Overpopulation Isn’t the Real Problem. Resource Inequality Is.
Many have argued that the focus should shift from limiting population growth to the root cause – unequal access to resources.
The Indian Railways faced criticism for stampedes during the holiday rush, one of which killed one person and injured two others in Surat. Similarly, the cancellation of a special train to Bihar scheduled for the upcoming Chhath Puja festival in Punjab saw passengers vandalizing the train, as their anticipated journey was abruptly terminated. Meanwhile, videos posted by several news outlets as well as travelers from Mumbai's Lokmanya Tilak Terminus and Delhi’s Anand Vihar station depicted massive crowds scurrying to board the train. A video posted by Press Trust of India captured the commotion, showing people thronging the station even before the train's arrival. The incidents prompted renewed conversation about India's overpopulation problem again.
Overpopulation, as traditionally defined, implies an unsustainable increase in the number of people relative to available resources. However, this viewpoint tends to neglect the fact that the challenge is not merely about numbers but about the distribution and utilization of resources, which exacerbates the consequences of population growth. In India, as in many parts of the world, the unequal distribution of wealth and resources intensifies social and economic disparities. Many have argued that the focus should shift from limiting population growth to the root cause – unequal access to resources.
The term 'overpopulation,' has permeated numerous discussions regarding the Global South’s delayed development, including India. Soon after Independence, it became the reason for mass hysteria due to the release of a book called “The Population Bomb” in 1968, which attempted to predict the future, by a biologist Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich's alarmist narrative laden with concerns about overpopulation not only seized the attention of Global North due to the prevailing anxieties around scarcity in a post WWII era, it also became a compelling pretext for their intervention – through welfare plans – into scapegoating the Third World countries – who were trying to revive both their depleted populations and economies after years of colonialism and war. Thus, the rising population alongside heavy industries in the Global South became a convenient target for deflecting blame, distracting attention from the prolonged industrialization pursuits of the very nations leveling these accusations– of overpopulation and pollution.
To that effect, the reduction of overpopulation as a problem in its own right, rather than recognizing it as a symptom of underlying structural intricacies, entered the mainstream discourse within development economics and policymaking, especially with respect to the Third World.
By definition, overpopulation is the “Situation in which the number of individuals of a given species exceeds the number that its environment can sustain.” However, this traditional framework which most policy makers as well as leaders have relied upon to alleviate the ‘population bomb’ over several decades, has fallen short of success due to its failure to recognize the problem of uneven and unfettered accumulation by a small minority of the elite, due to which resources are grossly imbalanced in their allocation and accessibility to the majority of a population.
Critics of the overpopulation rhetoric have argued that it’s rooted in a Malthusian framework. A 1798 text, An Essay on the Principle of Population, by English political economist Thomas Robert Malthus, suggested that the rising population’s impact on the Earth and resource consumption must be curbed by either positive checks (war, famine, disease) or preventative checks (abstinence, delaying marriage). “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race,” Malthus wrote. Since then, the overpopulation myth has taken hold, particularly with respect to the Global South, which perpetuates the notion that the poor are to blame for climate change because they have children they can’t afford, and put a strain on resources. However, an unaddressed aspect of this critique is the fact that resources are often unevenly distributed: with the rich consuming more than they need, leaving less for the poor.
Several critics have thus dismissed his theorisation, debunked his logic, and have instead demonstrated how the actual issue lies elsewhere. A scholar of population studies, Mahmood Mamdani in his book “The Myth of Population Control in India” discusses how the problems of population can never be understood without understanding the problems of people first. The framing of several policy initiatives within India, in a bid to tackle poverty, to overcome widespread hunger, to erase health inequality have almost always inadvertently subscribed to a eugenicist approach, wherein the running ideology is to eliminate social-ills and reduce human suffering by “breeding out” disease, disabilities and so-called undesirable characteristics from the human population. Sociologist Emma Tarlo illustrated how mass sterilization was one such forcible measure in India where individuals from poorer sections of the society were coerced into getting sterilized through threats of evictions from their house in Delhi slums, or being forced to pay an exorbitant fine.
Why the Global South in particular? In their early attempts to accelerate their society’s advancement post independence, developing countries sought the aid of Western researchers and scientists to provide insights on problems confronting their populations. As Mahmood Mamdani noted, “apologists of the British Rule in India made overpopulation an excuse for the poverty of the masses.” The western influence on public programs to tackle social issues that permeated throughout the newly decolonised nations resulted in conflating overpopulation to be the cause of poverty, and not the other way around. Several demographers and epidemiologists, however, have proved that reproduction is directly related to mortality, since when there are more deaths (due to sickness, starvation, calamity, and oppression) the human instinctively reproduces more to ensure survival of the gene. Subsequently, as conditions improve and mortality rates decline, reproduction rates fall simultaneously.
The overpopulation myth, therefore, led to the notion that newly independent global South nations shouldered a majority of the burden for global problems like climate change, spread of epidemics, and resource depletion. In the process, poor, marginalized populations became vilified as carriers of diseases, adding to the population burden, and framed as unsustainable due to a heavy reliance on exhaustible natural resources or polypropylene bags.
It didn’t help that international forums, like the Rio Convention, alluded to the notion that both the developed and the developing worlds may be equally responsible for contributing to climate change, relieving the West of its historical responsibility towards climate change. But more recent reports have shown that overconsumption, rather than overpopulation, is the real problem. “Not only are the majority of rich countries failing to provide healthy environments for children within their borders, they are also contributing to the destruction of children’s environments in other parts of the world,” said Gunilla Olsson, Director of UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti. “In some cases we are seeing countries providing relatively healthy environments for children at home while being among the top contributors to pollutants that are destroying children’s environments abroad,” Olsson added. The report states that if everybody in the world consumed resources at the rate people do in OECD and EU countries, the equivalent of 3.3 earths would be needed to keep up with consumption levels and if everyone were to consume resources at the rate at which people in Canada, Luxembourg and the United States do, at least five earths would be needed.
A World Bank report states that most of the food waste in the developed nations (responsible for 56% of food waste globally) takes place at the retail or consumer level, while in the developing countries the major cause of food waste is due to infrastructural inefficiencies. While an OECD report highlights that almost half of all plastic waste is generated in OECD countries, the USA was found to be the topmost pollutant.
In India, then, the stampedes at railway stations look like an overpopulation problem when they’re really not. Public infrastructure like railways is a reflection of neglect towards ensuring transport for all, rather than individualizing mobility to those who can afford private vehicles.
The conventional definition of overpopulation, fixated on sheer numbers, often blinds us to the underlying complexities. The legacy of this rhetoric, particularly in the Global South, has unfairly burdened developing nations with responsibility for global problems without addressing the historical context. The latest mishaps illuminate not just a numerical challenge but a tragic systemic failure in resource allocation and accessibility.
Naina is a sociology graduate of the Delhi School of Economics. She presently works as a writer focusing on queer theory, culture, media semantics, and women's health.