India’s population question

Population per se is not the determinant of environmental problems; it is their consumption pattern that leads to environmental degradation

By Sunita Narain
Published: Thursday 01 June 2023

Illustration: Yogendra Anand / CSEIllustration: Yogendra Anand / CSE

India is expected to overtake China to become the world’s most populous country sometime in July, it is said. We don’t have a firm month, because our census—the count of population—is more than a decade old.

So, we can only estimate the expected overshoot date—sometime in mid-2023, we will match China’s 1.45 billion people and then surpass it. The question I get asked often is, what does this mean for the environment?

There is no doubt that more people will need more resources to survive. But it cannot be argued that population growth is an indicator of the resultant environmental degradation. It is not as linear.

The simple counter argument is that countries like the US with 336 million people or Australia with 26 million people have much greater environmental footprints than that of India.

Earth Overshoot Day—a group that calculates the bioresources used by countries—estimates that if everyone lived like an American, we would need five Earths; as an Australian, we would need 4.5 Earths and as an Indian, we would need 0.8 of an Earth.

These countries with smaller populations have emitted huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, adding to our common jeopardy. So, population per se is not the determinant of environmental problems; it is their consumption pattern that leads to environmental degradation.

We know that the environmental damage caused by wealthier countries is extensive—they overexploit land, water, forests and other resources, but externalise the source. Their consumption of fossil fuels is driving global warming.

But their local air appears “clean” because they have the money to invest in improved technology. These wealthier countries have wilderness areas, and so, you may argue that their natural habitat is protected.

But no. Because their use of the natural habitat is extensive, it results in the overuse of forests and degradation of land in other places. The poor, on the other hand, have intensive use of their local environment.

In their villages they depend on forests that are already lopped, land that is grazed and waterbodies that are polluted. But even with this visible destruction, their combined impact on the environment is less than that of the smaller but richer populations.

That said, it is also a fact that the Indian population has a smaller footprint because it is poor. It is poverty that makes us frugal.

So, it can be argued that as we get richer, we may also wish for the global middle-class lifestyle (the American way), which has now become the benchmark of economic wealth and modernity.

And even if we do not reach the obscene levels of consumption as the other middle class, our sheer numbers will add up to leave the same environmental impact.

We already see that with waste generation—as we get richer, the quantum of waste increases; its composition changes; and garbage takes over our streets.

We also see this with air pollution in our cities—the richer we get, the more we drive in individual vehicles; and even as we clean up each vehicle with better emission controls and fuel quality, the absolute growth in numbers means more pollution.

So, we must focus on three points: How do we keep a check on the population growth? And how do we use this population dividend? There is no doubt that every human being is a wonderful creature and an asset. So, the third point is, how do we make sure that as our population grows, we do not end up being in the self-destructive mode as the rest of the world?

The answer to the first is relatively clear: India is already seeing a decline in its total fertility rate, which has dropped below the replacement level (2.1).

The latest National Family Health Survey reveals that Bihar, Jharkhand, Manipur, Meghalaya and Uttar Pradesh are the only outliers, with fertility levels above two children per woman (also the country average).

It is well known that fertility declines only when girls are educated, women are empowered and they have health and economic security. Fertility is not about population control but about women’s right over reproductive decisions. It is an indicator of progress. We are seeing this happen. We need to stay on track.

Then, of course, is the issue of the population dividend—this is also where education kicks in. We need to do much more to get this right.

And finally, the environment question. Ensuring this will be much more difficult because the aspirational idea of global middle class is not so easy to deconstruct and take apart.

The lifestyle of the global consuming class is about market forces and the economics that drives wealth creation. But this is really where the rubber meets the road—we want a planet that is livable. It is time we discussed this seriously and urgently.

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