31 October 2011

7 billion and counting

Today the world reached 7 billion. It is quite fitting that the 7 billionth baby was born in India, in a place called Lucknow and is a girl - there seems to be a poetic coincidence in all this. Beyond the celebration of a new life, there is a darker reality of how the world is going to support 7 billion people.

Stanford University's Paul Ehrlich, the author of The Population Bomb recently gave an interview that emphasized how population growth is adding to many ecological problems. Population growth is leading to rising food prices, loss of biodiversity, deteriorating ecosystem services, water shortages, contributing towards epidemics, and scores of other problems. By 2050, it is projected that the Earth will support an additional 2 billion people.

These 2 billion people will not enjoy the same comfort of life as the last 2 billion. In order to support the excess population, we have to start farming poorer land, mine from even-poorer ores, drill deeper for water -- all of these will be exponentially more energy intensive.

Talking about population control means talking about sex education, women's empowerment, education of the girl child and scores of other social issues. I believe in India there is a cultural pressure to reproduce - this needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, although birth rates do seem to be falling, it is falling in the urban middle-class. Birth rates have remained the same in rural areas which means that poverty is also on the rise and the rich/poor divide continues to grow larger.

Enforcing a one child policy in India would be disastrous as it would further skew sex ratios. The solution therefore, needs to be the old one of education and awareness. Availability of contraception and birth control measures is one option. Adoption needs to be encouraged, especially in India as an alternative to IVF. The craze for IVF needs to be discouraged - maybe falling fertility rates is Nature's way of telling us that we need to slow down.

Although reproduction is a personal choice - it is not something that can be taken lightly. Bringing children into a world with increasing socio-enviro-economic problems, more diseases, less biodiversity, less natural resources would be selfish on our part.

There are theories that suggest that population will level off, mid-century and then there will a gradual decline. In this case, economic productivity will also decline, but it would be good for the environment. However, if we take care to ensure that we keep our numbers in check, we might be able to have both. Wishful thinking?

15 October 2011

food security, maternal deaths and 685 crores

This country never fails to amaze, astound and embarrass me. The limits to idiocy that India and its politicians can reach knows no bounds. I'm referring of course to Mayawati's megalomaniac display of utter crap. 685 crores, is the price tag for showing what a Dalit woman politician can achieve. Does this actually improve the lives of the dalit community? Absolutely not.

On the one hand, we have India's astounding economic growth. On the other hand, our food security falls behind Rwanda. Rwanda, for crying out loud! Something is wrong. Something is very very wrong. 685 crores could be better spent through community outreach programs, women's education, children's welfare and hoards of other schemes that would actually improve lives of countless people.

By the end of October, the world's population will have reached 7 billion. India contributes a large portion of this number. What are we doing in terms of family planning, planned pregnancy, children's welfare and child labour? There is absolutely a severe lack of grass-root development in a country where the vast majority of the population is grass-root.

India boasts the highest rates of maternal death during childbirth and pregnancy. Every seven minutes, an Indian woman dies bringing new life into this world. 78% of these cases are preventable. And what about after the children are born? Does every child get an education? Does every child get adequate nutrition? Does every child get a childhood?

One of the saddest things I saw recently was on a trip to Mumbai, not long ago. There were two girls maybe around the ages of 8 and 5. The little one was beating on a plastic drum while the bigger one was doing cartwheels in the middle of the street during a traffic-light stop, begging for money. There are scores of children like these. Looking into their eyes is painful. I do believe that a country who is unable to take care of the poorest of its poor and its natural resources has no right to boast about its economic progress.

Recently I was exchanging ideas with New Zealand's former Prime Minister, Helen Clark who is now administrator with the UNDP. It was opined that India's demographics and gargantuan rich/poor divide makes it a key battleground towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals. She also said that, "private sector plays an important role in development but quality state and subnational governance is important too." The world will not and can not meet the MDGs, if India does not.

Poverty elimination is the key. Education is key. Woman's welfare is key. This is the same song that has been sung for the past so many years and yet no one has bothered to learn the true meaning of its lyrics. Instead we allow someone, to spend 685 crores on a park in a country where earning Rs. 32/- a day means you're not poor.

Go figure.