So far, large sections of India’s elite, while viewing the poor and their “tendency to over-reproduce” with disgust and contempt, have done little to push for a serious population policy. In large part this has been because they have benefited from this unending supply of cheap labour. But this unending supply of cheap and largely unskilled labour has serious unrecorded economic consequences. It severely constricts demand-growth and limits Indian industry to producing low quality, low-valued added goods. In the global market, this eventually puts Indian industry at a great competitive disadvantage rather than advantage.
Modern day production fetches larger profits when labour productivity is multiplied manifold. With some exceptions like the Gulf oil industry, even in the extractive industries like mining, India’s cheap labour cannot always compete against advanced mechanised procedures. Industries that rely excessively on human labour are generally becoming unremunerative, and generate low rates of profit.
Higher rates of profit are to be found in those industries where the labour force is well-educated and highly well-trained. Those Indians who wish to sell India’s cheap labour in the world market will find that the scope for selling commodities produced by cheap labour is ultimately quite limited. That will not turn India into the “Asian tiger” that they wish.
India’s industrialists ought to know that a poorly-trained and demoralised workforce cannot be compensated for by simply importing tools and machinery. Even to use modern machinery effectively and to keep it in working order requires certain skills that do not come automatically.
Another dimension to the cheap workforce scenario is that the demand for labour-saving inputs and devices grows very slowly. This means that both in the industry and in the home, the switch to higher quality machines, and tools does not take place or takes place very slowly. If it is cheaper to hire labour than buy a labour-saving device – who will make the switch? But since human endeavour can rarely match the precision and accuracy of well-designed computer-controlled electronic machines – the quality of Indian goods remains uncompetitive in the world market, even as the internal market for capital goods and appliances stalls.
A cheap labour market also implies a restricted market for consumption. When workers are well-paid they are able to buy more goods produced by industry. This leads to increase in demand fuelling new investment and new opportunities for industries to expand. But if wages are so low that people can just afford to eat and spend on nothing else–even the market for consumer goods stagnates or shrinks. This means that industry has to constantly contend with demand-recessions.
If Indian industry is to ever grow at double-digit rates, the entire Indian mindset will have to change from tolerating a growing but cheap and unskilled workforce into building the social infrastructure that will rapidly control population growth and spend the money on improving the all-round quality of India’s workforce.
While it is imperative that India quickly address its growing population, a problem that threatens to grow dangerously out of hand—it must do so without the prejudices and lackadaisical attitudes of the past. The problem should be taken up not just by the social welfare ministry but by all government and non-governmental agencies, as well as by progressive organisations and unions.
However, rather than come out with undemocratic and discriminatory schemes like freezing the representation of the Hindi-belt states in Parliament, schemes ought to be designed with compassion and sympathy for the poor. Issues such as gender inequality, social pressures concerning marriage and sexuality, social pressures for having more children, especially male children ought to be confronted. Pressures from religious orthodoxy ought to be challenged. Above all, the well-being of small families ought to be guaranteed.
So far, India’s family planning programmes have seen only limited success because the programmes have not tackled the issue in a holistic way. There have been few concrete incentives for the poor to keep their families small. There has been little attention paid to enforcing a liveable minimum wage, so that children are not pushed into work early. There has been little attention paid to guaranteeing jobs or decent schooling for those amongst the poor who do adopt family planning methods and restrict their birth rates. There has also been little attention to the need for old age pensions, for affordable health-care and disability insurance so that the poor feel secure enough not to want to have more children as”insurance” for the future.
Of course, in practice, with the growth of capitalism—the values of the traditional family system have rapidly broken down. As a result, there is little solidarity amongst family members. Few family members chip in when a health emergency strikes or when a family member is seriously injured or disabled. The elderly are often abandoned by their children when they migrate far away from their ancestral villages. All the old reasons for having more children are disappearing. It is consequently imperative that concerned social agencies educate India’s illiterate or poorly schooled about the dangers and negative consequences of having large families.
India’s population policy needs to be based on concrete measures that not only help solve our population problem but also helps the poor to improve their lives in tangible and meaningful ways. In this regard, our film industry and television industry also need to play a socially responsible role in creating the value-systems that not only rewards small families but also makes society collectively responsible for looking after the poor when they do adopt socially responsible measures. Blaming or ridiculing the poor and denying them their democratic rights will not be helpful in this regard. Neither will an escapist or careless attitude.