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Frequently Asked Questions

By Nalini Bhanot and Laxmi Murthy

1 Does India have enough food to feed so many people?

Since Independence , India 's population has increased a little less than three times. In the corresponding period, foodgrain production has risen four-fold. India used to import grain earlier; now she is an exporter. So the argument about food shortage is not valid. The real problem is that many people in the country cannot get enough food because of poverty, lack of work and problems with food management and distribution. Under pressure from international organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the Indian government is constantly being asked to cut subsidies for food and health for the poor, making their condition worse.

South Asian nations have transformed from food-deficit countries in the 1960s and 1970s to food-surplus countries in the 1980s and 1990s, even exporting foodgrain. And yet, food insecurity and under-nutrition remain huge problems. How is this paradox to be explained? As economist Jayati Ghosh explains, misguided policies have also directly damaged food security in India since the mid-1990s. On the one hand, the government increased the price of food in the public distribution system (ration shops) meant for the poor. On the other, it exported millions of tonnes of foodgrain at ridiculously low prices despite widespread hunger and malnutrition in the country.

2 Aren't the large numbers of poor people causing environmental problems?

It is often believed that rapid population growth (mostly of the poor) poses a grave threat to the earth's natural resources. Such a perspective ignores the fact that human beings, particularly rural and indigenous communities, also protect and nurture the earth.

In the 1970s, Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren put forward the algebraic equation I = PAT. The impact of humans on the environment (I) was seen as the product of the number of people (P), affluence/the amount of goods consumed per person (A), and the pollution generated by technology per good consumed (T). This simplistic analysis fails to account for the complexities behind who among the monolithic P is responsible for what , and the how and why behind pollution -- such as the military, trade imbalances and debt, and the subordination of women.

While the global population has passed the 6 billion mark, it is worthwhile to ask who is actually responsible for generating most of the world's waste and global atmospheric pollution. The Pentagon, for instance, is the largest single consumer of energy in the US and generates a tonne of toxic waste per minute. It is the 'luxury' emissions of the rich that generate almost 90% of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and two-thirds of carbon dioxide emissions, rather than the 'survival' emissions of the poor. The 'consumption explosion', however, with its disastrous implications appears to engender less fear in the public consciousness.

Yet, the truism that all people use resources and create waste, and large families use more resources and create more waste, gained currency among most international development agencies that put the population 'problem' high on their agenda. The 'T' component of the debate -- the highest polluting industrial processes that provide consumer goods for the wealthiest fifth of humanity -- is controlled almost entirely by men in the most powerful, transnational corporations, governments and industrial giants who manufacture chemicals and weapons of mass destruction, with the main goal of maximising economic growth and profit.

Overconsumption, not overpopulation

It is estimated that a single child born in the industrial world consumes and pollutes, in a lifetime, as much as 30-50 children born in a developing country.

The pattern of resource consumption is not only unequal between the First and Third World , but elites within the country are also responsible for a skewed pattern of resource consumption. Inequalities in consumption are stark. Twenty per cent of the world's people in the highest-income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditure. The poorest 20% consume a miniscule 1.3%. More specifically, the richest fifth:

  • Consume 45% of all meat and fish; the poorest fifth 5%.
  • Consume 58% of total energy; the poorest fifth less than 4%.
  • Have 74% of all telephone lines; the poorest fifth 1.5%.
  • Consume 84% of all paper; the poorest fifth 1.1%.
  • Own 87% of the world's vehicles; the poorest fifth less than 1%.

(Source: UNFPA 2003)

The consumption pattern of the elite in any Third World country is comparable to the relationship between that country and the 'developed' world. In India , consumption by the highest income group (1.44% of the population) of electricity, petroleum products and machine-based household appliances -- products that have a global environmental impact -- is about 75% of the total consumption for these commodities.

3 Isn't overpopulation creating a water crisis?

According to the Human Development Report 2006, "there is more than enough water in the world for domestic purposes, for agriculture and for industry. The problem is that some people -- notably the poor -- are systematically excluded. In short, scarcity is manufactured through political processes and institutions that disadvantage the poor. When it comes to clean water, the pattern in many countries is that the poor get less, pay more, and bear the brunt of the human development costs associated with scarcity".

While basic needs vary, the minimum requirement is about 20 litres of water a day. Most of the 1.1 billion people categorised as lacking access to clean water use about five litres a day. On average, people in Europe use more than 200 litres -- in the United States more than 400 litres. Dripping taps in rich countries lose more water than is available each day to more than 1 billion people.

Environmental experts all agree that India is facing a severe water problem.

Says Gandhian and environmental activist Anupam Mishra: " Acute shortage of water is the most daunting problem facing both rural and urban populations today. Nature still gives us as much water as it always did, but in the last 10 years our water management system has collapsed. We have stopped collecting water." Some examples to illustrate this point:

  • In rural areas, traditional methods of collecting water in talabs (reservoirs) could have helped the situation, but the problem has been compounded by the fact that today there is greater water usage because of the introduction of crop varieties that require more water.
  • When urban areas first came up they were self-sufficient and able to meet their own water needs. It is said that Delhi once had 350 big talabs and many smaller ones that recharged groundwater during the monsoons. There were also 17 streams in Delhi, all of which recharged the Yamuna river. Today, these streams have become nullahs (drains).
  • For years now our agricultural policies have been such that farmers are encouraged to sell their agricultural land to industrialists. In rural areas that border cities, vast tracts of agricultural land are being sold for short-term economic gain. For example, areas around Delhi like Noida and Ghaziabad were once agricultural areas. Urban expansion has always taken place on agricultural land.
  • The paradox of our times is that when the government tries to save the environment, it ends up plundering it. For example, all industrial units operating in Delhi were asked to close down and were relocated to surrounding areas. These are areas where farmers have invested in their talabs for years, to meet the needs of the villages. When industries are relocated to these areas they draw water from the talabs , thereby depleting and polluting water resources.

So, it is not overpopulation but a complex set of wrong policies that are responsible for our water crisis.

4 Isn't it true that the poor have more children than the rich, and therefore need family planning services more?

It is true that the poor have more children than the rich, but one needs to understand why this is so. For the poor, children are a resource, assets that help the family to survive. From a young age, five years and above, children help the family gather firewood, fetch water, stand in queues, look after smaller children, work in tea shops, shine shoes, do home delivery, and a host of other tasks like cooking, cleaning, washing. This work done by children frees the adults in the family to look for waged work.

Average daily wage in rupees for children in agricultural occupations (Alterative Economic Survey, 2006):

Sowing: 38.37
Weeding: 33.32
Transplanting: 39.79
Harvesting: 34.31

According to OneWorld ( ), a combination of poverty, discrimination and inadequate schools means that child labour is an entrenched problem in India -- as many as 23 million children aged 5-14 are believed to work, with another 75 million out of school and unaccounted for.

Given that child mortality rates are still high, women produce more children to compensate for children who might die. Son-preference adds to this pressure to produce more children.

As the poor often have no fixed job or income, no social security, poor access to health services, and no security in old age, children continue to be an asset for them. The poor will appreciate the idea of a small family only when their social and economic situation improves so that they too have access to the basic necessities of life such as food, clean water, shelter, education, healthcare, and enough income to sustain them.

Children in rich families do not need to engage in this sort of labour. Bringing up a child is an added cost for the family -- the cost of food, clothing, education, toys.

5 Will Muslims soon outnumber Hindus in India ?

The myth that the Muslim rate of population growth is much higher than the rate of population growth among Hindus, so much so that Hindus will be rendered a minority, is whipped up time and again by right-wing forces.

The use of insulting anti-Muslim slogans like ' Hum panch, hamare pachis' ('We five, our 25') is based on the erroneous notion that all Muslims have four wives. Such myths ignore the ground realities. The incidence of polygynous marriages (that is, where a man has more than one wife) is 5.80% among Hindus, while the percentage incidence among Muslims is in fact slightly lower at 5.73%.

On the face of it, yes, Indian Muslims do have more children than Indian Hindus. According to NHFS II, 1998-99, the total fertility rate of Hindu women was 2.8, and Muslims 3.6. But certain aspects of the fertility behaviour of Hindus and Muslims must be borne in mind before jumping to any conclusions.

India 's Muslim population is concentrated in a few states -- 36% reside in the backward states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Muslim fertility rates are falling, and the gap between Hindus and Muslims is closing. The TFR among Hindus was 3.3 in 1992-93; this declined to 2.8 (1998-99). But the fall among Muslims was even more rapid: from 4.4 to 3.6.

What is not usually part of the propaganda is that the sex ratio (number of girls for 1,000 boys) among Indian Muslims has been consistently higher than among Indian Hindus. Second, infant and child mortality is lower among Muslims than it is among Hindus. This means that in spite of their lower economic and social status, Indian Muslims look after their children (girls and boys) better than Indian Hindus.

6 Doesn't family planning help improve the health of women?

The common belief is that the health status of poor women further deteriorates due to repeated pregnancy and childbirth, and is responsible for the high rate of maternal mortality in our country. In fact, the main causes of death in women, of all ages including the reproductive ages, are communicable diseases and anaemia.

A lot more could be done to improve women's health by improving their nutritional status, providing them with comprehensive healthcare, not just during pregnancy, doing away with discriminatory practices such as abortion of female foetuses, and taking stern measures to prevent violence against women.

Contraception can help women if they have the freedom to make their own decisions, and have access to quality health and family services. For poor women, the very reasons that contribute to their poor health status also prevent them from benefiting from family planning.

Contraceptives have helped women who are educated and economically advantaged by allowing them to have the number of children they want, when they want, and to have no more than they want. Such women have access to doctors and hospitals from where they can get detailed information, can choose a method appropriate to their health status, and can receive proper screening and follow-up.

7 What is the difference between birth control, family planning and population control?

Birth control is an individual woman's right to control her fertility, and, at most, a couple's attempt to determine family size.

Family planning is the language used by the government for population control , which is the governments' attempt to limit the number of its citizens.

Population control emphasises women's reproductive role, not their overall health; national goals, not individual life choices; coercive government programmes, not individual empowerment.

( 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