Population distribution is perhaps one of the most vital factors that affect the resource utilization of nations. The size, structure, and growth of population can make a substantial difference in how resources of nations are consumed, or exported.
Many thoughtful observers have noted that whatever problems individual nations face—hunger, poverty, inflation, pollution, or political instability—rapidly increasing population usually makes conditions worse. Several Asian nations face many of those problems. In some poverty is a way of life, and their ability to save enough for economic growth is constrained by heavy dependence on foreign capital.
Comprising nearly one-third of the world’s land area, Asia contains nearly three-fifths of its population, and includes the two most populous countries, China and India, which together account for more than a third of the world’s people. Although its annual growth rate of 1.5 percent approximates that of the world’s average, it is adding close to 65 million persons every year to its population—a figure that is higher than that of the population of Italy, France or the United Kingdom (the most populated nations of Europe).
Some of the Asian nations are growing at even higher rates than the average for Asia, particularly in Southwest Asia. Only Japan, Taiwan and South Korea are the exceptions. A sobering aspect of Asia’s larger population picture is that several nations in South Asia and Southeast Asia have reached a crisis stage, and only recently have been pursuing policies aiming at population control.
Growth of population in Asia:
A little over six billion people inhabit our planet today; more than 60 percent of which live in Asia. The United Nations’ estimate for the year 2010 projects a staggering figure of 7 billion for Asia. Population growth in Asia is not a new phenomenon for it has always been the world’s most populated continent.
Although reliable population data prior to the 20th century is lacking (and even that of the 20th century for most part is scarce, uneven, or misleading), Asia has historically been the home of large populations. Population historians estimate that large clusters of sedentary agriculturalists inhabited the Indus Valley in India and the northern river plains of China five to seven thousand years ago.
In 2 A.D. China perhaps contained 60 to 75 million people, a population that exceeded that of the entire Roman Empire. By 1600 an estimated 150 to 180 million people lived in India and China each. During the medieval times both countries grew rather slowly and erratically responding periodically to famines, wars, and times of prosperity. China and India crossed the one-billion mark in 1999.
The population growth of the world’s continents since 1650 is summarized in Table 3.1. In 1650 as North America was first being settled by Europeans there were already more people in Asia than there are in North America today. In that year, Asians accounted for 60 percent of the world’s population. More than three hundred and forty-five years later, Asians still maintain that proportion in world’s population.
It is likely that Asia experienced high growth rates throughout historical times except during the last two decades when Africa’s rate of population growth of over 3 percent a year out stripped that of Asia’s. It is indeed sobering to realize that Asia’s share of the world’s population in 2010 will be nearly 61 percent. Most of the growth will be in South Asia where population will leap from 1.3 to 1.8 billion.
Within Asia the annual rates of population increase vary considerably. The rate in East Asia, for example, is less than half that of Southwest Asia, whereas East Asia registered lowest rates. Substantial decreases in growth rates were recorded in China, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand.
The annual rate of population increase is a function of the prevailing fertility and mortality patterns. The Islamic countries of Southwest Asia generally show higher rates of fertility with birth rates ranging from 35 to 45 per thousand, than the predominantly non-Muslim nations of South Asia, such as India, and Sri Lanka.
There are, however, marked variations in the Muslim nations of Southeast Asia as well, for example, Indonesia or Malaysia, which have non-Muslim minorities, birth rates tend to be lower. Given the high birth rates, and generally low death rates in Southwest Asia, their rates of population increase among the highest in the world.
The Distribution of Asia’s Population:
Within Asia there are significant variations in population distribution. The largest two of the Asian nations—China and India—account for three-fifths of Asia’s total population, and the remaining two-fifths shared by forty- six countries in Asia.
Six of the Asian countries have populations greater than 100 million (Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan and Pakistan) making each one of them larger than any European country. Twenty-one Asian countries have small populations, less than 10 million inhabitants. With a few exceptions (Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, and Turkmenistan) these nations are small in area as well.
But the absolute or total population figure may also give an inadequate picture of population pressure. A better idea of population pressure is provided by a measurement, known as population density, which indicates population pressure in terms of the number of people per unit of land (e.g., per sq. mile or per sq. km). The statistical density for the land area of the world is about 110 persons a sq mile (42 per sq km).
The figure for Asia rises to 270 a sq. mile (104 a sq. km), making the overall Asian density, the highest among all the continents. Some Asian comparisons India as a whole averages, close to 850, China’s 320 and South Korea’s 1,140 persons per sq mile respectively. However, such averages have little practical value. For example, they include figures for un-productive mountains and wastelands as well.
The concept of average density of population is practically un-illuminating for Asia as a whole, as a large part of the continent consists of land that discourages settlement—hot deserts, high plateaus and rugged mountains. A more significant measurement that illuminates the relationship between population and development of areas relates people to the cultivated area or growth of capital and industrial production, technology and other economic and social indicators.
While looking at these figures, therefore, we should not overlook an important point: all population figures must always be considered in relation to the economic base of the area they represent. Although Asia is potentially a continent of considerable resources, its current overall development is inadequate to support its existing numbers at a reasonable level of well-being.
Japan and a few of the Middle East countries are the exceptions. Japan can maintain a very high level of well-being by exporting manufactured items to world markets competitively and Persian Gulf countries by exporting their valuable resource of oil.
Map 3.1 shows the pattern of population density within the continent river plains in South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia contain among the highest densities in the world, often exceeding 2,000 persons per sq mile.
The notable examples are: the Indus-Ganga Plains in north India, the lower Irrawaddy basin in Myanmar, the lower basin of Chao Phraya River in Thailand, the lower Mekong basin, and the lower basins of Huanghe, Chang Jiang, and Xijiang rivers in China.
In these fertile river basins, large populations can be supported under conditions of perennial irrigation and double-cropping. Elsewhere, high densities exist in the accessible coastal plains of central and southern Japan, most of South Korea, the islands of Java and Bali in Indonesia, and the coastal plains of Vietnam and Taiwan.
As a sharp contrast, large parts of Asia’s interior and of Southwest Asia are too cold, too rugged, or too dry to be attractive for settlement. Densities are as low as 5 persons per sq mile in such areas. Significantly, an important factor to note is that population densities have been, in general, on the increase everywhere in the continent, as elsewhere in the world.
The Structure of Population:
In population study, the term structure refers to a pattern of relationship, between various age groups of the nation’s population. For example, if population is divided into age and sex categories, the implications of age and sex groups of a nation’s population can exercise a significant impact on it because these groups represent the numbers of people at a given age and sex, which is considered a fairly good indicator of the working of society, since society usually assigns social roles on the basis of its age and sex composition.
Young people and women are treated differently than the old people. It must also be remembered that the very young and the elderly are dependent on other ages for their survival. The proportions of people at these ages will inevitably affect the working of society.
An interesting demographic fact is that male babies outnumber the females at birth. In economically developed nations, where maternal mortality is low and where infant girls receive as much care as do the male infants, the male death rates are higher than those of the females at every stage of life. The numerical excess of male at birth is, in consequence, gradually reduced until females outnumber males in the older age-groups. In most Asian nations, however, this is not the case as females are vastly outnumbered by males. The main reason is the comparative neglect and poor treatment of the females in most of Asia.
Females outnumber males in a few countries (Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam) in Southeast Asia. In these nations women have been traditionally accorded a respectable status. There are more females in Mongolia, North Korea and Yemen as well; while the gap between the male-female ratios is narrow, the reasons for larger sex-rations of females in Mongolia, North Korea and Yemen are not clear.
Although the males predominate everywhere else, the highest proportion of males is found in many Muslim nations in Southwest Asia. In Baharain they are 59 percent of the population, and in Kuwait 56.5 percent, in Qatar and United Arab Emirates over 67 percent each, and in Saudi Arabia 54.3 percent. This excessive predominance of males in these nations is unusual, although the major reason is the presence of a large number of immigrant male workers from South and Southeast Asian countries who are employed in these oil-rich nations.
In several other nations males also outnumber the females (e.g., Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Brunei, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, all Muslim nations, and a few other nations such as India in: Nepal that contains sizable Muslim minorities.
Generally speaking, the Asian population is “young.” A population with more 35 percent of its people under age 15 is generally considered “young,” and a population with more than 10 percent of its people aged 65 and over is considered ‘old.” Applying this definition, no Asian country with the exception of Japan falls in die category of “old” population.
Japan envoys now one of the highest longevity-rates in the world. Nearly 15 percent of its population is 65 or over in age. The youthfulness of Asian countries, however, varies; while Japan is the least “youthful” and Jordan the most (a fifth of Japan’s copulation and over half of Jordan’s are below 15 years of age). Seven of the Muslim nations of the Middle East (Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Syri) rank high in “youthfulness.” Over 40 percent of their population is below 15.
A useful way of depicting graphically the age-structure is by constructing population pyramids (Figure 3.1). These are diagrams in which the percentage of the population in each age group is shown as a bar (male and female population considered separately).
Most Asian nations generally have pyramids that are very broad at the base and narrow and pointed at the top. A pyramid representing Japan’s population, however, resembles that of the western European nations which generally have pyramids that are in effect more rectangular in shape. This means that Japan’s population is aging, and the youthful section of its population is by comparison with most other Asian nations, a small one. Figure 3.1 depicts these two pyramids representing population structures of India and Japan.
It may be noted that nearly 40 percent of India’s population is under fifteen years of age as compared to 21.5 percent of Japan’s. As for the old-age category, Japan has 15 percent of its population over the age of 60, as compared to only 6.5 percent of India’s population in that age-group.
Analyzing these figures, we can realize the enormous problems that India must face regarding the provision of education, services, and jobs for such large numbers: 350 million under 15 and 230 million of the age group of 15-29. Comparing India’s situation with Japan’s, the Japanese nation has to deal with only 27 million under 15 and 26 million of the age group of 15-29. But these numerical comparisons are not strictly valid as Japan is a developed economy, and thus possesses a greater capacity to plan its population.
Population Policies in Asia:
After World War II several Asian nations, India, China, and Indonesia among them, experienced phenomenal population growth. Some of the countries had just gained independence, and were faced with economic reconstruction at a time when mounting population pressures rendered their task difficult. As population continued
to escalate, these nations became increasingly concerned with the adverse effect of demographic trends on their economic growth and social progress, and decided to adopt family planning programs.
India became the first major nation to adopt a public policy aimed at achieving reductions in birth rates in 1951 when the government formulated its first five-year plan (1951-1956). Initially the policy was designed to diffuse information on birth control among the illiterate masses, but the emphasis shifted during the succeeding plans to more tangible and effective measures, such as a large-scale male sterilization (vasectomy) program, and free supply and servicing of the intra-uterine device’ to females. But these measures had limited success despite government’s commitment due largely to the cultural attitudes of the vast majority of the people, but also due to inadequate funding.
Pakistan’s population has been increasing at even a higher growth rate than India’s, although both nations received good deal of funding for population control from the U.S. and international agencies. Japan, which has had a history of consciousness of population problem even before the World War II, has experienced more dramatic success.
It passed Eugenics Protection Act in 1948 legalizing abortions, and pursued a vigorous policy of population control that included the provision of contraceptive devices to the people. Its rate of population increase now approximates that of the western nations at 0.2 percent a year as compared to the over 2.0 percent annual increase before 1968.
In China, the official policy of population control included draconian methods to achieve one-child family. The goal of the administration to achieve zero-population growth by 2000, with the population stabilizing at 1.2 billion, has since been achieved. By adopting and implementing generally harsh measures, it experienced spectacular results in fertility decline during the 1970’s, and 1980’s.
South Korea, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia and nations of Indonesia and Thailand also offered family-planning and birth control services to the masses using persuasive methods aimed at reduction in fertility. These policies in general, have been successful. Birth rates in these nations dropped substantially in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
An entirely different situation prevailed in the war-ravaged nations of Cambodia and Laos where governments have been actively trying to encourage population growth that would lead to replenishing the labor force lost in the war during the 1960’s and 1970’s. In Laos, the government even started paying women to get married and then provided an allowance after the birth of each child.
Vietnam, since the war, has had an ambivalent attitude towards birth control although a large part of its youthful labor-force had perished during the war. Malaysia has, during the last three decades, experienced fairly strong economic development, accompanied by a significant reduction in fertility that was bolstered by the presence of an active family planning program. In 1984, however, government reversed itself, declaring that Malaysia needed a more rapidly growing population to provide an adequate labor-force.
Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore experienced more dramatic fertility declines during the 1960’s. Singapore, on gaining independence from Great Britain in 1965, realized that its rapid rate of population growth would make it impossible to continue developing economically.
The abortion laws were liberalized and measures taken by the government to offer disincentives to families with more than two children. The results were so overwhelming, that the government started considering a reversal of the policies realizing that Singapore’s youthful population might soon be depleted if the government continued on its anti-natalist policies.
Generally speaking, several Southeast Asian nations lag behind in formal programs but public consciousness and some basic planning have grown universally. Among predominantly Muslim Southwest Asia this consciousness is still at a rudimentary level as the strong religious feelings militate against the institution of officially- prescribed birth control policies. In the Central Asian republics, the Soviet Union before they became independent in 1990 had pursued an ambivalent population policy; and the birth rates have remained high, comparable to those prevailing in most other Muslim nations.