South Asia is home to over 1.3 billion people, one in every five persons in the world, although it accounts for only one-thirteenth of the Earth’s surface. India alone counts over a billion inhabitants. Pakistan and Bangladesh contain 152 and 127 million each. No other region of the world has such serious population problems as does South Asia and no other area of comparable size and cultural attainments are as poor. These numbers are certainly a cause for concern, but even more disturbing is the fact that they continue to escalate.
Recent declines in fertility in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India give only scant comfort, since the total numbers being added to the existing population keep increasing. Some demographers project a population of 1.5 billion for the South Asian region in 2000 A.D. Population pressures began to build in the region during the later decades of British rule. Improvements in public health measures, medical care, agricultural productivity, the establishment of law and order, and reduction in the frequency and severity of famine, pushed the shadow of death further into the background. Mortality declined, and life expectancy rose.
Fertility remained high, as the traditional preference for larger families was the rule. This created a widening gap between fertility and mortality, and a consequent rise in the rate of natural increase (difference between birth rates and death rates expressed as a percentage), particularly since 1921.
The year 1921 marks a watershed in the demographic history of the subcontinent. Population began to increase, steadily at first, but later at a faster tempo. Only in the last decade has the rate of increase begun to slow. Presently, population is growing at a rate of 2.2 percent annually (Sri Lanka is an exception, recording less than two percent growth) as compared to one percent per year in 1921.
The progressive increase in the growth rates after 1921 contributed to a massive accumulation of numbers—from 256 million in 1921 to 1.3 billion in mid-1990s—an increase of over four times in 67 years. Looking at the future, we find that South Asia will double its population in about 30 years if the current trends of population growth continue. Even by medium projections it will contain nearly 1.5 billion people by 2012 A.D. India alone will have 1.2 billion inhabitants; both Pakistan and Bangladesh will contain close to 150 million people each.
The demographic structure of South Asian nations is represented by an age-sex pyramid of India which clearly shows that the youthful age groups are very large. Nearly 40 percent of the South Asian population is below 15 years of age (for Nepal and Bangladesh the figures are 42 and 45 percent respectively).
Only Sri Lanka has as little as 35 percent of its population in the youthful category. Such age structures are particularly troubling, as the provision of services, schools, food, hospitals, and housing for the young must consume a large part of national expenditures. An examination of population pyramids is particularly useful in assessing future trends as well.
As the youthful population moves into the adult age bracket (that is, enters into the working age group) public welfare programs, meager as these are in these countries, will be further strained. Problems of unemployment, food shortages, illiteracy and poor standards of living, characteristics of these nations, will be further aggravated. The present situation is serious enough; but prospects for the future are even more disconcerting, given the rate of increase of population, which for the entire region is over 2 percent a year.
Under given conditions, large populations can be advantageous. A larger and more skilled pool of workers can be productive and useful in meeting the demands of a large consuming market. However, the consumption demand of a vast population in the South Asian countries, working under conditions of scarcity, poor technology, and an incentive-free environment, is low.
Furthermore, the ratio of labor to both land and capital is high. This has led to an enormous underutilization and inefficient use of labor. For example, on a typical farm or in a government office, five or more workers may be available to do the work that two could easily perform. In factories, many operations are handled manually because of the abundance and cheapness of available labor. Still, millions remain unemployed.
Given the current rates of fertility and mortality, and the increasing dependency load (essentially that of youthful population below 15 years of age), the situation threatens to deteriorate in the next decade. Results have been uneven, though promising in the more literate nation of Sri Lanka. Progress has also been more noticeable in cities, where children are perceived less as an asset to their parents and where it is relatively easy to contact people regarding birth control.
A crucial aspect of the population problem is the related matter of food sufficiency, a factor on which the survival of millions depends. These nations in their post-independence period have experienced critical food grain shortages, because of the ever-increasing numbers of mouths to be fed. India alone imported between 10 and 15 million metric tons of food grains annually during the time of its greatest shortages during the 1960s.
Most other countries imported smaller amounts. Fortunately, the “Green Revolution” (the introduction of high-yield, fast-growing varieties of rice and other cereals) has led to increased production in parts of India and Pakistan. This has narrowed the gap between population growth and food grain requirements. India has now become self- sufficient in its food grain requirements. Pakistan and Sri Lanka have also achieved substantial success in their food grain productions. Pakistan not only attained self-sufficiency in its food grain requirements, it became an exporter of rice in the late 1980s. Sri Lanka has to import only moderate amounts. Recent successes must, however, be considered in the context of rapidly growing populations.
The future remains problematic, as South Asia’s population keeps growing by 30-32 million every year. Most South Asian nations are cognizant of these problems, but have failed as yet to develop effective policies. The main reason is the general scarcity of two critical resources essential to the development and implementation of such policies: capital and technology.
These nations (with the exception of Bhutan) have adopted population policies directed toward attacking the problem at the source: i.e., in achieving reductions in fertility, rather than waiting until the capital and technological resources have been securely developed. India was the first nation of the region to initiate a family planning program in 1951.
Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh followed, each within the framework of its national planning effort. Motivating millions of couples, traditionally hostile to birth control methods, to use contraceptive devices, or to submit to sterilizations or intrauterine device (IUD) insertions, has been a complex and frustrating process. Capital outlays for such programs have progressively increased over the years, often with the aid of international agencies, but are still very low.