime reason we have been hearing so far and the various Governments have given us is “population”. We have been told that the greater the population of the country, the greater will be the scarcity of resources in that country.
The Malthusian philosophy of blaming overpopulation instead of lack of state capacity for low standards of living is dangerously outdated. Paul Erlich famously wrote in the 1960s that the battle to feed the world’s population was lost. His prognosis for India was particularly grim but the Indian green revolution proved him wrong.
The economist Paul Simon has shown in his work that throughout history periods of population spurts coincided with periods of highest economic growth and productivity. The “baby boomers” of post-world war America created the largest economy in the world. Blaming high population stems from the logical folly of the “zero-sum game” which assumes that resources are limited and human fertility unlimited. That need not be the case always. Places like Hong Kong, Bahrain, Monaco etc are way more densely populated than us but do a splendid job of providing a high standard of living to their residents
What India needs is not 19th-century pseudo-economics but 3 things. Decades of sustained economic growth, investment in state capacity and social cohesion. It is this country’s misfortune that we have never had the three at the same time. The west did a good job of utilising its demographic dividend to produce decades of high GDP growth. India’s window is narrowing fast. The UK took 82 years to bring down its fertility rate from 5 to under 3. India did it in 28. Our TFR stands today at 2.2 which is the replacement fertility rate.
If we do not utilise the window where our population is mostly young to achieve high growth and invest in state capacity, we will end up with an ageing population and a stunted state. If you think things are bad now, imagine the same country, with the same health facilities but with the median age increased by 20. The government will have to introspect that it has the best efficient youth population in the world.
If they provide them with better education, health and employment then they will evolve and their development will ultimately develop our nation. The pandemic should be an opportunity to hold the political administration accountable. To demand a more equitable and efficient system. Not bandy about dangerously outdated ideas.