Notes on the Economics of Population Growth

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India, may be the world, is in the grip of population explosion. Can economic development find a solution to this baffling problem? What is the impact of the burgeoning population on economic development? Recent studies have thrown new light on these controversial questions.

The economic-demographic nexus has, in one form or another, been a debatable issue. In his historic work “An Essay on Population”, Malthus established a link between food and population. Edwin Cannan propounded the optimum theory of population, which stressed the relationship between the national income and population. The proposition has acquired new import as the underdeveloped countries in the grip of burgeoning population have embarked upon planned development of their economies in the past few decades. India, too, is faced with such a situation.

Faced with colossal problems of poverty and massive unemployment, the best pill for India seems to be the economic development. Despite the inexorable link between the economic development and the population, the pace of economic growth in the developing areas, including India, is painfully slow. Poverty is at once, both an instant cause and an effect of a high fertility rate. The Indian government appropriately pioneered mea­sure to control the human fertility way back in 1952.

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During the last more than 50 years of operations of family planning, double pronged attack has been made; first, at the individual or family level, and second, on the societal level. At the family level, the strategy was to make a quick-result-oriented approach and, therefore, the birth control mea­sures were merely restricted to the provision of clinics and primary health centres.

The eligible couples were expected voluntarily to use the family planning facilities. The second phase of this facility was the introduction of incentives to the individuals who sought to limit permanently the size of the family through sterilization. As the persuasive approach failed to yield the expected results, the government had perforce to resort to coercive and punitive measures. It adopted disincentives like stoppage of increments, promotions, service benefits, etc.

At the societal level, the government geared the mass media to create the necessary climate in favour of accepting the small family norms as a way of life. In the educational institutions, efforts were made to inculcate among the youngsters the new family norms. “Catch-them-young” approach could possibly yield results in the long run only.

Motivations involving a change in attitude are a long term phenomenon. Family planning is regarded as a purely voluntary affair and the use of family planning clinics and primary health centres is left entirely to the sweet will of the individuals. The result is a rapid fall in sterilization cases. India’s experience vividly highlights the fact that clinical methods of family planning would prove in fructuous unless they are backed by force of personal predilection, or fear of punishment.

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At the same time, the lesson of adopting coercive measures is that all family planning programmes should be spearheaded by the people, and that the voluntary agencies should be inspired by the spirit of service and not by mercenary or political motives. It is believed that the population and educa­tional policies of the government, if implemented vigorously, may comple­ment and supplement each other to usher in a new renaissance.

Can Family Planning (FP) be dissociated from economic develop­ment? Ashoka Mitra says that “the progress of family planning as a matter of willing acceptance and a way of life, as distinct from an imposed bureaucratic programme, has thus a very strong association with develop­ment. The case of dissociation between development and family planning as alternative paths of investment has not yet been conclusively demon­strated.” The view of some modern demographers is that FP and develop­ment have a positive association.

Ashoka Mitra’s empirical study of the FP performance also upholds this. Roughly 20 per cent of the variability in performance in States, investigated by him, is attributed to factors like per capita income, percentage of urban population and literacy rate. An over-rider may be added here. The higher level of development is not a sufficient condition for a higher performance index in FP; it is only a ‘plus’ factor conducive to it.

In a study, Julian L. Simon says that the short run effect of a rise in income in traditional subsistence agricultural sector is to increase fertility but the long-run effect is to decrease it. According to him, the relationship between income and fertility is non-linear. The inequality of income is nega­tively correlated with fertility. That means the rich family/nation may have a low birth rate and the poor family/nation may have a high birth rate.

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The fertility reducing effect of income rise could come about only after a decade or more. The government may also not adopt any income re-distribution policy to achieve lower fertility rate.

A question is often asked whether an additional child is economically desirable or not. No simple or categorical answer is possible, for it depends more on values, the economic conditions and the choice of welfare criteria. In India, the low income group of people still welcomes every additional child as an asset, because he/she can help supplement the income of the family at a very young age. In the villages, the child attends to the odd jobs of the family, such as taking the cattle to a place for drinking water etc.

Is it, then, better to have a moderate growth of population or a station­ary population? In the long-run, moderate growth rate of population in less developed countries leads to a higher per worker income and has a positive effect on the living standards, compared with the stationary population or very fast growth of population. It is, therefore, more desirable to have a moderate growth rate.

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