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T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan: The gorilla in the room

Modi and the RSS are both silent on India's biggest need: population control

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan 

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan

Prime Minister Narendra Modi fancies himself as a man who tackles tough problems. He does this to the accompaniment of catchy slogans aimed at focusing public attention.

But there is one aspect of India on which he and his mentor organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), are totally silent: India's population problem which, politically, is the hottest potato of all. So far there hasn't been a single tweet from them on this.

But the thing is, for success, all their other campaigns depend crucially on the number of people they have to deal with. Even if no more than one per cent of Indians don't get the Swachh Bharat message, it amounts to 12 million people, or a little less than the whole population of all Scandinavian countries. They can make India a very dirty place.

There is reason for this avoidance: forgetting that the new generation of voters has no memories of the horrors of the Emergency, all politicians believe that any talk of population control will cost them all the votes.

And there is a reason for that as well: the Gandhi family.

Most people, when asked about the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi and her son, Sanjay, in 1975, say that it almost destroyed India's democratic future. But they are only half right.

The two, but mainly Sanjay Gandhi, also destroyed India's economic future because although by a stroke of luck democracy was restored in March 1977, the damage done to the country's population control policies during the Emergency was never repaired. Having been fully aware of the problem, after 1977, India's political class began turning a blind eye to it.

It has ceased to be a part of the political agenda. No political party since 1980 has put it on its manifesto. That's how toxic Sanjay Gandhi's compulsory vasectomy programme was.

The gorilla
Simply put, it is impossible to supply the aggregate demand such a large population generates without causing severe all-round problems. If all Indians have to enjoy even a minimally acceptable standard of living in terms of food, shelter, clothing, education and health, something must give somewhere, if not everywhere.

To put it another way, the stress placed on supply systems doesn't increase arithmetically, which is what governments tend to assume when they look for supply-side solutions. It doesn't even increase geometrically. It increases exponentially. The consumption-led model of economic growth doesn't work for such large populations.

What's worse, no one can predict the directions from which the stress will come with any reasonable degree of accuracy. For example, if millions upon millions of Indians stop defecating in the fields, and adopt closed toilets, where will the water come from to flush it all away?

At another level, Indian political parties, which constitute the largest segment of the overall demand for black money, have to deal with 750 million or so voters. If it costs no more than Rs 30 per voter to fight an election, it works out to Rs 2,250 crore every five years just for the election. Multiply some of that that by the number of parties, and the number of elections, and you start seeing the true nature of the beast.

Think of the problem like this: if even light bends when it approaches an object with a massive gravitational field, what chance do puny man-made systems have? The conventional rules of economics and management stop working - as we saw them do most recently in the financial sector when much too heavy a load of money was placed on it.

The political agenda
In India, we have seen this happen over and over again. We started in 1947 with about 350 million people. We now have over 1.2 billion people and increasing. Population has doubled approximately every 30 years since 1950.

This has negated all our achievements. The supply of everything since 1950 has tripled. Of many things, it has even quadrupled or quintupled.

And it is still not enough because, unlike what governments assume, people don't demand just minimal amounts. They ask for several multiples of what is needed for bare subsistence - and we haven't got around to providing even that for around 300 million people, which is roughly the population of the US now.

It is all very well for Modi to say something inane but catchy like when "125 crore" people take one step forward, the country moves forward by 125 crore steps. But it remains just that, a cheerleader's chant.

The time to tackle soft issues has long gone. Modi needs to focus on this matter as well by quickly bringing population control back on the political agenda. Once it gets back to where it belongs, he can run his campaigns.

Does he have the toughness and political courage to do it? Will he look beyond the next 10 years?

First Published: Fri, November 07 2014. 22:44 IST