December 15, 2009

Saving Quarters for Diapers

Americans are having to scrimp … saving quarters for diapers … Americans luckily have access to a few social safety nets provided by the government such as Medicaid, unemployment benefits, food stamps, etc. Then, non-governmental organizations and religious charities pitch in to provide whatever help they can.

The effects of this prolonged recession are definitely going to be far-reaching on the psyche of those who will have gone through long periods of unemployment. This is happening after some seven decades. So, very few are alive today who had experienced it the last time it happened.

The last recession was followed by an economic boom aided by both government policies as well as the ‘martial’ nations of Europe who still wanted to fight one last great, climactic mother of all wars after the Great War.

The lessons for India? I think the message is a very sobering one.

If a nation as advanced and prosperous can suffer such havoc from economic cycles of boom and bust, what chance does India have of escaping from such cycles?

None, I think.

And how can India prepare to face such cycles? First, India must wake up to these possibilities. India has taken baby steps towards globalization and achieved a modicum of economic growth and development in the last decade or so.

The lesson to learn is to stay alert and not become complacent. Growth and prosperity and development are not preordained. Second, India must begin to think in terms of creating safety nets similar to what is available to citizens in the more developed nations.

Of course, the creation of these safety nets will require enormous amounts of resources. India clearly lacks the resources. The fundamental problem is that so many millions and hundreds of millions of Indians live near the edge of a precipice. My fear is that when things go even slightly wrong, the repurcussions will be stunning. The problems could come in the form of any of a multitude of ways.

We are utilizing natural resources like there’s no tomorrow. The greenhouse gas emissions from all the fossil fuels that we burn could yet come to haunt us. Even slight changes to the climate patterns could cause havoc to the farming cycle leading to catastrophic crop failures.

India is still massively and overwhelmingly dependent on rainfall during the harvest seasons.

If the rains fail, India will starve.

Climate of course is a dynamic system. It will change in the future as it has in the past — with human intervention or without it.

As people become more advanced and prosperous, they tend to consume more and more resources on a per capita basis. People in general tend to consume more non-veg food which is in general more resource intensive. People will buy more furniture causing more damage to forests. In simple terms, the “footprint” of a single individual grows ever larger as he or she becomes more affluent.

It’s said that a baby in the U.S. consumes about 40 times as much resources as a baby in India. Unfortunately, Indians are still clinging on to some traditional ways of thinking … which includes the desire to have multiple progeny and large families. Having babies is considered almost a sacred birthright and a duty.

While people hold on to these traditional beliefs, some of the other realities have meanwhile changed. Infant mortality rates have declined precipitously with the widespread availability of antibiotics and other advances in medical science.

Remember that the land area of a nation does not grow whether the population of a nation increases or decreases. So, as India’s population has grown from somewhere around 100 million at the turn of the 20th century to nearly 1,200 million today, the land area remains the same. Perhaps this is an exaggeration. Perhaps, 200 million lived in the land area that is India today. At the time of India’s independence, the population was 320 million. Now, at 70 years of age, India is on course to become four times as populous.

This is clearly unsustainable. If we want every Indian to live a good life, then we must find a way to make sure that there are not that many Indians. This is a simple truth. If I may propose a brutal truth here — we must find a way to make sure that India’s population starts declining gradually.

Is that such a preposterous idea? I don’t think so. Name any advanced nation of the world and their population is already on a downward slide as we speak. Nations such as Japan, Russia, Italy and others are not concerned about burgeoning populations but are providing incentives to their citizens to persuade them to have more babies. We in India of course do not need to persuade or incentivize our people to procreate. They are unfortunately motivated enough themselves to do this.

That might have been a good thing per se, but under the present circumstances, it’s clearly not at all a good thing. Or, may be, this is too much of a good thing. So, we need to find a way to curb people’s desire to procreate.

This is the ultimate “who will bell the cat” situation. Do Indians have the vision and foresight to put some sort of a voluntary ‘moratorium’ on the uncontrolled population growth rates? If we don’t, then of course, nature will find a way, as it always does. Nature will find a way to control our population — it will do so brutally, through starvation and floods and earthquakes and tsunamis, through heat waves and cold waves.

The choice is ours.

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