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India and the Path to Environmental Sustainability
(Released February 2008)

  by Ethan Goffman  


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many people
By 2050 there will be 1.63 billion Indians, according to one study
Unlike China, India continues at a dangerously high rate of population growth: "Though it occupies only 2 per cent of the world's land area, it supports over 16 percent of the world's population" (D'Souza & Peretiatko 80), with some nine times the population density of the United States. A United Nations and World Bank report projects, "that around the year 2026 India's population will be about 1.35 billion, and that by 2051 it will be about 1.57 billion" (Dyson 75). Of course changes in fertility rates (and mortality rates) could drastically alter this projection.

India has attempted to stabilize its population, beginning with Indira Gandhi's population policies in the 1970s, which included a voluntary sterilization component. These policies were criticized as draconian, and often coercive, with some 8.3 million sterilizations in 1976-77 (Veron 2), leading to a crisis in Indian democracy. Gandhi declared a state of emergency that, in 1977, led to her ouster as Prime Minister. These problems illustrate how difficult it is, in a democracy, to impose harsh population policy, contrasting dramatically with China's authoritarian one-child policy, which has been in place since 1979.

Map of India's population
India: Population Density

Interestingly, India's move away from draconian mandates to curb population growth received a kind of confirmation at the 1994 International Conference of Population and Development in Cairo, which affirmed a voluntary program of education, particularly women's education, as well as access to contraception (UN). A National Population Policy adopted in 2000 "emphasizes promoting contraceptive use among eligible couples" and aims "to improve the health of women and their children" (Westley & Retherford 1). Overall, the policy moves "from achieving demographic targets toward meeting the reproductive health needs of clients" (Ibid). Still, critics claim that India's policies have remained coercive, including "huge sterilization targets" for selected districts (Rao 24). Additionally, abortion of female fetuses remains a widespread practice; nevertheless, "with a large proportion of the population - almost 60 percent-below the age of 30 years, further growth of population is inevitable" (Rao 25). India's more voluntary measures have correlated with a faster-growing population than those of the more authoritarian China. Indeed, stabilization of China's population is expected to occur around 2030, while "India's population will inevitably continue to grow for at least 50 years, increasing by a half over the period" (Veron 4). Mortality decline, furthermore, is slowing the deceleration of India's population growth. In the long run, however, it seems likely that urbanization, education, and contraceptive availability will lead to population stabilization. Indeed, "the trend in India appears to be towards women marrying, having a small number of children, and then getting sterilized" (Visaria 73).

Population stabilization, however, depends upon local conditions, with the rural-urban split crucial. Urbanization in India has been slow. Whereas "17.3 per cent of the population lived in urban areas in 1951, by 2001 this figure had risen to only 27.8 percent" (Dyson & Pravin 116). In comparison to the rest of the world, where one out of two people live in a city, India's urbanization is a relatively small. Because rural areas are noted for higher birth rates, stabilizing India's population will not be easy.

Complicating population policy is India's diverse and often contentious society. Fertility patterns are extremely uneven and vary by location, with the population growing faster in the more impoverished north. In the south, by contrast, and strikingly in Kerala-noted for its progressive policies-population stabilization began early, but has been much slower "around the Ganges Valley, the heart of traditional India, where fertility has scarcely declined. The Hindi-speaking core region is characterized by high fertility, an entrenched patriarchal value system, economic underdevelopment, predominance of Brahminical influence, and exclusion of women from education" (Guilmoto & Rajan 713). Indeed, "fertility is particularlyhigh among illiterate women and poor women" (Westley & Retherford 2). Local and traditional culture, along with economic factors, are thus crucial in explaining the uneven effects of India's population policy.

man, garbage & birds
An Indian man searching for scrap at a New Delhi landfill site

How is this relevant to sustainability? Obviously, population is a key driving factor in environmental degradation, as more people consume more resources, occupy more land, release more wastes, etc. Nevertheless, population is only one factor; analysts and environmentalists from Thomas Malthus in the 18th century to Paul Ehrlich in 1967 have exaggerated its singular impact. Economic growth is also a significant factor, yet so is resource use and environmental policy. Dennis Anderson, for instance, argues that "technical progress, together with the policies which induce it, is by far the most important factor in enabling countries to reconcile economic growth with environmental improvement" (255). He adds that technologies and practices in developed countries explain "why local air and water pollution levels are orders of magnitude lower than in the developing countries, even though their economic outputs per capita are an order of magnitude higher" (258). Of course, in a globalized world, the analysis needs to be extended to account for the consumer appetites of the developed countries, considering that many consumer goods are manufactured in less developed countries. Nevertheless, given the right mix of technology and policy, it seems likely that India can do much to offset the impact of its growing population.

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