"What's Population Got To Do With Prosperity?"

"Overpopulation Has Little To Do With Slow Growth"

By Chirdeep Bagga, Times Insight Group.
E-Transcription by Lúcio Mascarenhas.

New Delhi: Carry out an opinion poll on what is the single biggest factor in India's lacklustre economic performance and chances are that the number one answer will be the country’s large and ever-increasing population. But the facts do not bear this popular perception.

There is no dearth of countries with significantly higher population densities than India that also have much higher per capita incomes. The list features not only city-states like Singapore, but also larger nations—Japan, South Korea, Belgium and the Netherlands, to name only a few. It obviously makes more sense to compare population densities rather than just population per se, since the argument is about too many people fighting for too few resources.

India has a population density of 319.3 per k.m.2 and a per capita income of $2,537 in purchasing power parity terms. The Netherlands has a population density that is about one-and-a-half times as much, but a per capita income which is ten times that of India. Within Asia, Japan and South Korea are similar examples. On the other side of the spectrum are nations with low population densities and low per capita incomes. Kenya, for instance, has a per capita income of only $840 for a population density of 52.4, that is less than a sixth of India’s figure. Neighbouring Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan as well as northern African countries like Ethiopia and Sudan are others that figure in the low population density, low-income category.


High population density with high GDP per capita
Singapore 6,751 24,389
S. Korea 491 19,497
Netherlands 477 27,108
Belgium 338 29,127
Japan 335 28,700
India 319 2,537

Low population density with low GDP per capita
N. Korea 184 990
Myanmar 62 1,733
Kenya 52.4 1,089
Nicaragua 39 2,176
Sudan 15 1,387

You could argue, of course, that population density per se could be misleading. For instance, Russia may seem to have a very low density, but that is largely because most of its area is in the inhospitable region of Siberia. Similarly, large pockets of Africa are actually uninhabited.

It may, therefore, be more meaningful to look at the number of people for every square kilometre of cultivable land. Using cultivable area rather than total land area does alter the numbers, but it does not change the overall conclusion. On the contrary, it makes it even clearer that ‘overpopulation’ has little or nothing to do with slow economic growth.

India ranked 18th in the world among countries for which we could get the relevant data in terms of unadjusted population density. Adjust to exclude non-cultivable land and the rank slips to 66th. In other words, there are 65 countries where the number of people per square kilometre is more than in India.

So, how do these countries fare in terms of economic development? Quite well in several cases, not so well in others. But the one thing conspicuous by its absence is any clear pattern linking population density with income levels. As many as 47 of the 65 countries with higher population densities have higher per capita incomes, while only 18 have lower income levels.

The adjusted figure for India is 690 per k.m.2 to Japan’s 2,619 and the UK’s 990. Even China overtakes India in this parameter, with a population density of 942. Clearly, therefore, it is time we abandoned the old shibboleth about lagging behind in potential because we are an overpopulated country.
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