The Population Myth

India’s massive population has been a subject in many a joke and a cause of embarrassment to Indians around the world. At world economic summits, UN conventions and foreign investment conferences, the Indian government is seen making apologies about its population control programs and the associated environmental impact.

Indeed India’s population exerts enormous pressure on the land and finite resources of the subcontinent. Relentless competition for water, food, electricity and other basic amenities in heavily urbanized Indian cities is evident from their overflowing trains, noisy bazaars, honking vehicles and frequent traffic jams. The daily struggle of an average Indian is the cause of stress and confusion, lack of social order, unequal distribution of wealth, justice and education, a fragile political system, and sadly many wasted lives. But facts must be stated and myths dispelled.

I grew up wondering why our ancestors “multiplied like rabbits” when most countries around the world had somehow managed to contain their growth. Yes my grandparents had seven children and the ethereal Indian temple architecture projects sexuality in all its divine forms. But did we end up with a population of 1.2 billion people because our ancestors were preoccupied with self-propagation ?

Let us reverse the gaze – true to the Purva Pakshastyle of debate. What would Europe look like today had its people not ravaged, plundered and exterminated native populations around the world ? Where are the “Indians” of the Americas and Australia ? It took some digging to figure this out since unambiguous statistics were not easily available. It turns out that a conservative count of people of European descent around the world closely matches India’s current population ! Inspite of the thousands of years of human migration into the subcontinent, the Indian population never grew at an unsustainable rate.

Ethnic Europeans (by country)Population (million)
South Africa4.5
New Zealand3.3
Costa Rica3.5
Puerto Rico3.2
Dominican Republic2

Hence the next obvious question – why did the Indians not colonize distant lands and dominate aboriginal people ? Was is due to a lack of ships, technology or weaponry ? Were Columbus, Magellan, and Vasco da Gama the only adventurous sailors who dared to explore the “new world” ? Did the Indians not know that earth was spherical and were afraid of falling off its flat top ? The ancient Sanskrit term for earth is Bhugola meaning “earth ball”. That the Indians had been trading with the Arabs, Greeks, Indonesians, and Ethiopians for at least a thousand years prior to the “discovery of India” by Vaso da Gama has been well documented. Wootz steel (or Damascus Steel) was developed in India in 300 BCE and was in great demand for its use in high grade sword and weapon making. The use of high carbon alloys such as in Wootz steel was unknown in Europe and contributed to later European metallurgical development. Several centuries later Tipu Sultan is said to have used the first ever military rockets in the Mysore Wars against the British. However Indian ships that sailed out with spices, ornaments and traders were never modified to carry soldiers, arms or slaves.

There are two conflicting theories about the ethnicity of the Indian people – The Aryan-invasion and the Indigenous-Aryan. Irrespective of which one is to be believed, ethnic tribal populations of India have flourished along the eastern mountain ranges, Andaman Nicobar islands, Lakshwadeep and the Himalayan foothills. For the all the ills of social division under the caste system, it could not compare to the mildest form of slavery or apartheid. Sri Lanka, Maldives and other neighboring islands were never colonized or attacked despite South India’s large military forces under the Chola and the Pandaya dynasties.

So why then did Columbus set out to rediscover India and not the other way around ? The answer lies in the absence of a collective Indian desire to dominate or abuse. It is perhaps because of Her Dharmic beliefs of cosmic unity that inspite of the finest swords, Indian religions never spread by it. It might have been due to Her inherent riches of iron, copper, aluminum, diamonds and gemstones, the abundance of food from Her fertile soils or the perennial water reservoirs high up in the Himalayas that India never became a colonizer. Or perhaps the Indians had discovered something greater, more noble like Yoga that opened up the doors to a higher experience. Today India consumes significantly lesser resources and generates far less waste per-capita than any country in Europe or North America. Some of this may be attributed to global politics and economic realities. But this is primarily due to India’s ancient sustainable lifestyle – mainly vegetarian diet, respect for nature, energy efficient housing, non-fossil fuel based rural transportation, organic cattle based farming, small businesses, localized production and consumption, non-consumerism and individual selflessness. This is how indigenous people have thrived in harmony with nature over the centuries in different parts of the world. However India was the only one that managed to survive through Her spirituality, strength and wisdom. No, India does not owe any apologies. She has long made Her choice – in silence and self-sufficiency. The real question then is how do we grow and prosper sustainably with the population that we have.