On New Year’s Day, an estimated 395,000 babies were born worldwide, with India recording the highest number of these births at nearly 70,000 followed by China (44940), according to data furnished by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Over half of these births (395,000) have been reported in eight countries, including India, China, Pakistan, United States and Bangladesh.

Nigeria registered 25,685 births, Pakistan 15,112, Indonesia 13,256, the US 11086. Emphasising the need for their protection and safety, UNICEF urged the nations to ensure every newborn’s fundamental right to health and survival. In 2017, about one million babies died the day they were born and 2.5 million in just their first month of life. The year also marks the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Right of the Child advocating the need for good quality health care.

Stabilizing the population, generating employment opportunities, and alleviating poverty pose a formidable challenge to India. For the past few decades, successive governments have been trying to address the daunting population problem. But almost all our policies have proved to be ineffective. According to the UN population reference agency (UNFPA), India’s burgeoning population has assumed an alarming proportion and if, the present trend persists, the country’s population would be virtually double in the next 20 years ~ reaching around 2.56 billion.

At present the number of children per woman in India is 2.55 and there is no indication of a decline. Malthus had once remarked that the rising population impedes environmental sustainability and sustainable development. The inference is still a subject of discourse and it is difficult to correlate the increase of population and degradation of the environment on a national scale.

The world’s population is also increasing at an incredible speed. It has been projected that the world will boast ten billion people by 2050. The total population of India as on March 2018 is 1.28 billion. India represents 17.31 per cent of the world’s population i.e. one out of six people in this planet lives in India. While population growth rate in India has assumed the proportion of escape velocity like a rocket (1.58 per cent), it could be more than 1.53 billion by the end of 2030.

An estimated 72.2 per cent of India’s people live in villages and 27.8 per cent in town and urban agglomeration. The scenario in Pakistan is more dismal, the number of children per woman being 5.6. The situation in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and China is far from satisfactory. China’s population is 1.36 billion.

According to the UN Commission on Population and Development, India, Pakistan and China are among the five countries that account for half the annual growth of the world’s population.

The figures raise a pertinent question ~ how to manage a billion people by providing adequate food, employment opportunities, quality education, proper healthcare and social security?

India’s population was 363 million in 1951-52, with the estimated food production being 52 million tons. Individual calorie consumption per day was about 1580. During 1985-86, India had a population of 725 million.

Accordingly, food production should have increased to 165 million tons to provide an individual consumption of 2500 calories. The estimated enhanced food production as envisaged was not achieved. In fact the Green Revolution was unable to feed the world’s most populous country because of top-soil erosion and other factors. Food surplus is nothing but an illusion in the face of population growth.

For the first time since the Green Revolution, the foodgrain output has lost the race against population increase. India’s population rose by 21.34 per cent during 1991-2001. The sex ratio (i.e. number of females per thousand males), according to the 1991 census, was 933, rising from 927.

The developing countries are the victims of a vicious cycle of poverty, population explosion and environmental degradation.

If explosion of population remains uncontrolled and pragmatic strategic actions are not taken immediately, how will India foster its public health programme, manage water resource, universalize primary education, and implement overall development programmes with a holistic approach? What happens to industrialization?

It has been argued that to ensure rapid industrial growth, the developing and poor countries need to take three steps. The first calls for the population to be stabilized when death rates are high. Second, because of improvement of public health engineering and medical science, the death rate may be low but the birth rate increases rapidly. Third, if both birth and death rates decline and the country stabilises its population, then an attempt can be made to ensure social security and economic freedom.

Unfortunately, many developing countries including India are not in a position to put in place a suitable environment to attain the third step. India has remained blindly static in the second step, and this is impeding our development programmes. According to a fairly recent UN report (April 2015) India has the world’s largest youth population of 356 million, China is second with 269 million followed by Indonesia 67 million, Pakistan 59 million, Nigeria 57 million and Bangladesh 48 million. But in another 35 years, India may be home to the largest Muslim population, surpassing the distinction of Indonesia. But Hindus will continue to command an absolute majority (77 per cent) in the country, leaving the Muslims behind (18 per cent) according to the Pew Research Centre’s study on The Future of World Regions.

Young people are innovators, creators, builders and leaders of the future. They can transform the future provided they have the skills, sound health, value-oriented education, ability to take decisions and make real choices in life with absolute freedom of mind. Our country had never witnessed such a large youth population. It is imperative to harness this potential in the sphere of economic and social progress. India’s future will eventually rest on the younger generation. In order to maximize the dividend, India needs a sustainable, long and short-term plan for the vibrant youth.

(The writer is a former Reader in Chemistry, Presidency College, Kolkata. He was associated with UGC and UNICEF)