History and Politics of Population Phobia

Fear of Overpopulation

Young India

The idea that “large population” is the main hurdle in developing countries’ development  has been continuing for so long that most people take it as a “truth.” This “wisdom” has been handed down from one generation to next very similar to how knowledge passes in the tribal societies. This “truth” percolated everywhere, from the “developed tribes” of the West to their “barely developed” counterparts in the rest of the world. In the mid twentieth century many in the West were so terrified that they saw it as an “almost sure” cause for future world disasters and labeled it a ticking “population bomb.”  Many of their international actions were dictated by their desire to save the world from this terrible future catastrophe.

World has much advanced since then and people are no more seen as mere food-eating morons ever ready to multiply themselves like rodents and become a threat to the well being of the planet; certainly not for their food requirement. On the contrary, when it comes to consuming nature’s resources and creating global-level problems only 15-20 percent humanity living in the highly industrialized societies is sufficient to do that! They have a wonderful resource guzzling lifestyle that is waiting to become an issue in the future.

Origin of Population Phobia

Since the western societies have never seen large human populations (like India’s or China’s) among them, it is not surprising that they automatically see big numbers as a potential threat – in reality, fear of “being outnumbered.” When philosophers add theories and paint some plausible horrifying picture, the situation looks like a nightmare – which feels real but is without substance.

About two hundred years ago a British theorist, Thomas Malthus, came to the conclusion that population increases in geometric proportion but the means of subsistence (food) grows only arithmetically. Thus, he prophesied that population growth (if left unchecked) can easily go beyond earth’s capacity to sustain it. His ideas were published in 1798 in an essay on the Principle of Population.

At the time of Thomas Malthus, industrialization was just starting and the power of human ingenuity had not manifested in the form of science and technology that we know today. Certainly at that time the practice of celibacy must have been the only form of contraceptive which is outside the normal capacity of ordinary folks, if demanded regularly. So, he could not have visualized the power of technological development which can dwarf any seemingly impossible problem. He only saw two natural checks to population growth: hunger and disease. Another control, he argued, was poverty.

Analyzing the English society, he argued that a welfare state was not only harmful for the working class but also tend to increase population. As he saw it, when the state extends support services to the poor and jobless it actually hurts them because they would inevitably only produce more children until all their money was spend, putting them back in poverty. Thus, in his view a welfare state only promoted the population of poor hurting the society at large. No wonder he preached the British colonists that “alleviating famines in India would only compound the evils of overpopulation.” [1]

Contraceptives and Class Bias

Although his arguments and underlying assumptions were countered by many, his theory found particular favor with the elite class since it affirmed their superiority over the deprived class. Later, as the wave of industrialization polarized the western world into capitalists and working class, Malthus’ theory found newer and even more forceful disciples in the former. It also became a tool to propagate class or race bias in the use of contraceptive devices as the technologies advanced in the first half of the twentieth century.

Thus, while the newly invented contraception techniques turned into symbols of women rights and advancement for the privileged class, they were used to thwart the rights and advancements of the deprived or the “other” class. For instance, in 1920 a noted women rights activist displayed her concern about rising numbers of “others” and wrote that “Stopping the ‘multiplication of the unfit’ appeared to be the most important and greatest step towards race betterment.” [2] Likewise, around the same time the American and British authors began to warn of a “Rising Tide of Color” referring to Indian population that was rather large by their standards; they were reflecting their concern for the stability of (white) Western society amidst growing non-white population.

Famines in the colonial India provided the White Rulers a good opportunity to look the other way when millions die of hunger. Mr Malthus provided the ideological platform for such inhuman actions: “Famine is a natural check to over population.” It relieved the British from the moral responsibility of expenditure on relief. A similar “fear of being outnumbered” was running in the upper class of Indian society which was worried about the higher fertility rate among the poor.

Malthus Theory in International Politics

After the second WW, the fear of resource exhaustion by population growth and its consequent impact on the development of the Western societies became an important deciding factor of International relations between the rich West and the poor East. In the 1950s the population worries of the West percolated to India through the aid agencies and started deciding the population control polices. The Indian government decided to include the need for “family limitation… to promote the health and welfare of the people and development of the national economy” into the just launched Five-Year Plan.

For the capitalist West, the fear of overpopulation also turned into the fear of spread of communism; hence, they had to initiate actions to curb population growths of poor countries to curtail the influence of the communist USSR. Thus, the Malthusian fear also influenced the Cold War politics.

Population Bomb

Most Populous Nations

In the sixties, during presidential election campaign in the US, Hugh Moore, an aide of President Johnson claimed “The population bomb threatens to create an explosion as disruptive and dangerous as an explosion of the atom, and with as much influence on prospects for progress or disaster, war or peace.” He was trying to influence American voters for his presidential candidate’s population policies abroad. It was an attention catching metaphor and soon became popular among policy makers advocating for stringent population policies. When Moore coined the phrase it was actually a part of his anti-communist agenda: “A world of mass starvation in underdeveloped countries will be a world of chaos, riots and war. And a perfect breeding ground for communism… We cannot afford a half dozen Vietnams, or even one more… Our own national interest demands that we go all out to help the underdeveloped countries control their population.”

Another follower of Malthusian population theory, Stephen Enke also helped fuel fear of overpopulation. Enke argued that population growth was in opposition to economic development. Building on Enke’s argument, Lyndon Johnson asserted before the UN in 1965: “Less than five dollars spent on population control was worth a hundred dollars invested in economic growth.” This extension of Malthusian theory assigned a negative economic value to Indian children. Converting population to dollars and cents was appealing to economists, demographers and international developing agencies. It brought about greater support to pressure developing nations to accept population control policies and program.

Population Control Policies in India

In 1966 when there was severe famine in India, the US and other international agencies used aid as leverage to impose targets for population control policies. When implemented, these targeted polices led to health and human rights issues; but the aid givers persisted because in their thinking fertility control targets meant poverty-reduction mileposts, which for them was a clever anti-communist measure. One agency advised India to “avert 40 million births in 10 years.” To be fair to rich donors, they imposed such “advises” everywhere they gave dollars.

The UN supported more permanent techniques and declared the IUDs to be breakthrough which should be fully exploited. Encouraged by donors, Indian policy makers came to prefer permanent and semi-permanent forms of contraception. A prominent decision maker proclaimed “The pill was birth control for the individual, not for the nation.” No one bothered when the adverse effects of IUDs began to appear.

Soon monetary incentives, numeric targets, and preference for permanent contraception got established in Indian Family Planning Program. Setting and achieving target goalposts became the central issue; quality of healthcare or service delivery remained secondary.

During the Emergency period of mid seventies when civil rights were suspended, authorities went for “highly ambitious sterilization targets” and in order to avail incentives health workers started targeting elders, infirm, and even children to meet their sterilization targets. It led to widespread human rights violations and adverse health effects on many poor and unwitting who were operated in mass sterilization camps. This period is still seen as the dark-age of free India. It resulted in a strong backlash against male sterilization.

The focus shifted back to female sterilization but the mindset of working with sterilization “targets” continued till end of eighties. However, since the phrase “Family Planning” had acquired ill repute it was replaced by “Family Welfare” and people also started using terms like “population stabilization” alongside “population control.”

From Population Control to Population Development

The first half of the nineties proved a milestone for the global human rights movements due to international conventions such as the Conference on Social Development (Vienna, 1993), the International Conference on Population and Development, ICPD (Cairo, 1994), and the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995). An entirely different approach towards population stabilization emerged, abolishing the coercive targeted route of the traditional “population control” regime. It was an insightful shift from “population control” to “population development.”

The Program of Action (PoA) of the ICPD stressed a target-free approach to population stabilization efforts. The following excerpts underline the PoA’s position on coercion and targets in family planning programs:

“The aim of family planning programs must be to enable couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children and to have the information and means to do so and to ensure informed choices and make available a full range of safe and effective methods. … The principle of informed choice is essential to the long term success of family planning programs. Any form of coercion has no role to play. … Governmental goals should be defined in terms of unmet needs for information and services. Demographic goals, while legitimately the subject of government development strategies, should not be imposed on family planning providers in the form of targets or quotas for the recruitment of clients.” p9tadk H g who were operated in mass sterilization camps. This period is still seen as the dark-age of free India. It resulted in a strong backlash against male sterilization.

The focus shifted back to female sterilization but the mindset of working with sterilization “targets” continued till end of eighties. However, since the phrase “Family Planning” had acquired ill repute it was replaced by “Family Welfare” and people also started using terms like “population stabilization” alongside “population control.”

Impact of ICPD, Cairo, 1994

Since 1994, the word “population” no longer connotes the horror of large numbers but suggests concern for people – their development, human rights and gender equality. The ICPD brought about a paradigm shift on the issue of population. It forcefully connected population with development and transformed the “population problem” into a “development problem” inclusive of human rights and gender equality. For policy makers it meant that they have to think in terms of “population development” in place of “population control.” This also necessarily meant that family planning policies must center on people as individuals, respecting their basic human rights; not on controlling their fertility to meet demographic targets.

The key principles of ICPD included advancing gender equality and empowerment of women, elimination of all forms of violence against women, and ensuring women’s ability to control their fertility. These principles affirmed the basic rights of couples and individuals to decide freely the number and spacing of their children and to have the information, education and means to do so. It also affirmed people as the most important and valuable resource of any nation which should be at the center of sustainable development.

As a result, India declared a “Target Free” approach to Family Planning in 1996 and developed the Reproductive and Child Health Approach in 1997 which became an important component of the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) and in 2000 adopted the National Population Policy (NPP). The NPP consciously avoided using the phrase “population control” and talked of “population stabilization.” It unambiguously stated that population stabilization is not merely a question related to availability and quality of reproductive healthcare services but also includes issues such as education, women empowerment, employment, etc.

Adopting a “target free” approach was by all means a very significant departure from family planning policies of past decades which revolved around setting mass sterilization targets and offering incentives or disincentives to achieve them. Although India missed the target of achieving the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 in 2010 which would have stabilized Indian population at around 2045, but now at least the direction is right.

Final Word…

Today’s world is very different from what it was two centuries ago. Malthus’ idea of controlling fertility of poor is outdated. In the twenty first century, there is no place for programs targeting people as ‘human breeders” in poor societies. The right approach is developing poor and eliminating poverty. Population growth automatically reduces as societies develop because it brings in education, awareness and facilities. Development is the best contraceptive; any developing nation can try it.


  1. M. Connelly, “Population Control in India: Prologue to the Emergency Period” in Population and Development Review, 2006: 32, 4. 629-667.
  2. M. Rao, “From Population Control to Reproductive Health: Malthusian Arithmetic.” New Delhi, Sage Publication. 2004
  3. Famine in the British India: http://asianhistory.about.com/od/asianenvironmentalhistory/ss/India_Famine1899.htm
  4. John Caldwell. “Malthus and the Less Developed World: The Pivotal Role of India.” population and Development Review 24:4 (Dec. 1998).
  5. Mike Davis. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World. London: Verso, 2001.

About Goodpal

I am a firm believer in healthy people (mind and body both), healthy societies and healthy environment. Please feel free to comment, share and broadcast your views -- I like rational and intellectual discussions. Thanks for stopping by. Have a Good Day!
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1 Response to History and Politics of Population Phobia

  1. Pingback: What is Wrong with the Family Planning Program in India | Issues of India

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