Thomas Robert Malthus, writing in 1789, predicted disaster due to unchecked population growth. Its exponential growth, fast exceeding the arithmetical growth of food supply, would lead to disease, starvation and war. This logic has long been laid to rest. World fertility rates fell steadily from the late 60s, plateauing out with the dawn of the 21st century. So, what’s the prognosis now? What does it mean for India, and her children?
Fertility rates have declined and there are other disasters waiting in the wings: antibiotic resistant ‘Super bugs’ and climate change, for instance. But survival has improved and people are living longer. The structural shifts in global population, in the making for the last 50 years and taking place within and between countries, have serious implications for where and how we will live, by 2060, and what we need to do today, to prepare ourselves.
The 21st century marks a turning point in the structure of world population in three crucial ways. Let us consider each of these global trends and what it means for India.
Old people are fast outnumbering the young with improved survival and lower fertility
People in developing countries will outnumber those in developed countries by 6:1 in 2050
Urban people have now outnumbered the rural
1. Old > Young
“In 2015 demographers, teachers and politicians will stop talking about the population pyramid and start referring to the population dome. The change in terminology will reflect a profound shift in the shape and structure of societies—a shift that has been going on for 50 years and is only half complete”, says The Economist.
Source: The Economist, Nov 20, 2014
All through history, humans have lived in societies dominated (in numbers at least) by children. For the first time in human history, the number of adults aged 65 and over will outnumber children under the age of 5. By 2050, these older adults will outnumber children under the age of 14. Japan is fast aging, followed by Europe and then the USA. By 2060 children will be barely more numerous than any other age group up to 65. And looking after parents and grandparents will be as big, or a bigger, social requirement – as bringing up children and grandchildren.
Before we go from one dystopian scenario to another – this one of mass infertility, as painted by P.D. James in “Children of Men”, and what it does to societies – we can take heart from the fact India can still boast of a population pyramid. In fact the least developed countries are experiencing rapid and large growth in their youth populations. According to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), this number is expected to increase until 2070. India has 31% of its population below 14, 63% between 15 and 65 and little over 5% above 65 years.
Our large, young population would have been a ‘demographic dividend’ and could well have formed the basis for ‘Skilling India’ and ‘Make in India’, had we adequately invested in young people, especially those under 6 years. It is well known that one can reap a return 13 times the original investment made in children during this formative period. And yet, India spends only 3.32% (as per Statement 22 of Expenditure Budget Volume I, 2015-16) on children, of the total financial allocations. Most recently budgets for the ICDS were slashed, a reflection of where we place our children. ICDS is the Integrated Child Development Services Scheme and the country’s flagship intervention to improve child health and nutrition in the country
2. Developing country populations > Developed country populations
Data tells us that while the decline in fertility rates started at the same time in developed and developing countries the rates in the latter were much higher. The difference between the two sets of countries is that, in the developed countries, increase in total populations accompanied and fed economic growth and industrialization. In the developing countries, however, large segments of their large populations live in poverty, excluded from development. Tapping the demographic dividend, therefore, becomes very urgent and should be seen as a survival strategy.
The first two trends combined tell us that the developing world does not simply have more people; it has more young people. That’s the twist in the tale and could hold the key to restoring the balance unequally shared fruit of economic growth between countries. The emerging economies will constitute the growing markets of today and tomorrow as well as vibrant sources of human resource.
In his book, “Revolution from ABOVE”, Dipankar Gupta points to two fundamental holes in economic policy in India – the abject neglect of Education and Health (he could well have added Early Childhood Development) through the decades, and the complete denial (and hence underutilization and exploitation) of decent work, wages and skills to workers in the informal sector.
This big-picture take by Prof. Gupta resonates in many ways with the microcosm experience of Mobile Creches at construction sites: The working parents are underpaid and have no social security, maternity support and skills. Children of migrant construction workers have no access to education, health and care. They suffer incomplete immunizations and schooling. They grow up to become casual, daily-wage workers, with poor health, education and no skills. The circle of poverty continues.
3. Urban populations > Rural populations
“Managing urban areas has become one of the most important development challenges of the 21st century. Our success or failure in building sustainable cities will be a major factor in the success of the post-2015 UN development agenda,” said John Wilmoth, Director, UN DESA’s Population Division.
By 2050 over 6 billion people, 2/3rds of the total, will be living in towns and cities. UN DESA’s Population Division notes that the largest urban growth will take place in India, China and Nigeria. These three countries will account for 37% of the projected growth of the world’s urban population between 2014 and 2050. Urbanization will bring with it, changes in life styles and consumption patterns.
India’s Urban Context
The last few decades have seen rapid urbanization and sharp increase in the numbers of people moving into cities. More than half the population in major metro cities lives in congested urban settlements, in unsanitary surroundings, with poor access to basic services.
Slums lack the infrastructure for these fast growing populations, and the discrimination in policies with regard to provision of basic services point to the failure of the State to recognize them as people with rights to the most fundamental entitlements - water, sanitation, ration cards, health services, and childcare. This gap in policies and planning has created enormous hardships, severe health and nutritional problems for women and children, and an environment which is contrary to India’s goal of moving forward both economically and on the human development front.
While, urban areas have better indicators of child health as compared to the rest of the country, the disparity between the health status of young children in urban areas with that of children of the urban poor, show the disadvantage suffered by these populations.
Mobile Creches Response
For families living in distress, day care is a safe and secured option that allows kids to socialize and learn in a loving environment, structured around their needs. An approach that “lets children be children”. We co-opt community members as effective change agents. To achieve this, we build awareness on Early Childhood Development (ECD), form women’s groups around their basic needs, help communities to form a collective vision for their children and strengthen them to play a watchdog role to improve and access state services.
Joel E. Cohen, “How Many People Can the Earth Support?”, W.W.Norton, 1995
UN Population Division Home page www.un.org/esa/population/unpop.htm
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Suggested viewing: The 11th Hour