A billion strong or weak?

Recently, India crossed the one-billion population mark. The question on everyone's lips is what does the future hold for babies born this century in terms of natural resources and the environment? Given below are the views of people from different walks of life

Published: Friday 30 June 2000

-- (Credit: AKHILESH)Is the glass half empty or is it half full? There are two ways of looking at the billionth Indian. If you go by the clich of counting heads, it means one billion mouths to feed. But if you want solutions, then you are looking at two billion hands.

It is high time we started playing down this counting of heads. One government department has been assigned the task of surveying our population. Let them do it. Population surveys were undertaken in India to plan for the future according to the needs of the day. If this approach had worked, then we would have had good planning a long time ago and the country's problems would not have been what they are today.

India's population has become a ready excuse for the government. I think it has more to do with politicians blaming everything on a large population to shield their inefficiencies. Why is it that they don't say there are too many people before the elections? They don't complain about too many voters. Everybody is busy trying to increase their votebank.

Those who count heads need to count themselves among the people of India. They have to stop replacing our forests with monoculture plantations of, say, eucalyptus. Stop replacing our indigenous animals and crops with fancy high-yielding varieties. They need to clean up the catchment areas of waterbodies and respect their sanctity and put an end to emitting putting so many poisons in the air.

The billionth baby will have a secure future only if the planners stop looking at problems from a distance through graphs and charts and make an honest attempt to refresh their understanding of the accumulated problems facing us. The past is done with and the present is beyond our control. The future is all that we can change and is full of possibilities. Let us not nip that bud by sowing terminator seeds of bad planning. If the politicians fail to do this, the curse of the newborns will fall heavily on our politicians, especially as we have reached that magical, almost homoeopathic figure of one billion.

-- Anupam Mishra
Environment Cell, Gandhi Peace Foundation

We cannot give the billionth baby a future it deserves. It makes me sad and ashamed. We have been talking about a healthier country for our future generations for ages, but realistically, one may ask "What generations have we been talking about?" Lets consider the billionth baby the start of that 'future' generation and reassess the situation.

The foremost requirement for survival are forests but where are they! According to government figures the total forest area in the country is 20 per cent. But in reality the dense forest cover (over 70 per cent canopy density) on an average is only 9 per cent and even less in certain states.

Crores are spent on tree plantation drives every year, but these are very infrequent, there is lack of after-care and monitoring, which results in a survival rate of less than 10 per cent. And most often wrong species are selected. Moreover, the forests are being converted into parks and golf courses without realising that though they may all be green in colour their efficiency as carbon dioxide absorbers is 90 per cent less than forests.

The 30th report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Environment and Forests reveals the indifferent treatment the country's forest land has been receiving. An appalling 50 per cent of the total geographical area of 320 million hectares both forest and non-forest land has been stripped bare of all its precious green cover in the name of development.

The statistics speak for themselves. From 1951 to 1980 alone 0.061 million hectares were lost to roads and power transmission lines; and during the same period, 0.134 million hectares were denuded to make room for townships and habitations. Thanks to new canal lines and hydel plants, bulldozed tracks scarring the landscape are a familiar sight at many places. The lack of an proper fodder policy in the country has also contributed to this alarming situation.

While the billionth baby in the concrete jungles would suffer from outdoor and indoor pollution the billionth baby in green jungles would be displaced again and again for some dam or mining or nuclear research. If she happens to be in a village near a sanctuary, wild animals might attack her.

As per the world conservation strategy prime agricultural land has to be retained for agriculture, but in India 30 per cent of agricultural land has been converted for industrial use.

The top soil in many states is contaminated with nickel, chromium, zinc (electroplating industries) or lead (smelting of lead acid batteries). Around 6,000 million tonnes of soil is washed off the surface of the earth every year and 248 kg of nitrogen, 50 kg of phosphorus and 330 kg of potassium are being depleted from every hectare of soil.

Indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers has not only increased the cost of production but also has adversely affected the health of the soil, underground water and environment in general. From 1951 to 1995, use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides increased by 15,000 per cent. Around 4.1 million tonnes of banned pesticides were imported in the last five years.

This raises a key question. Will the billionth baby have enough food to eat, especially if it belongs to the ever-increasing middle and/or poor classes of the society. If, luckily, it does belong to the upper crust of society, the quantity of food wouldn't be in question any more, but just how 'natural' and healthy it will be, is still very relevant.

India is expected to enter the water stress cattegory (when annual supplies drop below 1,700 cubic metres per person) by 2025 if the current trend of water misuse continues. In most part of the country ground water exploitation is as high as 80 per cent. Only in 5 per cent of our country, is water present at a depth of 0 to 5 metres, 97 per cent has water at 3-10 metres and 58 per cent areas have water below 40 metres. If globally sustainable water recharging is not put into action, then anarchy cannot be ruled out. All the major river systems in India have become giant sewers for the country's urban population. The Yamuna with 200 million litres of untreated muck being dumped in it everyday by Delhi's sewerage system -- has become one of the most polluted rivers in the world.

Vast stretches of 600-km-long Ganga river continue to remain highly polluted inspite of crores been spent by the Ganga Action Plan. The Damodar, Godavari, Gomti and Sabarmati rivers are not much better off, with coliform bacteria present at the rate of 7,000 to 70,00,000 in each millilitre of water. Building of mega dams continue while in absolute terms more Indians are deprived of safe drinking water than the citizens of any other country.

While 60,000 villages and 1.25 lakh urban colonies in India do not have potable water the industrial sector's water use has increased by 50 per cent in the last 25 years. On the other hand water consumption by the industrial sector of developed nations has decreased by 50 per cent during the same time. About 78 per cent of the water is wasted by this sector and it is responsible for 60 per cent of the water pollution.

Lets look at some water guzzling industries. To produce one tonne of steel 270 tonnes of water is used. To refine one gallon of gasoline or brew one gallon of beer, 10 gallons of water is used. The principle that the less the water an industry uses, the better is its output and greater is its ecofriendliness does not seem to be applicable here. The billionth baby either would have to spent her whole day procuring a pot of water or would suffer from innumerable water-borne diseases at a young age.

-- Iqbal Malik
Director Vatavaran

The billionth baby will face a very different world -- whether it be at school or at home, in rural areas or in metropolitan India. On one hand, the electronic and telecommunication revolution is going to make the quality of education more or less equal in most parts of the country -- at the secondary school level, to a significant extent, but mostly at the college level. Text and reference material on cd-roms, computerised testing methods, the Web encyclopaedia, and live and interactive tv-cum-internet broadcasts are, to a great extent, going to influence the educative process of today's child.

Besides the good that this telecom and information technology (it) revolution can achieve for us, modernisation is going to challenge and perhaps even destroy many long-cherished values that a child of the last century picked up from school and home. As Internet speeds become faster, so will the restless tendencies in the child accelerate. He/she will start demanding more from others, will not tolerate failures. He/she is also more likely to suffer from chronic physical and mental ailments than his/her counterpart from the last century.

The reason why this may happen is not difficult to see. We, as Indians, over the last 50 years or so, have not made any significant effort to capture the essence of our great culture and spiritual traditions -- neither in our homes, and certainly not in our schools. While we consider the medium of education to be of vital importance, we do not question the quality of the material that is covered by schools.

Worse, today, we unquestioningly accept school-teachers of low calibre -- as long as they ensure that the child graduates from school and is able to secure a college admission. It does not matter to many parents whether the child shows respect to the teacher or to its elders; it is more important to them that the child secures an engineering or medical seat, failing which, at least a visa to you know where.

Now, what can the telecom and it revolution do to change this fundamental problem -- namely, the lack of faith in qualities like goodness, patience, purity and godliness? By making the Ramayana or the Mahabharatha or the Bible available on-line with a colourful multimedia presentation, what great purpose is going to be served?

Will the telecom and it revolution bring a more uniform pattern of education, but at the cost of a lowering of basic human values in many students? Or, will responsible leaders and teachers get energised by this information revolution, and participate in large numbers to ensure that the fruits of it reach everyone, without any attendant ill effects?

Perhaps, we should and could hope for the latter. One need only to look at the Andhra Pradesh it initiatives for good governance for inspiration. The twins and cards projects of the state government have not only brought the fruits of the it and telecom revolution to the common man's doorstep, but have also instilled a sense of purpose, greater commitment to the nation, and more honesty and transparency in the transactions of various organisations. Importantly, it has increased the self-esteem and self-confidence of these government employees, which by itself is a great achievement in a country like ours.

There may be only one Chandrababu Naidu (thank God!) in this world -- but surely, we have many more equally, if not more committed teachers, administrators, and parents in this ancient and sacred land. Would not they be inspired to see the good aspects of the it revolution energise education, not only for their child, but also for others?

So, why cannot the billionth baby expect to see a friendlier, healthier, wiser India, thanks to telecom and IT?"

-- K Giridhar
Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering, IIT Madras

On May 11, India turned a billion-strong, or a billion-weak, if you wish. The birth of whoever finally emerges as the billionth baby cannot, and should not, be taken in isolation. What are we promising this landmark baby? Are we ensuring a sound upbringing, adequate nutrition, proper education, excellent health and a bright successful future? Or, are we predicting malnutrition, disease, no primary education, unemployment for our children. Indeed, the birth of the billionth child is a sad commentary on us as a state and as citizens.

In order that a child gets what is needed to groom it for a successful future, the economic background of a family has a lot to contribute by way of decreasing domestic burdens and worries to ensure quality time being provided by the parents. Education, a grey area where government policies are concerned, remains the single most important requirement for a meaningful future.

A sound mind in a sound body further emphasises the need for adequate nutrition and a clean environment. The child needs to breathe fresh air. He needs a park and facilities for sport and physical training. Above all, he needs a clarity of thought left uncluttered by the pollution, the violence, a fast disappearing resource and moral fabric etc. that are all symptoms of an over-populous community.

That each year India adds an Australia to itself is a fact most well-read Indians know of. How has this come about? The answer lies in the population clock posted at vantage points in most major cities -- 33 births every minute clock about 2,000 an hour and 48,000 every day. A yearly projection stands at an astounding 17 million. World population grows by about 250,000 per day and by this yardstick, almost 19 per cent is contributed by India.

How many of us realise that land area of a country is a constant, and a disproportionate increase in population tends to bring down utilisable land area. Estimates claim that while in 1960, 0.21 hectares of land was available for every Indian, this figure had dropped to 0.10 hectares by 1999, a fall of over 50 per cent.

Reduction in cultivable land is not all, add to it a depleting water table and the truth must sink in that whatever land area we have has to be preserved, and utilised as best as can be, at all costs. Water must be saved -- rapid depletion of the water table is a certainty since, as things are, aquifer recharge takes almost twice the time that it takes to empty it.

Beyond doubt, a burgeoning population and stressed agriculture are intimately linked. By the year 2050, the average crop land area available per Indian will diminish to 0.07 hectares. A somewhat conflicting correlation emerges when we look at farms. Between 1960 and 1990, there has been a steady decrease in the average farm size from 2.7 hectares to 1.6 hectares. The principal cause of this is the division of farmland between individual members of a family and continued fragmentation at the end of each generation as land is passed on. In effect, while the family size retains its five member average, the cropland at their disposal is becoming increasingly smaller.

There has been some success with the staple foods of the north and the south. Wheat production has gone up by over three times, and rice yield is up twofold. Most of it has been possible through multi-pronged strategies -- use of varieties that mature earlier and are high yielding, together with improved irrigation over larger areas. In fact, crop land area under irrigation has also climbed threefold. Alternative methods of improved crop land productivity and yield are being sought, and agricultural biotechnology remains a key option. It is all too obvious that conventional methods may not hold good and even the enhanced crop yield in the years to come may remain sadly insufficient.

In addition to basic agriculture, what also needs looking into are other food areas such as dairies, poultry, fisheries etc. Unfortunately, as things stand today, per capita grain production is falling, the reversal of which does not appear in sight. True, scientists are battling hard to manipulate biotechnological options to provide for a better and healthier future, but clearly, that is not all.

While genetically modified organisms hold considerable promise and are being looked at with great expectation, they cannot be the magic wand of the future. Population must be controlled and if Kerala can do it, why not others, especially the problem northern states.

All it requires is a concerted effort, an iron will, and unfailing perseverance. Essentially, unshakeable dedication. Then, and only then, can we hope to promise, if not this billionth child, at least the later ones, a future worth the name.

-- Dr Vivek Prasad
Phytovirology Unit, Department of Botany, Lucknow University

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