Apocryphal reports suggest that a child born early on Monday near Lucknow is the world’s seven billionth inhabitant. However vague that labelling may be, some features of the world this child will inherit can be outlined with some confidence. It will be a crowded world with windling supplies of natural resources. Global warming and erratic agricultural output will be additional complicating factors.
While there is little room for Malthusian panic in this age, seven billion is a gigantic number that does require a realistic appreciation of problems it will pose. The danger is not from the large number of individuals, but from the limited supply of natural resources such as oil, water, land and minerals that are central to modern economic growth. As the number of people is rising, per capita availability of these resources is falling. The trend is clear.
Even that problem can be managed by better utilization as technology improves. That, however, is not the issue at hand. In countries such as India, it is the manner in which these resources are allocated that imposes limits on what even technology can do.
Water and land are two good examples of what is going wrong. In the case of water, the entire spectrum of users—from individuals to farmers and industries—does not pay the “real” cost of the resource. At the moment, users are not even levied the cost of extracting water (in the case of groundwater) and transporting it to the last mile. Even if that were fully recovered, it would not reflect the actual cost. That calculation ignores the fact that future generations may be left with very little usable water: a proper calculation would factor that carefully.
One way to do that would be to have the right kind of institutions. The seven billionth child and unborn generations need to have those institutions today. In India—and especially in poor and resource-constrained states—there is no sign of that. All that has been done so far is the appointment of a committee to examine the allocation of natural resources. Even the report of that committee has not been made public, leave alone changing the way these resources are handed out.
All this may look odd. After all, the big worry today in the world is from an ageing population. Countries such as Japan, and even China, can only look with envious eyes at India and Africa with their youth bulge. India, however, has to try and fix a broken system that can ensure that its youth gets the opportunities it deserves. At the moment, that is uncertain.
India: a land of demographic opportunity? Tell us at email@example.com