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Barun Roy: The deluge and after

The population bomb is ticking and India is the least prepared

Barun Roy 

As we welcomed our seven billionth babies to share the world with us on October 31, did we pause to remind ourselves that it’s a deluge breaking upon us and ask: are we readier now to hold out against the assault than we had been when the six billionth babies arrived only 12 years earlier?

Today’s seven billion is predicted to be eight billion in 2027 and nine billion in 2046. It’s one kind of progress we certainly don’t like but are powerless to stop. As modern medicine and health technology bring mortality rates further down and lengthen life spans, net addition to world population of 215,120 a day, at present, is bound to keep swelling as the years go by.

Of course, businessmen will love it. More people mean more cars, housing estates, multiplexes, restaurants and shopping malls; more steel, cement, paper and textiles; more TVs, cell phones, iPods, iPads and laptops; more hotels, resorts and tours; more insurance sales and investment products.

But it also means more hungry mouths, more urban sprawls, more jobseekers, greater pressure on land, food production and social services and more mortal blows on the environment. If two billion motor cars are going to crowd the world’s roads by 2020, as experts predict is likely, against 250 million in 1970 and 500 million in 1986, the greenhouse gas effect on global climate isn’t difficult to imagine. If 70 per cent of humans are going to live in urban areas by 2050, again as predicted, cities are going to implode unless new ones are built and new roads and power stations are put in place, for which land is disappearing fast.

The implication for Asia – China and India, in particular, which, between them, account for more than one-third of the world’s population – is obvious. China is already the world’s largest new car market and claims the second-largest fleet of motor vehicles (78 million) in the world after the US (240 million). Between now and 2025, some 300 million Chinese will move from rural areas into cities. By 2035, over 70 per cent of the country’s population will be living in urban areas. This will need a quantum leap in urban infrastructure alone.

For India, destined to surpass China by 2050 as the world’s most populated country, the crisis is even graver since it’s still a village as far as infrastructure and services are concerned. With annual car sales, 1.8 million last year, likely to jump to three million by 2016, there are no more than 3 kilometres of roads for every 1,000 people. Urban population is set to reach some 600 million by 2030, up from 340 million in 2008, but nobody seems to know what to do to cope, except putting more buses on already crowded streets.

Few developing nations realise that control alone can no longer win them the population war. The problem is more manifold and fundamental. As growth becomes inevitable, conditions in which a population lives will make or mar a nation’s economic and social future.

One country that’s fully aware of this is China. On the one hand, it’s doing everything it can to keep its GNP from sagging, cast the net of affluence wider and meet quickening consumer demand at an equally quickening pace. On the other, it’s racing against time to build the broadest possible base of infrastructure to keep the economy functioning at the top of its efficiency.

New roads, railways, bridges, ports, airports and power stations are being built in China at a rate that’s unheard of elsewhere in the world and can only be called sizzling. Old cities are being transformed and new ones built to make habitats for a surging urban population greener, healthier and more liveable. And all this is being done in a manner as if someone is sitting at the top and making sure that no stones are left unturned and no ends are left hanging loose.

Unfortunately, we can’t say the same thing of India. Of course, there’s growing demand in the economy, thanks to pragmatic reforms of recent years and evidences of rising affluence and consumerism are visible everywhere. But that’s only part of the Indian story, one that’s much written about at home and abroad.

Behind the economic glitter, however, there’s a vast area of darkness that India seems unable to get rid of — the world’s biggest concentration of hardcore poor that no subsidies will erode; infrastructure that’s awfully limited and largely sub-standard; services that are miserable and often a joke; cities and towns that are stagnant, choked and crumbling; villages that languish without roads, water and electricity.

The contrast between the glitter and the darkness remains so sharp that one wonders if there’s anybody in India’s governing pantheon able to take a holistic view of things and tie the loose ends together.  

First Published: Thu, November 17 2011. 00:02 IST