Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Seven billion in 2011

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India-Its steaming streets crammed with vendors, pedestrians, and iconic Ambassador taxis, Kolkata throbs with some 16 million people—and more pour in every day from small towns. In 1975 only three cities worldwide topped ten million. Today 21 such mega cities exist, most in developing countries, where urban areas absorb much of the globe's rising population. Photo: National Geographic/Randy Olson

India-Its steaming streets crammed with vendors, pedestrians, and iconic Ambassador taxis, Kolkata throbs with some 16 million people—and more pour in every day from small towns. In 1975 only three cities worldwide topped ten million. Today 21 such mega cities exist, most in developing countries, where urban areas absorb much of the globe's rising population. Photo: National Geographic/Randy Olson

The National Geographic has a special on the world’s population. Some time later in 2011, according to the United Nations Population Division, there will be 7 billion people on Earth. The resource demands of the 80 million people being added to the global population every year are immense, and a longish commentary in the New Statesman tries to tackle some of the politically and socially sensitive issues.

The NG special has a main introductory article, which has a good bit of reportage on and from India:

“At Lok Nayak Hospital, on the edge of the chaotic and densely peopled nest of lanes that is Old Delhi, a human tide flows through the entrance gate every morning and crowds inside on the lobby floor. ‘Who could see this and not be worried about the population of India?’ a surgeon named Chandan Bortamuly asked one afternoon as he made his way toward his vasectomy clinic. ‘Population is our biggest problem.’ ”

Venezuela-Sharing a hillside with high-rise apartment dwellers, children dance at a shop in one of the squatter communities that ring Caracas, a city of three million. One in seven people on Earth lives in slums today. Providing them with better housing and education will be one of the great challenges facing a world of seven billion people and counting. Photo: National Geographic/Jonas Bendiksen, Magnum Photos

Venezuela-Sharing a hillside with high-rise apartment dwellers, children dance at a shop in one of the squatter communities that ring Caracas, a city of three million. One in seven people on Earth lives in slums today. Providing them with better housing and education will be one of the great challenges facing a world of seven billion people and counting. Photo: National Geographic/Jonas Bendiksen, Magnum Photos

Bortamuly is on the front lines of a battle that has been going on in India for nearly 60 years. In 1952, just five years after it gained independence from Britain, India became the first country to establish a policy for population control. Since then the government has repeatedly set ambitious goals—and repeatedly missed them by a mile. A national policy adopted in 2000 called for the country to reach the replacement fertility of 2.1 by 2010. That won’t happen for at least another decade. In the UN’s medium projection, India’s population will rise to just over 1.6 billion people by 2050. “What’s inevitable is that India is going to exceed the population of China by 2030,” says A. R. Nanda, former head of the Population Foundation of India, an advocacy group. “Nothing less than a huge catastrophe, nuclear or otherwise, can change that.”

“Successive governments refused to touch the subject,” says Shailaja Chandra, former head of the National Population Stabilisation Fund (NPSF). Yet fertility in India has dropped anyway, though not as fast as in China, where it was nose-diving even before the draconian one-child policy took effect. The national average in India is now 2.6 children per woman, less than half what it was when [Paul] Ehrlich visited. The southern half of the country and a few states in the northern half are already at replacement fertility or below.

Uganda-Schoolchildren, among them war orphans, pack a morning assembly at a public school in the northern city of Lira. Half of Uganda's 34 million people are children under the age of 15. Photo: National Geographic/Randy Olson

Uganda-Schoolchildren, among them war orphans, pack a morning assembly at a public school in the northern city of Lira. Half of Uganda's 34 million people are children under the age of 15. Photo: National Geographic/Randy Olson

In Kerala, on the southwest coast, investments in health and education helped fertility fall to 1.7. The key, demographers there say, is the female literacy rate: At around 90 percent, it’s easily the highest in India. Girls who go to school start having children later than ones who don’t. They are more open to contraception and more likely to understand their options.

Amarjit Singh, the current executive director of the NPSF, calculates that if the four biggest states of the Hindi belt had followed the Andhra Pradesh model, they would have avoided 40 million births—and considerable suffering. “Because 40 million were born, 2.5 million children died,” Singh says. He thinks if all India were to adopt high-quality programs to encourage sterilizations, in hospitals rather than camps, it could have 1.4 billion people in 2050 instead of 1.6 billion.

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