World population is to hit seven billion any moment, says the UN. The prospect of a crowded planet putting further pressure on the earth’s thinly stretched resources raises a question. Should we celebrate or fret about the seven billion mark? According to the UN Population Fund, let’s do a bit of both. Population increase brings with it environment, livelihood and life quality concerns, and their attendant policy challenges. On the positive side, people in many parts of the globe are living longer, healthier lives. Average life expectancy has increased from about 48 years to about 68. Couples are having fewer children. And more children are surviving.
But this demographic picture varies. Developing countries, with rapid population growth, generally have more young people. Developed nations, with reduced fertility, have a bigger share of aging populations. If this gives emerging economies like India an advantage, it also brings complex problems related to quality of life. Failure to create opportunities, promote efficient use of perishable resources and raise food productivity can lead to sustainability crises. Here, development of green-friendly technologies to meet and beat challenges will be key.
Such issues are critical for India, projected by some as overtaking China as the world’s most populous nation by 2030. Already 1.21 billion-strong, it hopes to reach population stabilisation not before 2060. With 2.4% of global landmass and about 18% of world population, it’s obvious India must check loss of forests and biodiversity, soil degradation, water depletion and pollution. Also, given India’s growing youth bulge, employment creation – along with proper housing – is top priority. It’s estimated at least 55 million additional jobs are needed by 2015 just to maintain the present ratio of employed people to total population at 39%. We’ll need mass scale factory employment and reform of agriculture – the vast majority’s livelihood source – to raise food output and rural prosperity.
For India to reap the demographic dividend of its young, productive numbers, health and education need a massive boost as well. The woefully underfunded health sector is in a shambles, as shown up by recent deaths of around 500 encephalitis-afflicted children in UP, followed by around 30 infants dying in Bengal’s government hospitals with abysmal paediatric standards. In education, the gains of high primary school enrolment are being neutralised by shoddy services. Girls’ education and women’s empowerment require special focus, in view of women’s right to make reproductive choices. We’ve no time to lose in adopting smarter, greener strategies that are reform-oriented and technology-aided. With sustainable development and inclusive growth at home, India can contribute to the global effort to preserve the planet for future generations.