Remembering Anil Agarwal — Forget Malthus: upside of population growth

Increasing population density can also lead to better community management of common property resources, if community property rights are adequately defined

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Sunday 02 January 2022

To commemorate the 19th death anniversary of Down To Earth founder editor Anil Agarwal, we reproduce this piece of his from DTE’s December 3, 1992 print edition.

Once again population growth is being discussed worldwide as a major factor behind environmental destruction. But watching Indian villages trying to survive in their degraded environment, we have an interesting question to ask: Could this be an optimum level of demographic pressure to promote community-based environmental management?

Few social scientists have tried to understand what societal responses are emerging at the grassroots to growing population and increasing pressures on natural resources. In India, for instance, population densities have nearly doubled in 40 years. This is unprecedented in India’s history. Should we assume that people are not going to respond rationally but just breed themselves to a mass societal death? Surely not.

The 1980s saw, in India, numerous micro-experiments to organise communities to manage their natural resources. Some of these experiments have had dramatic success in ecological regeneration and have led to equally dramatic improvement in the local economy.

Can we simply dismiss all this work as the result of a few dedicated social activists or is this a sign of a nascent societal response?

It is easy to accept the first argument if we remain blinkered by what is called in social science research the ‘project bias,’ that is, if we fail to look at the social change taking place outside the project framework. In several projects, there is no doubt that certain individuals have played a major part. But it would be wrong to treat all of these cases as ‘projects.’

The Chipko movement is more of a people's movement. The work of the gramdan villages of Seed and Hariyakheda and their legally empowered system of self-determination is, again, more the result of people’s aspirations than project planning. The project element is restricted to the fact that initial investments — in several cases not very large — have come from sources external to the community. And there is no doubt that without this seed capital most of these efforts could not have taken off.

The question to ask is: Why did all this begin to happen so much more in the 1980s? We heard so little about such experiments in the 1960s and 1970s. Surely, even then, there were many Gandhians who wanted to promote community management of natural resources?

It is our belief that increasing population density is, in fact, creating objective social conditions which are laying the foundation for the success of enlightened community-oriented leadership. The pressure on natural resources that exists today is unprecedented. In India, people seem to be keen to respond to the situation, but the country’s system of governance and its legal framework are lagging behind.

Laws governing natural resources like land, water and forests remain the same as they had been conceived by the British colonisers over a hundred years ago. And post-independence governments have consistently pushed individual, beneficiary-oriented programmes, aided and supported by external agencies like the World Bank.

Rarely have community-oriented resource management programmes been formulated. Yet, when social activists come up with such programmes, people seem to respond enthusiastically.

Our belief is further strengthened by the fact that things have started happening in certain rural communities even where no external agents are working. In the Singhbhum region, for instance, district magistrate Amarjit Sinha recorded numerous tribal villages where people have begun to manage the forests neighbouring their settlements. They have done this entirely on their own.

In the Uttar Pradesh Himalaya, administrator Neeru Nanda found many villages that are protecting forests, including government-owned reserved forests. But these are usually forests on which the community has clear legal or traditional usage rights. Those forests over which there are disputes between neighbouring settlements do not get managed; instead they are steadily being destroyed.

Official efforts to involve village communities in forest villages are now protecting sub-Himalayan watersheds near Chandigarh in an official effort to replicate the Sukhomajri model. West Bengal’s Arabari model of forest regeneration, under which villagers are assured timber, grass and other rights to forest produce if they protect the forests jointly, has been successful. There are now 1,684 village-level forest protection committees in West Bengal.

Experience shows that the conditions in which natural resource management by villagers is most to succeed are:

  1. Where common resources are substantial and, therefore, the benefits of ecological regeneration can be substantial as compared to existing needs;
  2. Where commons can regenerate rapidly; and
  3. Where communities are more homogeneous and not highly stratified.

In India we have found that there is a correlation between conditions (a) and (c). Areas with substantial common resources are usually hill and mountain regions, and unirrigated arid and semi-arid areas. Most of the land in the humid plains and irrigated arid and semi-arid plains tends to be privatised. In the former areas, settlements tend to be small and less stratified. In the latter areas, land is taken over by the rich and powerful, and settlements tend to be larger, and relatively inequitous.

Increasing population density in such areas will lead to a steady disappearance of common resources, including wetlands, which will be brought under agriculture. The poor will depend heavily on the rich for their survival, and their desperate social and economic conditions can force them to suffer considerable violence and oppression.

But in areas where natural resources are relatively less privatised, which incidentally are also the more ecologically fragile and relatively poverty-stricken regions, increasing population density can lead to overuse of common resources, especially if community rights are not properly defined.

Increasing population density can also lead to better community management of common property resources, if community property rights are adequately defined. A situation of a free-for-all in land use engenders indiscipline in its use. Many Indian villages have reasonably large common lands which are lying in an extremely degraded condition though they are inherently very productive.

Biomass regeneration rates can be high and rapid. For instance, within a few months grass production can increase and double or treble over time through good management. In such conditions, instituting adequate community rights and mobilising communities for action can bring substantial economic benefits within a few years. The harvested water can irrigate a large portion of the crop-lands and the increased grass can meet a large part of the fodder demand.

Community management of natural resources will immediately invoke the concept of a village republic. Each community will insist that its neighbours do not make unauthorised use of its managed and protected commons. We have repeatedly seen inter-settlement tensions over common resources wherever they have been protected because these areas were earlier open to all for use.

Each community should have legal rights over a definite area, and then each community will take care of its own commons. It will, first, keep people of other settlements out of its own commons, and then, soon enough, because of internal needs, it will begin to set appropriate rules for caring for and sharing those commons.

This can also become an important way of making people accept the fact that population growth cannot be unlimited. As long as there are open, free-access commons (that is, government land), people will prefer big families to exploit these resources. But community-managed commons will push people towards better management and increased productivity on a sustained basis. It is not surprising that in Sukhomajri people have not increased their livestock because of greater fodder availability. They have, in fact, reduced their goat populations.

Of course, if population growth increases without any check and local biomass demand goes beyond the capacity of the environment to meet it, community management systems will again begin to break down. But if community management systems can be instituted now, the environment regenerated, women’s work burden reduced, and female literacy increased rapidly, it should be possible to see rapid downturns in population growth rates in these areas.

It is not always necessary to deride increasing population. It can be seen as an opportunity for moving towards real solutions, including an end to excessive population growth.

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