The Indian Economy Blog

October 7, 2005

The Population Non-Problem

Filed under: Growth,Human Capital,Politics,Regulatory reforms — Prashant @ 5:17 pm

Growing up in India in the 1980s, India’s population “problem” was never too far away from the public arena.

Textbooks, newspapers and the chatterati constantly pointed out that

a) India was overpopulated and

b) this overpopulation was a significant reason for our economic backwardness.

Gary Becker dispels this guff

…particularly in modern knowledge-based economies, on balance population growth helps rather than hurts income growth and general welfare.


Neo-Malthusians who fear larger populations typically stress the effects on pollution and on the demand for non-renewable resources, like oil and natural gas. Clearly, the demand for fossil fuels and other non–enewable resources grows with population as well as with economic development. However, during the past 150 years, the real price of fossil fuels like coal and oil fell rather than increased as world population exploded, and more and more economies prospered. (emphasis mine)


As India dramatically has demonstrated, the main obstacle to economic progress is not population growth, but bad economic policies. Once India began to get its economic house in order- this started with the reforms of the early 1990′s- India’s economy took off while its population was growing rapidly and birth rates were high.

In an era when human capital is the primary source of wealth, India’s large population is a huge, untapped asset. Especially so given that 50% of India’s population is under 25. All we need is halfway decent primary education and health. That’s what the Indian government should be focusing on, not falthoo stuff like this.

Update: A tidbit from Marginal Revolution.


  1. It’s a problem at a micro level. Can you support 100 kids with your income and provide them a decent quality of life? How do you expect average indian who may have 5% of your income to support for 4 or 5 kids.

    Comment by sv — October 7, 2005 @ 8:35 pm

  2. sv

    Somewhat baffled: how is the so-called problem you cite related to my post?

    And this “micro” problem you cite — isn’t that true of every country, and of all moments in human history?

    Comment by Prashant Kothari — October 8, 2005 @ 9:30 am

  3. 50% percent of the population is under 25. This presents an enormous opportunity for India to become the backoffice of the world, the factory of the world, the laboratory of the world you name it. However, this opportunity isn’t going to last forever, and if nothing is done this opportunity will become a curse. This is why reforms right now are so important, but with the current trends it seems like the congress party will assure that India’s labor force remains “a huge untapped asset.”

    Comment by Patel — October 8, 2005 @ 5:48 pm

  4. Prashant

    You have a good point. Graduate and Postagraduate education today can be easily handled by the Private Sector. It is time the government started putting more funds into primary education and health.

    Comment by Mani Pulimood — October 8, 2005 @ 11:09 pm

  5. Let me give an analogy to explain why population growth in India is a BIG problem. Lets take Uranium.

    Uranium is a very useful element. When controlled, it can generate a lot of clean energy. But when uncontrolled – you have a disaster in your hands.

    Its the same with population. Controlled population growth is good. But uncontrolled population growth just creates disasters.

    Population growth has to be controlled first and foremost – for advances in education and other areas to have any lasting effect. If you see historical empiric evidence, countries that have controlled their population growth (either knowingly or unknowingly) have prospered while countries that have failed to control population growth have struggled to prosper. They do prosper, but they take twice the time or three times the time it would have taken otherwise.

    (The only exception that comes to mind is Sparta of ancient Greece – whose population controlling schemes were so extreme that it led to their demise.)

    If population growth is not controlled in India, it will still prosper and become a super power. But it will take twice as long to prosper than did say China.

    Comment by Ankesh Kothari — October 10, 2005 @ 4:30 pm

  6. To,
    All those who think Population as a problem,

    There is simple solution.

    If you think population is a problem, Kill Yourself.


    Comment by Jayakamal — October 11, 2005 @ 6:12 am

  7. Jayakamal says: “If you think population is a problem, Kill Yourself.”

    Aside from that being the most idiotic solution – you completely miss the point.

    Population is not the problem. Uncontrolled growth in population is. Size is not the problem. Uncontrolled Growth is.

    China realized that and thus came up with its 1 child policy. (Mathematically, 1 child policy is not sound and it will haunt China if its not revoked in a few years. “Hum do, humare do” is a good policy if implemented with proper incentives.)

    Comment by Ankesh Kothari — October 11, 2005 @ 3:23 pm

  8. IMHO, Uncontrolled population is a problem in a controlled economy. Like maybe China.

    But in an unfettered economy (ideal situation that India should be aiming for) population ‘issues’ will self-correct.

    As long as we have tariffs, subsidies, licences, rations and other hindrances to a free market, uncontrolled population will continue to be a problem. If we get rid of those things people feel ‘entitled’ too, I’m sure it will cease being an issue and become an asset.

    Comment by Abhi — October 14, 2005 @ 10:48 am

  9. Ankesh — how exactly do you propose “controlling” growth in a democracy like India?

    IMO, the strongest checks on population are education and economic growth…. those are the areas (along with primary health) that demand our attention… if we do so, the so-called population “issue” will cease to exist…

    For more on India’s flawed educational system, check this out..

    Comment by Prashant Kothari — October 14, 2005 @ 12:58 pm

  10. here is my take on the ‘Population Problem’

    Population Problem: Beyond The Numbers

    The year 2004 marks the culmination of two centuries since the human population when aggregated was a billion strong for the first time. The world has added another billion five times since 1804. Such an explosive growth in population has unnerved policymakers worldwide. Calls for population control have dominated the agenda for quite some time. The reality of a Malthusian disaster seemed in the offing for most.

    However, the global population going forward is unlikely to grow as fast as in the last few decades and particularly in the last 12 years of the 20th century when the world added a billion people. It took humanity 123 years to add the second billion, 33 years to add the third, 14 years for the fourth and 13 years to add the fifth. The most important aspect behind the explosive growth in human numbers is an unprecedented drop in human mortality. This trend actually began in the 19th and early 20th century but intensified after the Second World War as basic sanitation, clean drinking water and modern health care became more available in larger areas of the world. Further, the world life expectancy at birth is now at 66 years, having increased a remarkable 20 years since 1950. According to the United Nations, of the four billion increase in population in the last century, one and a half billon has been on account of longer life expectancies.

    It is in this context that it can be said that the population problem is not of controlling the growth but managing the expansion. In other words, the critical issue lies in the fact that it is not additions to the human mass but fewer deletions (deaths) that has created a larger part of this problem. This can be testified from the fact that though the global population has assumed gargantuan proportions, the average number of children per couple has fallen from 4.9 at the beginning of the 20th century to 2.7 currently.

    Life expectancy at birth which is 66 years today is expected to touch 76 years by the middle of this century. At the same time world fertility rates are expected to decline further. Population expansion on account of higher life expectancy continues well into the future. These mega demographic trends suggest that it will not be until 2200 that the world population will add another 4 billion. To put things in perspective, the last four billion were added in 73 years.

    The population problem is a problem less of growth but more of expansion. The problem does not lie in the numbers but in its composition. By 2050 for the first time in human history, the proportion of people above the age of 65 will exceed those under the age of 15. The impact of an aging population is going to be widespread. Traditional support systems for the elderly are deteriorating in many areas just as the need for support is growing. Widespread declines in child-bearing rates mean that there are fewer children to care for elderly parents. Social security systems which are designed mainly as “pay-as-you-go” systems have challenges to face in making provisions for an increasing aging population with fewer people entering the workforce.

    It is ironical that in times when the majority opinion is talking about controlling population, countries in Western Europe like Germany and Italy and Japan are finding the prospects of a declining population, one of the biggest challenges in the 21st century. These countries which are immigration unfriendly are finding measures to increase population far more difficult that controlling their growth. It is only in more immigration- friendly countries like United States that there has been an increase in fertility rates though but marginally.

    Population growth control policies have failed miserably worldwide. However, in China, the one-child per family norm which has been coercively enforced is showing signs of rapid population control. This policy of population control in a developing country like China, where decline in fertility rates are accompanied by faster aging of the population on account of longer life expectancies, will create difficult problems in the future. Unlike the western world which had enough time to get rich before getting old, China will face the tough challenges posed by a population aging well before it got time to get rich. Issues like social security would haunt Chinese administrators more than the population problem.

    A relaxed immigration policy, easier and unrestricted access to cleaner technologies for developing and less developed countries and economic pricing of polluting technologies can be some ways that can avert a Malthusian disaster. Today, the socio-economic problems are those which require immediate attention because of the population expansion.

    Comment by abhay — October 15, 2005 @ 11:12 am

  11. population’s not a problem as long as we know how to handle it.

    Comment by arunima kaul — November 2, 2005 @ 6:23 am

  12. The whole “population control” concept comes from the basic socialist “Zero-Sum-Game” assumption in which wealth is assumed; so every new person is a burden reducing the available resources for others and it turns out to be true in socialist economies where productivity and economic growth are low or negative.

    From a free market mindset, every new person is an asset, wealth is created through innovation and the economy grows and is not static. The more people there are in this world, the higher the chance of there being another Dhirubhai Ambani, another Bill Gates, another Louis Pasteur who will enhance the lives of one and all.

    The only pre-requisite for people to be assets is not education but “liberty”. When minds have the liberty to innovate and pursue their dreams in a free market, they are assets otherwise they are a liability.

    Comment by Vivek G — November 2, 2005 @ 9:05 am

  13. “When minds have the liberty to innovate and pursue their dreams in a free market”

    Without education, that ain’t gonna happen.

    Primary education is also a “liberty” — read more on this here

    Comment by Prashant Kothari — November 2, 2005 @ 1:07 pm

  14. How to stop population growth? Hmm… loaded question. I have a few opinions but they aren’t realistic without strong leaders. One of them is based on psychology – negative conditioning. After the 2nd kid, parents gotto have a vasectomy and tubal sterilization (I think thats the term). Or else pay up a fee to not have the operation.

    I don’t think such a law can be passed though – its not realistic in the current environment. But thats a win-win solution to grow population in a controlled manner immediately.

    Why do you think education will help in controlling population growth? I know highly educated people who have had 3-4-5 kids. The only reason most educated people don’t have a lot of kids is because they are busy working after their education is over. So I think education is not necessary. Keeping people busy is.

    There was a joke: provide TV with cable to all the poor households and the population will stop growing wildly automatically. Because people will be busy watching TV. (It was a satirical joke, but quite true to a certain extent – as most satire is.)

    Comment by Ankesh Kothari — November 3, 2005 @ 5:02 am

  15. I am amazed to see this article and some of the posts here! The world’s engine started failing; the water scarcity, climate change, pollution are all threatening the world’s habitat and the population growth makes these issues even more severe. Yet, there are people saying that; “The Population Non-Problem”!!! Are you kidding me? How fanatic can you be to say such a thing or how naive?

    How will you find space for these people? How will you find clean water? How will you prevent them from polluting the earth??? Did you ever check how many people are unable to reach clean water resources in india? Did you answer these questions before coming up with your clever insight to the economy?

    Comment by theGuest — September 22, 2007 @ 3:28 am

  16. The original post was made about two years ago. Can somebody tell the net increase of India’s population in last two years?

    Comment by thecupgr — September 22, 2007 @ 8:23 am

  17. population is not a problem only if utilised correctly,especially when 50% of the indian population is under 25 yrs of age.its a resourse which requires a judicious use.”if you think its a problem,then kill yourself”as somebody very rightly pointed at.The basic problem is not what we dont know,but that what we knom to be true,ain’t there is a urgent need of change in policies and the call of the day is’WAKE UP,ITS ALREADY DAWN’.

    Comment by medha — December 7, 2007 @ 11:36 am

  18. Population is definitely a problem AS resources of all kind are finite. Now you have to take into account for example the land available for various things, including farming and industry, and one knows where we are heading with no population policy as such.

    There are many theories for example for growing food grains, but almost 35 – 40% population is still half fed. this is true in many other areas like housing, schools, hospitals and so on.

    Comment by Jayant K. — October 14, 2008 @ 4:44 pm

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