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Mass Hysteria and the Myth of Population Explosion

Guest Opinion

English economist, cleric, and demographer Thomas Robert Malthus is famously known for his theories on population. In his famous book "An Essay on the Principle of Population"(1798), he argued that the human population grew in geometric progression while food supply grew in the arithmetic progression. Thus, in no time the population will outstrip the food supply causing disequilibrium. Therefore, adversities like famines, war, and starvation will occur. These are named as the positive vices by Malthus. Nature will intervene when the population grows and will bring back population equilibrium. Then, he proposed negative checks such as late marriage, self-control, and celibacy. He was hinting at the population explosion which should be controlled immediately. Though his findings were later proved wrong and heavily criticized, this narrative of population explosion is continuously generated in the form of propaganda for implementing stringent family planning laws in democratic countries and authoritarian states alike.

Population explosion is often invoked in India leading to a kind of hysteria in local people. Often leaders and organizations alike have advocated for stringent family planning laws, the one-child policy, and even forced sterilization. This hysteria around population growth is very misleading. It tends to roll back the benefits of democratic programs that were undertaken by the government in the last decades and also reveals the spurious conjectures that people have about the actual figures of population growth in India.

Busting the myth of population explosion

The recently published study in the Lancet Medical Journal can reduce such apprehensions to an extent, as it indicates that India's Total Fertility Rate (the average number of children born to each woman) may decline to 1.29 by 2100 from 2.14 in 2017, which itself is significantly less from 5.6 in 1950. The study conducted by the Lancet was done by researchers from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) and funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that analyzed population trends in 195 countries.

According to the study, India will be the most populous country in the world in the year 2100 but the population of India will reduce to 1.9 billion, it will be less than the present population of India. India will see its population peak in the year 2048 with around 1.61 billion but after that population will start to decline. By 2100 India will lead the world in the working-age population. The other countries having the highest population in 2100 will be quite surprisingly Nigeria in the second position followed by China, the United States, and Pakistan.

The politics of population

The people who try to create bedlam and chaos or sing the songs of the pandemonium of population explosion also fail to notice that the growth rate of India's population has been falling since 1971. It is also clear that the total fertility ratio which has been defined as the average number of children borne by a woman in her entire life has been continuously falling across India. According to the UN projections 2019, India's total fertility rate or total fertility ratio has declined from 5.9 children per woman in 1950 to 2.2 children per woman in 2020. It is very close to the replacement level [1] of 2.1 per woman. 

Urbanization has also played a crucial role in reducing fertility rates. Greater development is inversely linked to birth rates, this is a time-tested proposition. According to William Reville[2], urbanization plays an important role in addressing the concern of overpopulation as in cities children do become an economic liability till they attain a certain age whereas in the rural areas they can always help at the farm. Women in cities do have less social pressure of having more children and an increase in access to media, school, and contraceptives also lead to a voluntary reduction in the number of children people wish to have.

The zealous spokesman during debates often use the narrative of population explosion in India and continuously press the government to bring central legislation to control childbirth in India without recognizing that India signed the International Conference on Population and Development Declaration in 1994 and is bound to honor a couple's decision to determine the size of its family and space between childbirths. The rhetoric of population explosion is also the favorite of authoritarians and inefficient governments around the world as they find it convenient to brush aside the claims of effective delivery of services and also set aside the demands of people for better lives by claiming that overpopulation has swept the benefits that their policies had to offer.

Voluntarism versus coercion

Coercion has never been successful in controlling the population of any country. There are not only prudential but also moral reasons for not using coercive population control measures. If we bring the ends – means discussion in the ambit of population control then coercive population measures, treat their citizens as a means towards the goal of population control, and hence the end of individual liberty of decision making in the personal space of an individual is brutally crushed. Secondly, humans are rational agents who are capable of reason and making sound decisions, coercive measures present them as irrational agents incapable of decision making thus preventing them from their ability to exercise reason. Thirdly, coercive measures of population control treat women as a child- producing factories as they have been treated in China where at will the government tell them to hasten the production or lower it. This takes away the decision making power and empowering instincts away from women. This is thus harmful and leads to suppression of their personality. Furthermore, these kinds of population control measures also lead to the intervention of the state in the personal and private spaces of individuals thus violating the principle of non-intervention in the private realm and also taking away negative liberty from individuals which Isaiah Berlin ranks above positive liberty. These provisions downgrade the individual from the level of citizens where they are seen as active agents in decision making processes to the status of irrational subjects.

Stricter family planning schemes in India might contributed to an even more drastic decline in sex- ratio considering that sons are preferred over daughters by considerable amount of parents. Similarly, population control measures have had a history of being more harmful to certain sections of populations and lesser to others. In the times when religious, racial, gender and sexual minorities are arguably being sidelined, these repressive population control measures would not only enhance deep-seated racism, majoritarianism, and islamophobia but the provisions of population control will be much harsher on these communities.

The coercive one-child policy in China which was ultimately reversed in 2013 has led to an irreversible aging population, sex-selective abortions, and has also impacted the economy due to shortages of labor and economic slowdown. In a study conducted by Nirmala Bharuch[3], on the laws restricting the eligibility of people in Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, and Rajasthan concluded that the two-child policy leads to violation of democratic and reproductive rights of individuals.

Effective methods of population management

To control overpopulation, the best mechanisms are voluntary. Governments around the world have been successful at reducing the total fertility ratio from 4.5 in 1970 to 2.5 children by increasing the focus on education and by increasing the availability of contraceptives. This has made women free to choose smaller family sizes. Additionally, criminalising marital rape will at one hand lead to the empowerment of women and a reduction in unwanted pregnancies and on the other would help alleviate exploitation of women. The present population of India must be treated as an asset, and not a liability. We must emphasize on development of human potential and strive towards the success of voluntary programs of population control and should not sway away with the demagogic authoritarian projections of population explosion in the country. The world should certainly maintain its calm and put an end to the hysteria around population explosion.


By Preet Sharma

BA (Hons) Political Science, Hindu College

Preet is a third year student of Political Science Hons at Hindu College. She is a simple girl who loves engaging with complicated political theories . She is also deeply passionate about cooking other than reading and writing


· THE LANCET REPORT: Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: a forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study.14 July 2020.


· best-way-to-stabilise-population






[1]refers to the total fertility ratio at which the population will be exactly able to replace itself from one generation to next without migration.

[2] emeritus professor of biochemistry at the University College Cork, Ireland

[3] the former chief secretary of Madhya Pradesh.

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