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The Numbers Game: Revisiting the 'Malthusian' Legacy

Oxford Handbook of Population and Development edited by A K Shiva Kumar, Pradeep Panda, Rajani R Ved (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2010; pp xv + 240, Rs 795.

The Numbers Game: Revisiting the ‘Malthusian’ Legacy

Sheela Prasad

T
his book is one among a series of handbooks brought out by the Oxford University Press as part of its initiative to offer a comprehensive survey of research in a critical subject area. Coming at a time when the Census 2011 results are being announced, the book has a certain relevance and context. India has a long history of obsessive engagement with the population issue, having been the first to declare an official population policy in 1952. That not much has changed, is evident from M S Swaminathan’s foreword in the book, “if population policies go wrong, nothing else will have a chance to go right”.

The authors of the 18 chapters in the book come from varied disciplines – population studies/demography, economics, environment, journalism, development studies, sociology and medicine. While all the papers do not focus on the theme of the volume “Population and Development”, the contributions make for interesting reading, as the individual locations of the authors (in terms of both discipline and ideology) define their approach to the debate on population.

Questioning the Malthusian Approach

The chapters are not grouped under themes and as a result there seems to be some overlap. An introduction outlining the broad framework of the book and explaining the rationale for the selection and organisation of the chapters would have been useful. Also, definitions of development and an overview of the current debates in development discourse do not find space in the volume. In the first chapter, A K Shiva Kumar (one of the editors) attempts to make up for this absence. He sets the tone of the book by providing an overview of the population-development linkages. Outlining the major demographic

book review

Oxford Handbook of Population and Development

edited by A K Shiva Kumar, Pradeep Panda, Rajani R Ved (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2010; pp xv + 240, Rs 795.

trends at both the national and state levels, the author draws attention to the fertility rate, a favourite demographic indicator for research. Against this background, he examines India’s population policies, is critical of its coercive implementation and calls for a humane approach, “The contributors endorse the popular tenet – ‘take care of people and the population will take care of itself’” (p 20). While highlighting the problems with the population policy, S hiva Kumar does not reject it totally (he advocates injectable contraceptives as increasing the choice for women). In his critique, the gender perspective is weak, while the politics of population control is not addressed adequately. In a sense, this is the dominant voice of the book, a reluctance/ hesitation to push the critique of India’s population policy beyond a certain point. While most of the papers are critical of the dominant demographic position on population, they tend to remain within a “safe” limit.

The mixed bag of chapters include discussions on population, environment, climate change; population and food security; India’s population policies; media and public health; women’s empowerment; unwanted girl child; reproductive rights; mental health, and a focus on select demographic indicators – maternal mortality; demographic dividend and fertility. While Sunita Narain’s paper on “Population, Environment and Climate Change” raises important questions on the mainstream development model and its impact on environmental degradation, there is not much reference to population per se in the paper. Mohan Rao’s strong critical note against the neo-Malthusian views that dictate India’s population p olicy, draws on a number of disturbing examples of its excesses, particularly in north India. This paper probably offers the most radical perspective in the volume in its exposure of the so-called “target free” approach of the National Population Policy.

In a well discussed paper on “Population and Food Security” Madhura Swaminathan argues that the green revolution raised agricultural production but did not ensure food security. She makes a strong case for a universal public distribution system (PDS) which assumes relevance in the current debates on food security and targeted PDS in the country. Radhika R amasubban provides a historical background to the understanding of fertility and disease control by examining the context in the evolution of India’s health policy. This paper draws on the historical perspective to understand the population

  • development linkages and its impact on epidemiological transition. The author argues that of the two approaches to healthcare available to independent India
  • Gandhian and Nehruvian – the choice of the latter model (seen as an instrument of modernity), had serious implications for population control and the health of Indians. The paper leaves us with the question whether following the Gandhian path would have made a difference to the health of the people of India. This is a question that many in India are asking t oday, confronted with growing inequalities, sectarian violence, corruption and environmental degradation.
  • The set of papers on India’s population policies are critical of the strident tone and make a distinction between population control and stabilisation, some arguing in favour of stabilisation. A number of papers see the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in 1994, as the defining moment that signalled a paradigm shift in population policy from coercion to cooperation. The ICPD is also given credit for initiating policies that seek to empower women. The introduction of the Reproductive and Child Health

    Economic & Political Weekly

    EPW
    may 14, 2011 vol xlvi no 20

    BOOK REVIEW

    (RCH) policy post ICPD is seen as a major outcome in this direction.

    While it is recognised that the ICPD was more sensitive to women’s needs and contributed to a discourse on population that ushered in a new language of rights – reproductive rights – nonetheless it saw the population growth of the developing world/poor as a problem. The ICPD claimed to have replaced the old terms of the discourse like coercion, camps, targets, incentives and disincentives with a new vocabulary of reproductive rights and choices for women. Two papers on fertility decline in south India, both f ocusing on Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, report that fertility decline in these two states is based on coercive population policies framed after the ICPD. Some authors question the discourse on reproductive rights (introduced at ICPD) and what it means to women in India, particularly poor women. A significant observation is made by Abhijit Das, while referring to reproductive rights enshrined in the ICPD, “the articulation of right by the State does not necessarily mean its enjoyment by the citizens” (p 149).

    Kalpana Sharma’s “Media and Public Health” traces the growth of both, the print and visual media, and its coverage on issues related to women’s health. She admits that reporting on health issues has a class bias and there is a lack of space in the media for coverage of women’s health.

    There are a few papers on mental health; aspirations for education among school kids and their parents; and women’s empowerment which do not directly address the central theme of the book, but raise important questions.

    Conclusions

    The central argument of the handbook is that demographically driven population policies need to change. Comparisons with China’s “one child policy” are inevitable and some authors do refer to China as a success story in achieving demographic transition. In India, over the last decade, population control has been replaced with population stabilisation or the Jan Sankhya Sthirata Kosh programme. But the state and international funders continue to view population growth as a major problem that needs to be handled by offering women greater and more invasive contraceptive choices. The burden of bringing down India’s fertility rate rests on women, especially poor women. Is the shift from population control to stabilisation all that different? Many of the authors tend to think so. But a large number of studies by women’s groups and feminist researchers document that not much has changed in India’s population policy except the rhetoric. Inclusion of a few major contributions on gender concerns, conflicting agendas of development and politics of population control would have enriched the scope of the volume.

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    These comments apart, the uniqueness of the handbook lies in its presentation of a view that is critical of the mainstream demographic position on population that determines and shapes policy. Most literature in India on this theme would subscribe to a neo-Malthusian perspective on population, that would not include the arguments

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    may 14, 2011 vol xlvi no 20

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    Economic & Political Weekly

    BOOK REVIEW

    that this volume offers. The title of a recent book by Patrick French India: An Intimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People indicates how numbers dominate any discussion on India. The book has two lengthy appendices that are informative: Appendix 1 gives details of the National Population Policy, 2000 and Appendix 2 gives useful population statistics both at the national and state level. Students will welcome the glossary at the end.

    As a handbook it serves its purpose by providing the readers with an overview

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    -of the wide range of concerns and the complexity of issues that need to be u nderstood in any debate on population and development in the Indian context. One advantage is that each chapter in the book can be read independently as an autonomous text, while also being connected with the others, though these linkages are not always obvious. The handbook puts together a collection of readings on a much discussed/controversial theme and articulates a perspective that challenges the dominant demographic

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    view. At a time when the Census 2011 data is being released and discussions on India’s numbers and rates will not only be a national but a global “obsession”, the sobering tone of the book assumes significance and is welcome. This is certainly not a typical book on “Population and Development” – and that is its strength and value.

    Sheela Prasad (sheelaprasad@hotmail.com) is with the Centre for Regional Studies, University of Hyderabad.

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    Economic & Political Weekly

    EPW
    may 14, 2011 vol xlvi no 20

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