India: Version 1.27 billion

Chidanand Rajghatta, Times of India, July 16, 2015

Washington: India is jostling its way towards becoming the most populous country in the world. At 5pm on July 11, World Population Day this year, the Republic clocked in at 1.27 billion, give or take a couple million, accounting for 17.5% of global population. Most projections indicate that with 1.63 billion people by 2050, India will have surpassed China as the world’s most populous country. The numbers will peak at 1.71 billion people in 2060 before they start to recede, but India will remain the most populous country going into 2100.

It’s hard to imagine Chandni Chowk or Chowringhee or Chembur being more crowded than they already are, but that is going to happen. We are going to be packed in tight, with very little elbow room. Here’s one sense of how we’ll be breathing down each other’s neck: India has four times the population of the United States (320 million) in one-fourth the space that is, four Indias can fit into the United States. So essentially, an Indian has 1/16th of an American’s geographical space.

Small wonder most Indians find America vast and untenanted.

Levity aside, something’s got to give. Many smaller countries–Singapore and Bahrain, Netherlands and South Korea among them–have greater population density than India. But it is easier to manage resources when you are in the millions. Our billion and half is a half billion too many.

India’s geographic size is relatively modest. It is only the seventh largest country in the world in area terms; and it is half the size of the sixth-largest nation, Australia. This will ensure that aside from sheer numbers, India will remain the most densely-packed large country in the world.

The strain on resources will be tremendous. We may find the wherewithal to feed our people through higher per capita yield or acreage production with land that is both fecund and fertile, but take something like automobiles. If India, with one-fourth the US land mass, reaches anywhere near American vehicular saturation (254 million cars and trucks for 320 million population), we are toast. With 50 million vehicles, our cities are already groaning in bumper-to-bumper misery; imagine a billion, or even 500 million, vehicles. Our traffic snarls will be not just miles long, but days long.

Could de-population through emigration provide a way out? After all, foreigners have streamed into India for millennia and have been absorbed into the lifeblood of the subcontinent to the extent that even DNA tests can’t divine anything more than the fact that we are of mixed stock. So why shouldn’t Indians be heading outwards in greater numbers, helped by government-negotiated policies that allow for organised and orderly work-related emigration in a manner that will be economically viable and beneficial to all?

Already, some countries are beginning to realise this and are formulating policies to attract diverse immigrants. The US, UK and France are among the countries whose populations are expected to increase by at least 25% by 2100, much of it fuelled by immigration. Canada and Australia, two of the largest but most underpopulated countries on earth, with density less than 1/100th of India’s, are following the example of the US and UK. Both have the capacity to absorb a lot more. But India has never made emigration a part of its negotiating agenda with any country, save sketchily with the US over work visas.

Of course, some countries hold little attraction for Indians, and some others are still locked in a nativist time-warp. Russia’s population will drop from its current 142 million to 111 million, and Japan’s from 125 million to 91 million by 2100. In fact (this is no joke), Japan will sell more geriatric diapers than baby diapers by 2020, a sorry tale of its aging population. Both countries need urgent infusion of young, working age population that fertility incentives–of the kind France encouraged–alone cannot fix.

Talk of emigration fires up both nativists and hypernationalists at home and racial purists and anti-immigration forces in countries that receive immigrants. But that is one way to not only arrive at a more level playing field in terms of trade (human resources and skills being one aspect of trade and commerce) but also arrest declining demographics and faltering economy, while ensuring access to resources. If Germany can do it, so can many others.

India, with its diverse and plural population, is already the motherlode of modern migration with a diaspora estimated at 30 million worldwide. From farming in South America and Africa to entrepreneurship and academia in the US, to cheese-making in Europe, Indians have been one of the great migratory forces in the 20th century.

But New Delhi needs to facilitate emigration of 300 million or more, not just 30 million, to allow itself some breathing space and gain greater global heft. It has to be in a formulation that constitutes a win-win to both giver and receiver. Already, it is accepted that fears of a brain drain were overblown. India has benefited more on account of its emigrating population. Emigration may yet be seen as an act of patriotism that carries the syncretic ethos of India worldwide.

This need not be a one-way traffic. If other countries can let many Little Indias bloom, India too can offer many Best Exotic Marigold welcomes, not just to geriatric populations but also to young adventurers. In 2015, cross-country involves traversing the globe–in all directions.

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