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COVID-19: Overpopulation Fears in India Have Spawned a Culture of Looking Away

COVID-19: Overpopulation Fears in India Have Spawned a Culture of Looking Away

Passengers wearing masks wait in a queue to board a bus, after authorities eased lockdown restrictions imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19, in Kolkata, August 6, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri.

Recently, over lunch at a restaurant (in New Zealand), I met a nice Indian man who  asked me, “So what do you think is India’s biggest problem?” Inequality, I said. He seemed confused: “Don’t you mean population? Population creates inequality,” he said. I took a deep breath and decided to tell him how his proposition was wrong; that fortunately I had years of research to back the claim that inequality, and not population, is the real problem.

Indeed, inequality is India’s greatest problem because it creates a fear of the population of others – “they reproduce too much and take up too many resources” – and also allows for us as a nation to look away when our people die, are brutalised and profoundly marginalised.

Interestingly, this misguided fear of a burgeoning population has deep colonial roots, but for the purpose of this article, it suffices to focus on a more contemporary conversation that most economically middle-class Indians have accepted. In 1968, The Population Bomb by American biologist Paul Ehrlich was published. Ehrlich opened with a passage that to this day is infuriating. Of Delhi and its people, Erhlich wrote:

The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. … People, people, people, people. As we moved slowly through the mob … the dust, noise, heat, and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect.

In these lines, he has quickly dehumanised Rupa, Suresh, Bhim, Aziz, Zara, Selvi and Parul as “people, people, people” – looking past unique lives and emotions to simply point out a discomfiting throng. For Ehrlich and his professorial privilege, these were just people reproducing themselves and their presumed miserable circumstances. In The Population Bomb, Ehrlich proposed that the Indian ‘overpopulation’ was a threat to American security and standards of life and consumption, and called on US allies – the ‘advanced nations’ – to discuss population control in ‘overpopulated countries’ like India.

He resurrected Malthus and Malthusian anxieties, and launched a litany of reproductive abuses and other basic human rights being denied to women (and men) by the states under pressure from international organisations and governments. He also advanced a dangerous eugenic argument that other people later took up as a ‘progressive’ narrative to ‘save Earth’ from the physical weight of humankind. This book was followed by a 1972 report that used computer simulations to suggest population tipping points.

India’s former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi commenced the Emergency in 1975. One of the key tenets of the move’s ‘five point programme’ was sterilisation campaigns to limit population growth. By the time her government was dissolved, the sterilisation camps that focused on male vasectomies were listed as one of the leading sources of opposition to her plans.

Also read: Modi’s Population Growth ‘Problem’ Is an Old Fallacy in a New Bottle

However, the local and global focus on India and its ‘overpopulation problem’ continued. Organisations like the Population Council, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and USAID even joined hands with India’s political élites to advance measures to address it. This created a culture both through messages in the popular media (like ‘hum do, hamare do‘, Hindi for ‘we two, ours two’) and concrete target-driven health policies that attempted to fulfil sterilisation quotas set by the government.

These campaigns had a clear subtext: that to be a good Indian, you had to have no more than two children (Prime Minister Narendra Modi revived this spirit in his Independence Day speech this last, when he said small families are more ‘patriotic’). The state also pressed modern science and medicine to the service of the case that if India was to be a ‘modern’ nation, Indians had to commit to bearing no more than two children per family.

Indian women inherited a part of this legacy. The total fertility rate in India dropped from about 6 children per woman in 1960 to 2.1 today. This figure is very close to the replacement level, which is the number of children each woman in a population needs to bear to ensure the population size is replaced from one generation to the next. The decline in India’s total fertility rate will continue so long as women have reproductive autonomy alongside economic autonomy.

So in 2020, when people like the well-meaning man at the restaurant complain of a ‘population problem,’ they are really talking about India’s current population – which in turn leads to the idea that we as a nation have to believe that some of us are expendable simply because there are too many of us. This belief allows us to look away when we as a nation have a humanitarian crisis on our hands, when the government’s response to a pandemic has only been a series of actions without being guided by a well-defined, well-informed health policy.

Today, as we live in fear of contracting COVID-19, the nation, its citizens and the world are all looking away. There is no mass outrage, either at home or abroad, that tens of thousands of our citizens have been allowed to die due to negligence more than anything else, their relatives’ socioeconomic conditions further impoverished by economic and healthcare crises. We are able to look away because, among other reasons, the economic middle-class has for the large part come to interpret India’s strength in numbers as also a surfeit of numbers.

As upset as I was when that man identified its population as Indian’s biggest threat, I also understood. Along with a swathe of Indian society, he has been told repeatedly on multiple platforms that India really has an overpopulation problem. Political parties current and former, international grant and aid organisations, colonial administrators and local clinics have all been telling us that India won’t progress, won’t be ‘modern’, if it doesn’t control its population.

This has allowed more privileged people to emigrate towards better opportunities in foreign lands and, once there, dwell on the fate of young Indians and their reproductive lives back home.

Also read: Why the 2019 ‘Population Regulation Bill’ Has Dangerous Consequences for India

The Indian government is now mobilising this irrational fear of a large population to seek support for legislative changes, especially the Population Regulation Bill. We have been saturated with an anti-population logic that is, more than anything else, anti-people. Populations are peoples, not abstracted numbers. They are our fellow citizens. But the misguided colonialist tendency to cast the population as the problem continues to rear its head, for example when we blame each other for lack of resources – including hospital beds in the middle of a pandemic.

We need to push back. We need to point out that the reason we don’t have enough resources, including hospital beds – is because we have defunded our public health infrastructure to create space for private healthcare, which has beds for patients if they can afford them. We need to ask for Bills that eradicate inequality instead of those that will reinforce inequality. We need to remember that population is not the problem so much as inequality, and looking away, is.

Nayantara Sheoran Appleton is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Science in Society at the Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. She is trained a medical anthropologist and a feminist STS scholar. She tweets at @nayantarapple.

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