CAN’T SEE THE ELEPHANT

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Call it market or future workforce there is no escaping the fundamental truth that large population challenges a country.

India’s current population is probably on par or close to what the world’s population was at the start of the 20th century.  Dwell on it. Such imagination is what we refuse to do amid our chalta hai (its’ okay) ways. Our numbers seriously impact. The country’s economic problems, described as math, may seem lifeless digits. But they dovetail to human want. With high population in place, even self reliance as solution for import-dependence, resembles a fig leaf for modesty because there are still fixed costs like steep real estate prices to face. Add to it, high salaries as solution to address rising living costs with its resultant inflationary impact down the line. It is a vicious circle. And, this is without mentioning the known decay caused by excess numbers – poverty, malnutrition, unequal access to health care, unhygienic living conditions etc. Perhaps the argument is – once the economy revs up, India will be superpower thanks to its workforce and market.

Truth is – population is the elephant we don’t wish to see.

Population as market and workforce, matters for trillion dollar GDP. That in turn, contributes to everyone’s income. It is all correct. But try imagining from the perspective of quality of life. We have delayed the good life by a long margin by producing so many people. It will take years for India’s per capita income to rise significantly.  Most likely, we will have terrible wealth-inequality. It is already visible. Other pitfalls abound. Not long ago, a visiting German delegation expressed concern about the quality of available manpower. Indian industry too has voiced worry on the quality of skills training. Wilder stories exist on the periphery of our future workforce.

India’s current population is probably on par or close to what the world’s population was at the start of the 20th century.  Our numbers seriously impact.

High population affects quality of human upbringing. Few days after the rupee hit 68 triggering a sense of outrage for the way it left us monetarily weak, many felt shocked by the punishment awarded to the juvenile involved in the infamous Delhi gang rape case. This article is not about that case. But a juvenile involved in such degree of brutality should worry us. Those arrested in the recent Mumbai gang rape are youth. Similarly, who are those people ready to drop everything and fight for religion, culture and language? They appear off and on in photos of mobs wielding sticks and swords. Ever thought if belligerence rises with cheap availability of directionless youth? There are solid sociological concerns in our giant population. As rape cases increased in number, several writers commented on the outmoded mindset of the Indian male.

Population’s impact is the sum of human numbers and human behaviour influenced by the ecosystem of high numbers. Indian life is a rat race because of this. Its external manifestation is disorder and administrative systems crippled by overload. Corruption oils the wheels, extracts movement. Anna Hazare’s campaign brought corruption to focus. But the elephant went unseen. We allege external hand when capital runs away. Arithmetically, even a portion of 1.2 billion people living and working like the developed world, would suffice to enthuse investment and stock market. Market indices and economic indices capture delivered value; they don’t show ground reality. Fact is – when it comes to the act of investing, Indians themselves seek avenues that aren’t as suffocating as Indian existence. What else is states` rolling out the red carpet for industry’? Our own companies demand special treatment. We know the political and operational gridlock by human numbers. Knowing it well, we prize life overseas more than life at home. What can economic reform mean when no government will enshrine the need to contain population as part of overall strategy? At least mention the subject periodically, so that the citizenry is aware of how much they are party to a mess that denies India quality?

Population’s impact is the sum of human numbers and human behaviour influenced by the ecosystem of high numbers. As human numbers rise quality of life crumbles.

Population is not simply more people born. Despite the 20th century being the bloodiest century in recorded history, global population rose seven times in the last one hundred years because new life was born and thanks to advancements in medicine, the new survived and the old survived longer. Thus the old are also around in India. In various fields, particularly politics, they have voice. Imagining to their convenience, they nudge country to life by old idiom. Ample availability of young people willing to latch on to anything for direction provides followers. But is the perspective of 2013BC valid for 2013AD? Impractical and irrelevant aspects of the old way of life must fade. But they don’t. Old school actors like religion and feudalism periodically elicit toll through riots. Caste thrives. Rituals proliferate. Wealth and happiness are measured by property, vehicles, money and children.  There are other examples too. Sample patriotism – it is a highly misunderstood subject in India. Its most popular interpretation imitates old fashioned fort with cannons mounted on walls and soldiers ready to die. Anything less, you are not patriot enough. You plant trees for a country losing trees – that isn’t enough. You take public transport to save oil for the nation – that isn’t enough. You do your job sincerely to contribute to nation’s reputation in quality – that isn’t enough. You teach those who can’t afford school – that isn’t enough. You are not corrupt and thus adding to nation’s efficiency – that isn’t enough. For patriotism to be felt blood must be spilled; wars must be fought. Only that image satisfies. Adding to it, there is no problem if the same self proclaimed patriots bring administration to a halt or destroy public property through violent strikes, fights around religion, language and such. From where and how does such behaviour find social approval?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Deep within heavily populated country, insecurity flourishes. Don’t think so? Then, what’s gold consumption by Indians all about? Put differently – we are forever insuring against insecurity. Why? What is our fear? What keeps compounding it? I have always suspected it relates to the nature and structure of our families. A family is never without worry about potential insecurity although being in family gives you sense of security. As rat race by population intensifies, so does the family’s perception of insecurity in the environment and its urge to move ahead at any cost. In the analogy of country as fort with cannons, family is the primary fort. The rich and well-connected get away with anything. The middle class, lacking such resources, battles differently. In big Indian cities, organized urban violence has approval traceable to families. That’s how violence became acceptable as a brand of urban politics. Violence in the name of religion and caste are all kept alive by families. It should highlight how insecure families have become thanks to exactly what they contribute to – high population. We consistently avoid this point. I say it not to load the dice in favour of lone rangers although I firmly believe that unless one realizes one’s vulnerability by standing alone, you won’t fathom the meaning of human respect, the need for it and the genuine merit in social values. Some Indian values are definitely good. Problem is – we are inheriting it without knowing why they exist because the family-trap is all about inheriting without the effort of knowing why. I merely wish to point out in this habitually marrying land, that neither family nor its larger groupings like community are implicitly states of grace. They edit out many crucial aspects of existence, particularly the individual as basic unit. They also do wrong. Remember honour killings, hit-and-run cases etc where family-imagination was either cause for crime or family ended up shielding the offender? In India’s instance, both family and community is also network of similar interests. Despite veneer of corporate governance on the surface, obfuscation of professionalism by family and community has often been a problem at Indian businesses. Long given to family, politics has become rule by dynasty. So what’s unquestionably great about family? In India, our family spaces badly need revision by new thinking.

As rat race by population intensifies, so does the urge with families to move ahead at any cost.

Thanks to giant population, we are the world’s biggest democracy. Our chosen method of administration requires plenty of efficient dialogue. India is chaotic in dialogue all the way up to state assemblies and Parliament, the very institutions expected to be examples of debate and governance for the rest. Why does dialogue fail? One reason has to be India’s caste system of several centuries that made the idea of inclusiveness alien despite our scriptures talking of world as family. The caste system was proactively attacked only after independence and adoption of modern constitution. The India from 1947 till now, is yet a dot on Indian history. Another reason could be that against the expanse of India’s history, its experience of inclusive, democratic administration is limited. We have a tradition of great minds and great debaters. But did they flourish in an inclusive environment? The larger question therefore is – how often in the past were we genuinely inclusive of us, all by ourselves, the way we have been forced to sit together and govern since 1947? I am not an expert on history. But it appears to me that our past trained us little for it; we are treading new ground. This traditional lack of inclusiveness is a huge handicap when administering 1.2 billion souls hailing from diverse backdrops. As yet, our instincts track old ways. The natural tendency of any exploded population averse to imagining differently and used only to old school feudalism will be to evolve smaller fiefdoms of the familiar old. It delivers power and money, which contemporary society by its conduct, showcases as essential. It also deepens known problems through reductionist models of the old – for example, splitting into more states. Better administration probably requires more states in India. Yet such models mean nothing if they are not accompanied by changed mindset for administrator. Will an administrator with changed mindset be winner or loser to the imagination of rat race by 1.2 billion? Is leadership perennial indulgence of community or does it include selling harder truths – like noticing that elephant to begin with?

Within two decades, India will be the world’s most populous country.

In early 2013, my cousin and I were trekking in the Himalaya, when at a village en route we met a young American woman, part of a group of foreign college students on a month long-hike in India’s wilderness. She said she was enjoying the experience but then added rather puzzled, “ you know, this is supposed to be wilderness. We are forty kilometres away from the nearest road. Yet there isn’t a day that went by when I didn’t meet people!’’  Population and its ways envelop us. Our challenges are not with this land, which provided for us for years and still yields what it does. Our problems are with what has replaced geography – ourselves; the equations between us, what all we do. Increasingly how well we manage this social space is what decides success. We are in the age of society as soil; the age of the social farmer, for the real soil is part of a fading planet overrun by people. It is also what leaves us exhausted and frustrated. On the one hand, people adept at self promotion and social networking rise to the fore. On the other hand, plenty of genuine human talent is wasted for want of networking skills. And all the time in the background, every family fueled by its protective parents and grandparents insist that their wards are the next Einstein, Bill Gates or greatest medical doctor alive.  There’s nothing we can do except suffer this noisy gridlock. It would be a tremendous loss if dysfunctional by population, we are forced to trade democracy for something more directive. To avoid it, we must comprehend what happened to us by noticing the most fundamental flaw in which everyone is invested – high population. We must notice our social organization also and inquire if it suits environment drastically altered by high population. This need is gathering urgency.

We must comprehend what happened to us by noticing the most fundamental flaw in which everyone is invested – high population. We must notice our social organization also and inquire if it suits environment drastically altered by high population. This need is gathering urgency.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

 

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