Tue, Aug 31, 2004 - Page 9 News List

India's opportunity and challenge

India will soon have 1.5 billion people, which represents a decrease in population growth but a lot of mouths to feed

By Robert Cassen


India's population is now a little over one billion; it will almost certainly surpass 1.5 billion by mid-century, overtaking China's population along the way before it stops growing. But, as worrying as this might appear, this actually represents a considerable demographic slowdown: India's population more than tripled during the past sixty years. Moreover, the economy is growing much faster than before. So will India be able to provide a comfortable home for 1.5 billion people?

I recently co-authored a study that concludes, with modest optimism, that while India can manage its population growth, it also faces a number of major difficulties.

True, poverty fell in the 1990s, while literacy rates and school attendance rose. But they did so unevenly. Most of India's big poor states -- Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh -- suffer from a combination of relatively slow economic growth and rapid demographic growth. Only Rajasthan's economy has kept pace with the rest of the country; the other four have not benefited much from trade and regulatory liberalization.

Similarly, states where birth rates fell earlier, such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, are already enjoying shrinking school-age populations, whereas school-age numbers in Bihar will still be rising until around 2025. But the majority of children in Kerala and Tamil Nadu are already in school, while in Bihar they are not.

These five poor states contain 45 percent of India's population, and 56 percent of its poor. Our projections indicate that in 20 years they will account for more than half the population and 75 percent of the poor. Unless recent trends can be reversed, the growing economic and demographic gulf between India's north and east and its south and west will pose a serious political threat.

The environmental impact of 1.5 billion inhabitants forms the other major challenge. India's past population growth has been accompanied, if much too slowly and unequally, by improving health, education and economic welfare. But the environment has been suffering.

Our study concludes that India can have faster economic and industrial growth, higher rates of energy consumption and a cleaner environment. But this is not what has happened so far. Air, soil and water pollution have been growing, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths every year.

The key to a clean future is clean technologies, whose costs have been falling steadily and will continue to do so. Sometimes these technologies pay for themselves and will be adopted. But Indian producers and transporters will not invest in them if they bear the costs, while the public at large receives the benefits. In these cases, government will have to provide incentives, or regulate and tax. Unfortunately, however, when the main beneficiaries are the poor, corporations are powerful, and governments are weak or corrupt, good environmental practices are far from guaranteed.

There are nonetheless some notable success stories. Delhi's barely breathable air has become tolerable following a move to compressed natural gas in public transport, retirement of old vehicles and higher emissions standards in new ones. Delhi's cleaner air hasn't cost much, yet other cities have been slow to follow suit.

The biggest problem is water pollution, with discharges into canals and rivers growing faster than treatment capacity. At the same time, India's growing population will make increasing demands on water supplies, mainly for agriculture, which absorbs more than 80 percent of all the fresh water India consumes. If the population grows by 50 percent, the country will need to grow 50 percent more food if it is to continue to feed itself. But there won't be any more water. In fact, there could well be less water than there is now, owing to pollution and climate change. So India will need huge increases in water efficiency.

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