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Not ‘Population Bomb’, Decreasing Fertility Rate is a Geopolitical Concern for South Asia

By Samarth Kavoori

Obstacles linked to overpopulation is a ubiquitous debate among Indians today. Mumbai’s congested trains or Delhi’s bazaars are standard images that come into people’s minds while discussing the topic. Over the last few years, however, a conflicting argument has become popular. The view suggests that reduced birth rates could lead to an irremediable demographic problem that clashes with the dominant view of an overburdened planet. From my standpoint, the two arguments that critics may use against ‘overpopulation as a problem’ are: ‘population-bomb’ isn’t a socio-economic problem as popularly believed to be and the second being that decline in global fertility may be the real problem.

The stance for the first argument can’t be summarized in a single narrative as it involves a concentrated and rigorous intellectual discourse. In the 1968 book ‘The Population Bomb’, Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich famously (or infamously) said “Few problems are less recognized but more important than, the accelerating disappearance of the earth’s biological resources”, the author continues by saying, “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it is perched”. Dr. Ehrlich’s view remains the predominant outlook for those living in India especially the literate urban youth. The book received extensive criticism since its release, primarily because of his emphasis on the subject alone rather than the distribution of resources. However, to simplify this article, the first argument will largely be ignored.

The second argument is principally based on statistics. The effects of a global decline in fertility rates haven’t yet been realized as the actual population continues to grow along with rapid urbanization in much of the developing world. Japan and some European countries remain an exception. Consider, the current fertility rates of the seven South Asian countries (Afghanistan excluded). Consider World Bank’s fertility growth rate estimations for 2017, India and Sri Lanka’s rate is estimated to be 2.2 children/woman, Bangladesh and Nepal at 2.1 children/woman, Bhutan at 2.0 children/woman, Maldives clocks in low at 1.9 children/woman, Pakistan’s rate however, is much higher than others in the region at 3.6 children/woman. Pakistan also ranks the lowest in most development indices, such as GDP per capita, HDI among others. The higher fertility rate could be attributed to the poor performance in these indicators. According to the World Economic Forum, at the current levels of growth, Pakistan’s population in the year 2100 is expected to shoot up to 352 million, about the same as the United States’ expected number in 2030.

China’s population is slated to decline from 1.43 billion today to 1.07 billion in 2100, a decline of over 300 million. Though, author of Big Country and Empty Nest, Dr. Yi Fuxian suggests that the popular estimates are quite conservative and certain sources claim the number could be as low as 560 million. According to the Economist, China’s median age is likely to surpass the United States’ as the number of individuals over the age of 65 will grow from 12 percent to almost 25 percent in the next 25 years. The United States’ figure is estimated to be approximately 447 million. Pakistan and surprisingly the US together with most of Africa will be in the rare group of countries that will still experience population growth in 2100. Similar figures for China’s and the US’s population is a matter of concern for the geopolitical situation in South Asia. In the scenario presented above, China is likely to strengthen its ties with Pakistan and other South Asian countries as it will try to deter an increasingly powerful India. The global fertility rates will be close to 1.9 in 2100. India’s current rate of replacement at 2.2 is likely to drop owing to ongoing trends. India is expected to lose 200 million people between 2050 and 2100 and may age considerably with the working-age population gradually getting older. Meanwhile, with a working-age population of over 200 million, Pakistan is likely to have larger defense personnel in proportion to its population compared to that of India. In numbers, though India’s working-age population would still be double albeit declining in numbers. Afghanistan will remain significant for India as a strengthening Pakistan might endanger the region. The military tussle between the two countries is likely to intensify. The partition would be a 150-year-old forgotten history lesson by 2100. Thus, the probability of any socio-cultural empathy to the sub-continent is likely to die out as Pakistan will be the largest Muslim country in the world and would characterize itself as the demographic heartland of the Islamic world. That said, the hostility between the two countries may concern regional hegemony and resources rather than a fight for historic reasons. China may seek Nepal’s help too at the time. However, the political situation in Nepal remains unpredictable.

Bangladesh is another country that’ll look noticeably different in 2100. Its population is likely to drop by almost 8 percent and its fertility rates may resemble that of present-day Europe. Sources suggest that Bangladesh is likely to lead South Asia in multiple social indicators in the coming decades and may become a reliable economic hub. If Sheikh Hasina’s Vision 2041 materializes to its fullest extent, Bangladesh would have gained the status of a developed state. However, the country is environmentally sensitive and the consequences because of climate change may prove dire for the people as well the economy.

India is likely to remain the key actor in the dynamics of international affairs. However, geopolitics is only one dimension that affects India. Indian economy and soft power are two other key factors in the scenario. Besides, India is not a homogeneously contiguous nation-state unlike the rest of South Asia. The dynamics within India will determine its socio-economic status in the next century. Demographers have also called attention to India’s sex ratio. India has the lowest Women to Men ratio among the most populated countries of the world. Urban India’s ratio is said to be worse than rural. The two states with the highest fertility rate Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (3.3 and 3.1 children/woman respectively) also have some of the lowest gender ratios and score poorly on multiple social indices compared to the rest of the country. Internal migration within India will remain detrimental for policymakers that may lead to change in the present dynamics. Delhi, Maharashtra, states in Southern and Northeast India have fertility rates well below the global average comparable to rates in Europe. Moreover, Delhi, Maharashtra, and Southern states also have the most desirable living standards and are far more urbanized than the rest of the country, these factors might lead to unrest besides due to a significant change in the demographic makeup of the country.

Former Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru once said: “Some of these (Asian) countries, like India, far from needing a bigger population, would be better off with fewer people”. However, my entire essay is to oppose that traditional school of thought that has to remain prevalent in India. Nehru’s argument has already been proven wrong by China and East Asia. South Asia will soon follow and with the superfluous emphasis on overpopulation that policymakers and the Indian civil discourse have had direly needs restructuring. The outlook of changes in the population varies once the reason to study demographics changes from that of development to geopolitical strategy.

About the Author:

Samarth Kavoori (ORCID: 0000–0001–5133–4711) is a Junior Geopolitical Analyst at Grid91, Mumbai. He can be contacted on Linkedin or Twitter.

Cite this article:

Kavoori, S., “Not ‘Population Bomb’, Decreasing Fertility Rate is a Geopolitical Concern for South Asia”, IndraStra Global Vol. 05, Issue No: 11 (2019), 0080, | ISSN 2381–3652

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.



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