CNBC TV 18 Column : The ticking population time bomb

Since the lifting of Emergency, and the era of forced population control, family planning has gone off the agenda of governments and parties.

Severe shortage of food and water will see unprecedented rise in violence, and the state may not be capable of stopping this violence.

i wrote this for CNBC-TV18

The world population clock at the time of writing this column was 7,635,090,661 people. The counter moves at almost 3 people added to the total, every second. This year 74 million births, and a shade over 30 million deaths have occurred, leaving the net addition to the world population at approximately 44 million. India, the second most populous nation on earth has 1,297,357,781 people – with 25 million births, and 9.6 million deaths this year. By 2050, barring a catastrophe that wipes out billions, the world population is expected to rise to almost 10 billion people, most of whom will live in cities (66%). Africa and Asia are expected to be the largest contributors to world population numbers. As the population of the world hurtles towards its next milestone – 8 billion, and as India moves to overtake China as the most populous nation, it is time that the world recognised the problem for what it is – a massive strain on resources available.

Population

When we talk about population, often references are made to the term “demographic dividend”. This is an assumption that people born into an economy, will reach a state of productivity in adulthood, and become contributors to the economy in terms of production, consumption, and taxes. The thing to keep in mind is that the demographic dividend is only possible when infants have access to adequate nutrition, clean drinking water, a disease free environment, schools run by trained teachers, medical health facilities, sports facilities, and more. And, the basic starting point of this is adequate nutrition and water.

It is estimated that 10% of the world (about 700 million people) suffered from severe food insecurity. As per the World Food Programme (WFP), close to 200 million people in India are under nourished – that is thrice the population of the United Kingdom. While India is a food surplus economy, and is self sufficient in the production of food, millions starve. Amongst the most impacted are women, 51% of Indian women are anaemic.  Women who are undernourished, produce babies that are stunted, and this cycle continues. Stunted children have a lower chance of survival than children of acceptable weight; even if they do survive, their cognitive abilities are likely to be impeded. This will have an impact, in later life, on productivity, income, and even social skills. If malnourishment is rampant, it will also have an impact on the larger economy.

The second major problem is clean drinking water. As per UNESCO, the world currently uses 4,600 km3 of water every year. This is expected to rise by 30% by 2050. Ground water sources, across the world, are either drying up because of over use, or are getting extremely polluted. Currently it is estimated that 27% of the world population lives with extreme water scarcity. Water is not just needed or personal consumption, but also agriculture and industry. Without adequate supply of water all of this will be imperilled.

A world short of food and water isn’t a part of a distant future. It is here and now. Earlier this year Cape Town, in South Africa, was facing day zero. The day it would run out of water. It has pushed it by a year, but the threat looms large. Food riots have already been seen this year in Venezuela. It is believed that the genesis of the Syrian civil war lay in the worst drought seen by the country. Severe shortage of food and water will see unprecedented rise in violence, and the state may not be capable of stopping this violence.

Food and water are the absolute basics needed for survival. Any development, any progress, is only possible if the population of a nation has enough food and water. For a country like India, the demographic dividend will turn out to be a demographic nightmare, if adequate steps are not taken to retard the growth of population and ensure that we are prepared to feed and provide water to the population that we do have. Political parties must stop beating around the bush, and place population control at the centre of the agenda. They have to look at innovative methods to ensure that people stop reproducing – this could include cash pay-outs to individuals and families not adding to the population.  Since the lifting of Emergency, and the era of forced population control, family planning has gone off the agenda of Governments and parties. It is time that it was put back where it belongs – as a top priority.

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