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Overpopulation is an excuse for skewed development

By Nalini Bhanot and Laxmi Murthy

Since independence in 1947, India has been transformed from an impoverished agrarian nation into a potential global economic superpower. Nonetheless, India lags far behind developed countries in terms of provisions for basic facilities -- health, education, water, sanitation. While it is true that India has a large population, it also has the economic capability to provide the basic necessities to its people. It all depends on which sectors of the economy are given priority. For instance, if India 's expenditure on defence or space programmes was to be diverted to health and education there could be a transformation!

The table below illustrates that developed countries spend 6-8% of their national income on health, whereas India spends a mere 1.2%. Interestingly, the less developed countries in this table spend more on defence than on health.

The reasons may vary from country to country. India 's high expenditure on defence is believed to be because of her very large borders that need to be defended from potentially hostile neighbours.


on health
(% of GDP)

% of
access to

% of population
access to an
improved water

on education
(% of GDP)

(% of GDP) (2004)





































Sri Lanka
























Source: Human Development Report, 2006, UNDP

Sharp inequalities

Time and again, Indian planners have raised the issue of overpopulation to explain away the large-scale poverty that still exists in the country. The basic truth is that even though India 's economy has been steadily growing, the fruits of development have not been shared by all sections of the population alike. It is not as if each one gets a bigger slice of the cake when the cake is bigger. Rather, some get more and more of the cake while others are totally left out! What results is a picture of sharp inequalities:

Between rich and poor

The Human Development Report 2006 highlights some of them.

In India

Richest 20%

Poorest 20%

Share of the country's income


Births attended by skilled health personnel


One-year-olds immunised


Infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births


Under-five mortality rate per 1,000 live births


According to the Hindu Business Line , India 's richest 40 persons are collectively worth $ 106 billion, compared to $ 26 billion worth of the richest 40 Chinese ( December 17, 2005 ).

  Between urban and rural

In India , a majority of people live in rural areas -- 72%.

Says OneWorld: "The Indian economy has been trumpeted around the world for its high growth rates of the order of 8% per annum. But the rural economy has been expanding at barely 2% per annum creating an increasingly chronic divide with the prosperous urban middle classes. This divide has its most tragic human consequence in the suicide of about 100,000 farmers in the decade to 2003."

"Incomes in urban India are four times higher than in rural areas."

Seventy-five per cent of the poor in India live in rural areas, most of them comprising daily wage earners, self-employed households and landless labourers.

Indian government data further reveals that 260 million persons live below the poverty line. Thirty-three per cent of the rural population live in kutcha houses, and roughly 50% of households do not have access to toilet facilities.

It is no wonder then, that the infant mortality rate (2003) in rural areas is 66; in urban areas it is 38.

Between different states

While the central government provides financial assistance for some programmes, the basic responsibility for development lies with each state government. As the figures below show, there is wide disparity in achievement of developmental goals, depending on the priorities set by respective governments.

  • A state like Uttar Pradesh uses its large population as an excuse for poor development indicators.
  • In Kerala, the infant mortality rate is 11; in Orissa it is 83.
  • In Tamil Nadu, the maternal mortality rate is 8.8; in Uttar Pradesh it is 70.
  • In Kerala, literates are 91%; in Bihar the figure is 48%.
  • In Punjab , 6% of people are below the poverty line; in Orissa it is 47%.
  • In Maharashtra , 392 habitations are not covered under the rural water supply scheme; in Rajasthan the figure is 2,974.
  • In Andhra Pradesh, the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is 2.3; in Uttar Pradesh it is 4.7.
All the above are government statistics. The Indian government admits that states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar , Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan present the biggest challenge. These states have large populations that are still growing faster than the rest of the country. But they also have the poorest development indicators, as the statistics show. According to the government: "The most compelling reasons are perhaps the highly iniquitous social relations --including gender, caste and class -- in the community, weak governance and inadequate public service delivery systems."

Between men and women

Even though India has had a woman prime minister, the representation of women in Parliament is a mere 9.2%. Even neighbouring Bangladesh does better, with 14.8%, while Pakistan boasts 20.4%. In contrast, several developed countries have over 30% of women representatives, with Sweden having 45%.

The concerns of women consistently take a backseat. Adult literacy among women is 48%, while for men it is 73%. Estimated earned income for women is 1,471; for men it is 4,723 (PPP US $, 2004).

According to UNICEF's 'State of the World's Children 2007', women generally work more but earn and own less than men. In India , 86% of women work in the informal sector, often facing difficult working conditions, long hours and lack of benefits and job security.

Even today, in most parts of India , a woman's status is based on that of her father or her husband. Her primary role is seen as that of housewife and mother. Infertility in women is a reason for divorce in our legal system. Women who do not bear male children are liable to be deserted. Women do not have a legal right to inherit land, and their inheritance rights vary according to their religion.

Additionally, women face the possibility of violence at the hands of men -- at home, in the street, in their workplace, be it farm or office, in fact wherever they are. This can take the form of physical beatings, verbal abuse, rape, sexual assault, etc.

These are just some aspects of the disparity between men and women in India . The social pressures women face have also been covered earlier (See 'Ignoring the gender issue').

Between communities

Adivasis (tribals) are one of the communities that are most left out and alienated from the development process. Ironically, their sad plight is due to these very development processes.

The Alternative Economic Survey 2005-06 highlights the plight of adivasis in modern India . Adivasis have traditionally depended on forests for their survival. According to the survey, today adivasis "are virtually under siege due to the enormous demands placed on the resources that they so critically depend on for survival. As a result, they are facing a grave threat to their existence as a culturally distinct, community-centred social organisation".

Since Independence , nearly 60% of the large dams for irrigation and hydro-power were constructed in tribal areas. There is a heavy concentration of mining and industrial projects in the central Indian tribal belt, which has not only displaced large tribal populations but has also polluted their environment -- air, water and soil. The benefits in terms of employment, business, investment opportunities and other avenues of economic advancement have overwhelmingly gone to non-tribal outsiders while the adivasis have ended up in the "low paid, insecure, transient and destitute labour market".

Citing Planning Commission data 2004, the survey says poverty is disproportionately high among Scheduled Tribes (STs). While 27% of India 's population lives below the poverty line, among scheduled tribes 46% are below the poverty line.

Within tribes, forest-based primitive tribal groups are worse off due to declining access to forest resources which is their main source for subsistence. In the labour market, adivasis are engaged in the lowest category of employment on account of lack of skills. Only 4% of scheduled tribes are employed as regular workers. Only 2% are employed as industrial workers.

Nearly 72% of adivasis face food insufficiency for two to three months, and 5% for six months or more in a year.

One could go on and on about the disparities between landowners and the landless; between the organised industrial sector and the unorganised small-scale sector, between castes, etc.

Ultimately, it's a rich man's world. And India is like two different countries -- one India which is growing fast, prospering, aspiring to compete with the best in the world; the other India which is stagnating, starved for resources, and mired in poverty.

InfoChange News & Features, March 2007