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The myth of ideal population size

By Nalini Bhanot and Laxmi Murthy

Food scarcities, water stress, civil strife, energy crises, rising pollution, global warming...Everything is blamed on India's billion-plus population. This backgrounder in six parts explains how the myth of 'overpopulation' came to prevail, and why there is no such thing as an 'ideal' population size. By Nalini Bhanot and Laxmi Murthy

  • India is the second most populous country in the world after China.
  • In 2006, India 's population was more than 1 billion (1,119.5 million). This is larger than all of Africa , larger than all of Europe , larger than all of the Americas .
  • India has 2.4% of the world's surface area but sustains 16.7% of the world's population.

Should such figures frighten us? We are constantly bombarded with fears of food scarcity, water scarcity, civil strife, energy crises, rising pollution and global warming, and are made to feel that it is all because we are too many. Everyday experiences of massive traffic jams, crowded markets, crowded hospitals, power cuts, water shortages, queues at banks and cinema halls might make us feel that indeed we have a major population problem on our hands.

India is not the only country in which population has grown rapidly. Population growth has taken place in all regions of the world.

The world's population has more than doubled since 1950. More people have been added to the world's population since 1950 than during the 4 million preceding years since we first stood upright. When agriculture began, world population was estimated at 8 million -- less than a third the size of Tokyo today. After farming got under way, population growth slowly gained momentum. With the Industrial Revolution, it accelerated further.

Explaining demographic transition

There is believed to be a pattern to population growth and decrease, which is described in a model called 'demographic transition'. Demographers use a three-stage model to understand how population growth rates change over time as modernisation proceeds.

Eminent geographer Matt Rosenberg explains this model as the transformation in countries from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates. In developed countries this transition began in the 18th century and continues today. Less developed countries began the transition later and are still in the midst of earlier stages of the model.

Stage I
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, countries in Western Europe had a high Crude Birth Rate (CBR) and Crude Death Rate (CDR). Births were high because more children meant more workers on the farm, and with the high death rate families needed more children to ensure survival of the family. Death rates were high due to disease and lack of sanitation. The high CBR and CDR were somewhat stable and meant slow population growth. Occasional epidemics would dramatically increase the CDR for a few years.

Stage II
In the mid-18th century, the death rate in Western European countries dropped due to improvements in sanitation and medicine. However, thanks to tradition and practice, the birth rate remained high. This falling death rate but stable birth rate in the beginning of Stage II contributed to skyrocketing population growth rates. Over time, children became an added expense and were less able to contribute to the wealth of a family. For this reason, along with advances in birth control, the CBR reduced through the 20th century in developed countries. Populations still grew rapidly but this growth began to slow down.

Stage III
In the late-20th century, the CBR and CDR in developed countries both levelled-off at a low rate. In some cases, the CBR is slightly higher than the CDR (as in the US : 14 versus 9) while in other countries the CBR is less than the CDR (as in Germany : 9 versus 11).

Immigration from less developed countries now accounts for much of the population growth in developed countries that are in Stage III of the transition.

Limitations of the model

The model provides no 'guidelines' on how long it takes a country to get from Stages I to III. Western European countries took centuries, though some rapidly-developing countries like the Economic Tigers of Asia ( South Korea , Singapore and Taiwan ) are transforming in mere decades. The model also does not predict that all countries will reach Stage III and have stable low birth and death rates. There are factors such as religion that keep some countries' birth rates from dropping.

Today there are no countries in Stage I; all are either in Stage II or Stage III.


At the outset, let us look at some of the common terms used while referring to population:

CBR or Crude Birth Rate
CBR is determined by taking the number of births in one year, in a country, dividing it by the country's population and multiplying the number by 1,000.

CDR or Crude Death Rate
CDR is determined by taking the number of deaths in one year, dividing it by the country's population and multiplying the number by 1,000.

TFR or Total Fertility Rate
TFR is the average number of children a woman bears during her reproductive life.

IMR or Infant Mortality Rate
IMR is determined by taking the number of deaths under one year of age in one year, dividing it by the total number of babies born alive in that year, and multiplying the number by 1,000.

MMR or Maternal Mortality Rate
IMMR is the number of women dying in a year due to pregnancy or childbirth (within 42 days of delivery), and dividing this number by the total number of live babies born in that year. This number is then multiplied by 1,000.

India's demographic transition -- finally in Stage III!

As can be seen from the table below, India was in Stage I till 1920, with high birth and death rates. The somewhat higher birth rate, however, led to population growth. Between 1920 and 1960, in Stage II, death rates fell sharply but birth rates continued to be high, resulting in rapid population growth. Since the 1980s, there has been a noticeable decrease in birth rates together with a further decrease in death rates, which is characteristic of an industrial society, Stage III.

Crude birth and death rates in India, 1901-2001

Year Crude birth rate Crude death rate
1911 49.2 42.6
1921 48.1 47.2
1931 46.4 36.3
194145.2 31.2
1951 40.8 27.4
1961 41.7 22.8
1971 41.2 19.0
1981 37.2 15.0
1991 32.5 11.4
2001 24.8 8.9
Source: Census 2001, Registrar General of India

Despite the fact that couples now have fewer children than they did earlier, the overall growth in numbers still appears high because of 'population momentum'. India has a high proportion of young persons who are in the reproductive age-group or will soon be. Even if this group produces fewer children per couple, the quantum increase in numbers will be high, because the number of reproducing couples is high. India , with its large population and high growth, will take some time before the results of declining fertility start showing explicitly.

Why developing countries lag behind in demographic transition

One important reason is that, for several centuries, large parts of Africa and Asia were ruled by European powers. Economist Lakshmi Iyer points out: "Many of these areas are extremely poor today: in terms of per capita GDP in 1995, the poorest 20 countries in the world were all ex-colonies."

Martin Jacques, a columnist for The Guardian explains in an article: "Colonial rule involved the subjugation of the interests of the colony to those of the imperial power. The last thing that the European powers wanted was to allow their colonies to develop an industrial capacity and, as a consequence, become competitors for their own domestic producers. That is why industrial development in so many of Europe 's colonies was so sparse and so stunted... The most important factor that constrained the development of vast tracts of the planet was colonialism. By the same token, the most important factor in transforming their possibilities was freedom from colonial rule-

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh illustrated the impact of colonialism explicitly in his speech at Oxford University on July 8, 2005 . "There is no doubt that our grievances against the British Empire had a sound basis. As the painstaking statistical work of the Cambridge historian Angus Maddison has shown, India's share of world income collapsed from 22.6% in 1700, almost equal to Europe's share of 23.3% at that time, to as low as 3.8% in 1952. Indeed, at the beginning of the 20th century, 'the brightest jewel in the British Crown' was the poorest country in the world in terms of per capita income."

In an incisive analysis of British rule in India , historian Mike Davis further reveals: "The British insisted that they had rescued India from "timeless hunger". In fact, there were 31 serious famines in 120 years of British rule, against only 17 recorded famines in the previous two millennia. It was the process of incorporating India into the world market to serve colonial interests that caused incalculable damage to Indian peasants, the agrarian economy and food security. There is little evidence that rural India had ever experienced subsistence crises on the scale of the Bengal catastrophe of 1770 under East India Company rule, or the long siege by disease and hunger between 1875 and 1920 that slowed population growth almost to a standstill-

The effects of colonisation are still evident. As the table below shows, today, Africa and Asia (which were largely colonised) have the lowest rates of life expectancy. Under-5 mortality or the death rate for children below 5 years of age, which is a very sensitive indicator of development, is far lower in developed countries than in Africa and Asia . Urbanisation (which often accompanies industrialisation) is low, while the fertility rate is high compared to Europe and Northern America (which were imperial powers).

Select indicators for colonised and coloniser countries


Total population (millions) 2006

Total fertility rate (2006)

Total fertility rate (2006)

Life Expectancy M/F

Percent urban (2005)

Africa 925.5 4.77 155/14348.8/50.238
Asia 3,950.6 2.38 64/6666.4/70.440
Europe 728.1 1.42 12/10 69.9/78.372

Northern America

333.7 1.99 8/8 75.3/80.681
Source: State of the World Population 2006, UNFPA

The myth of 'ideal' population size

There is no ideal for population size. For instance, a population can appear too large or too small depending on the way of life (socio-economic situation) of a country. Typically, agrarian societies tend to have large families, as more working hands are needed for agricultural work and it is more economical to use family labour than to hire labour which then has to be paid. On the other hand, where agriculture is heavily mechanised, machines replace human labour and the population thus displaced seems too much, as it is jobless and thus poor. Highly industrialised countries similarly do not need so much labour. The need for skilled/unskilled labour and changes in the economy therefore can make the number of people appear too little or too many.

The age composition of the population also matters. Having a young population has the potential of fuelling economic growth if sufficient and suitable jobs can be created for them. A large population of 'retired' people is a relatively new phenomenon, and society has not found a way to effectively utilise their experience and skills. Hence, they are viewed more as a burden than an asset. India has a large population of young people, while developed countries have a high proportion of older people.


Population under
age 15 (2004)

Population aged
65 and older (2004)










Russian Federation






South Africa






Source: Human Development Report, 2006, UNDP

Population density is another variable. However, we create the wrong impression when we say India has 2.4% of the world's surface area but sustains 16.7% of the world's population. Several countries have a population density far greater than India , as the table below shows. Much more important for agrarian economies are the amount of agricultural land, distribution of land ownership and the size of population it can support. In highly urbanised countries, the consideration is how much population can the civic amenities and infrastructure support.

Population distribution in select countries


Density of population per sq km

Gross national income per capita PPP $ (2004)

Percent urban (2005)


Population/hectare arable and permanent cropland

Singapore 6,208 26,5901002.6
South Korea 480 20,400811.9
Netherlands 392 31,220800.5
Japan 339 30,040660.9
India 336 3,100293.3
China 137 5,530405.5
Kenya 59 1,05021 4.7
Source: Wikipedia, and State of World Population 2006, UNFPA

There is therefore no simple answer to the question of 'ideal' population size as many interrelated factors are involved. We have only looked at some of these.

Creating the myth of 'overpopulation'

For over 200 years the world has been concerned about numbers, especially of the poor.

It all began in 1798, in England , when the Reverend Thomas Malthus through his 'Essay on the Principle of Population', raised alarm bells about "unchecked" population growth, which are ringing to this day. Through this essay, Malthus propounded his notorious and oft-repeated proposition: "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power of the earth to produce subsistence of man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometric ratio. Subsistence increases only in arithmetic ratio." Within five years he used this law to explain the poverty of the masses and the inability of the rich to ameliorate their circumstances.

Although history has proven Malthus wrong, and the earth continues to produce sufficient food for all its inhabitants, over the last two centuries, neo-Malthusians have modified, twisted and propagated his theory to ease the conscience of the rich and, consequently, the power of the nations of the First World . The hysteria generated when India 's population crossed the 1 billion mark and when world population crossed 6 billion serves to highlight these 'events'.

Academician and researcher Dr Mohan Rao argues: "Malthusianism and neo-Malthusianism offer an excessively simplistic, but appealing, understanding of the complex relationship of resources and population, an understanding which has proven to be a theoretical red herring. Despite their flimsy conceptual, methodological and empirical foundations, these theories have won widespread acceptance in both academic and public policy circles."

Over decades, while Malthus' arguments were readily accepted, the social context in which they were made was as readily overlooked. From the 16th century onwards, great economic changes were taking place in the Western world as countries transformed from agriculture and traditional occupations to capitalism. Large-scale displacement was taking place from rural areas to newly-formed cities, and there was widespread social and economic upheaval. In this situation, Malthus' theory that the poor were themselves to blame for their poverty was very attractive to the rich and powerful.

Since Independence , India too has been going through such a social and economic transformation.

( Nalini Bhanot has been a researcher on health issues for over two decades. Laxmi Murthy is a journalist specialising in gender and development issues)

InfoChange News & Features, March 2007