THERE are few words in the English language as evocative as population. Most tongues would wag it as something uncontrollable. It also evokes the notion of pressure, of human flotsam spilling over national boundaries. Among development experts, it evokes the concept of irresponsible procreation, and insufficient funding for birth control programmes. And, in the industrialised North it simply implies the colours, yellow, black and brown.
It all started in 1789 with Malthus who noted that population "increases in a geometrical ratio, subsistence in an arithmetic ratio." The Malthusian view is reiterated at meetings and gatherings across the globe every day. Last month, coiffured heads attending a preparatory meeting of the world population conference scheduled in Cairo next year, worried themselves sick because the world's population would reach 8.5 billion by 2025.
Over the years, in the North, population control has also been associated with philanthropy. In 1969, the United Nations Fund for Population Activities was established to provide multilateral assistance. In the two and a half decades since, population assistance now amounts to nearly $500 million annually, paying for condoms, pills, tubes and IUDs, as well as a network of NGOs and international public services, multinational research projects and local workshops. A recent policy paper of the World Bank has emphasised that this august body would increase its spending on population control, calling it "the most cost-effective form of development aid".
It is well established that these good deeds are not all open-hearted. The North believes that larger populations, the bulk of which is in the South, mean lesser resources in the long run for its own people. In the short run, the phenomenon forces the poor to migrate to the rich countries.
For these reasons, the North assists population control, but not without intense bickering. Control of population carries an impressive price tag. The UN has estimated that by 2000, developing countries would need $9 billion annually for effective population control programmes. At present, the rich nations make
available less than one-tenth of this sum. This April, when 40 governments from Europe along with the US and Canada met to evolve a common position on population assistance, the only agreement they could reach was not to set any target. In the process, a Scandinavian proposal to triple funds for population control activities in the South was rejected.
It is not as if the funding comes from the North alone. Population control has received ever increasing allocations in national budgets of the South. Most of it was to popularise the practice of contraception. Unfortunately, the results have been far from impressive. Between 1961 and 1991, India's population soared from 439 million to 844 million.
India's experience is similar to that of other countries, with the possible exception of China, where greater control of public as well as private affairs is feasible. The other countries have fallen prey to what can be termed as "targetitis." Indeed, the Indian experience typifies the worldwide realisation that population control does not work if it stands for mere control of people.
There are sufficient examples within the country that show if humans are treated as assets they tend to be satisfied with less of themselves. Nothing illustrates this more than the direct correlation between female literacy and low fertility in Kerala state. Building up of populations as people rather than controllable aggregates is perhaps the key to sustainable numbers.