Does Population Cause Poverty or Prosperity

Does Population Cause Poverty or Prosperity

By: Sunaina Mathur
Researcher at Centre for Civil Society, New Delhi.

Population becomes a cause for prosperity if humans utilise their capacity to think, research and create. When equipped with the right resources and opportunities, humans act as a catalyst for their own growth and development.
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As Indians, many of us including our present and past governments are guilty of ascribing India’s problems to the meteoric rise in   its  population. From a very young age, our schools teach children about India’s population ‘problem’ making it out to be the root cause of most of the challenges that the country is facing. This belief is reinforced through various mediums, formal and informal, at all stages in our lives until we are convinced that population is truly India’s nemesis.

Our understanding of problems is misplaced, which is why the State has pursued fruitless strategies like mass sterilisation implemented by Sanjay Gandhi, a Congress leader who spearheaded the programme as a measure to control  population explosion. Such gross violations of  individual freedom is justified, even lauded, in the name of ‘public good’.

If population is an obstacle to growth, how is it that the densely populated urban areas are hubs of growth and prosperity? Urban areas, by encouraging innovation and specialisation, have managed to generate better revenues than neighbouring rural areas. While the existence of slums, widespread urban poverty, unemployment and pollution force one to question the sustainability and viability of urban life, it is important to understand that these are not caused by ‘population’. Their cause is urban primacy,  the phenomenon of one city becoming overly important in the urban scheme. David Clark, the Head, Department of Geography, University of Coventry, in his book ‘Urban World/ Global City’ explains that as a cause of primacy “principal city is more strongly linked to and integrated within the global urban system than it is to the domestic urban hierarchy.”

The access to opportunities ensure more optimal utilisation of the human capital in urban areas. The most prosperous states in India are also the most urbanised, for example Tamil Nadu with 48.5 per cent (Census, 2011)  of its population living in urban areas, is the second richest state in the country according to the state-wise gross state domestic product (GSDP) 2017 data released by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation.

It is often argued that increasing population exerts tremendous pressure on our limited natural resources, which are depleting fast. If the supply of these resources are assumed to be constant, it would imply that with the exponential increase in population and its concurrent demand, the prices of commodities would shoot up rapidly. But that has not been the case, as has been argued by the economist Julian Simon, an American professor of business administration at the University of Maryland and a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He tracked the prices of resources like copper, tin and more, starting from the 1800s in his 1981 book ‘the Ultimate Resource’ and found a downward trend in their prices overtime. Julian’s research presents evidence and asserts that in a quest to discover economical ways to meet demands, humans tend to find newer, more efficient resources to replace the old ones. For example, we now use radio waves in the electromagnetic spectrum to carry signals that we once used copper wires for. Innovation, updation and upgradation are organic processes.

If anything, population causes prosperity. Humans use their intellectual capacities to innovate in order to fulfil their requirements which are limited by finite resources. The capacity to think, research and create is what sets human beings apart and also what makes them the most crucial resource for a nation. According to World Bank data, India, with a population density of 445 people per sq km has a gross national income(GNI) per capita of USD 6490, while Singapore with a population density of 7909 people per sq km has a GNI per capita of USD 85,020. South Korea is another such example.

Japan is facing a problem paradoxical to that of India. According to the 2015 Population Census of Japan, its population shrank by 0.7 per cent between 2010 and 2015  for the first time since 1920s (Statistics Japan, 2016). According to the United Nations, Japan’s population is anticipated to shrink to 83 million by 2100, with 35 per cent of its population older than 65 years of age. With an ageing population, Japan fears a rapid rise in the dependent population and a dearth of consumers and their corresponding demands. Japan’s economy is already bearing the brunt of its negative population growth rate, as the economy contracted by an annualised rate of 1.4 per cent in the last quarter of 2015  due to weak consumer spending (Cabinet Office, 2015) .

Prospects of growth in an ageing population diminish because there is little scope for expansion of the labour force. The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Ageing, an initiative which proposes recommendations to promote healthy ageing by populations worldwide and to address the challenges of cognitive decline, has predicted that over the next four decades rapidly ageing populations will be a major concern for the world economy.

How often do we ask: why are there so many poor people in India, instead of asking: why is India poor? Attributing the instance of high poverty in India to the very existence of its people is a flawed argument. Equipped with the right skills and access to opportunities, humans act as  catalysts for their own growth and development.

According to Legatum Institute’s ‘Global Prosperity Index’ India was the single biggest contributor to growth in global prosperity and the report attributed a large part of this feat to India’s large population and promising demography. India’s population is not its Achilles’ heel rather its boon. Not resources, but the people who optimally employ those resources cause prosperity.


Census, 2011. Tamil Nadu Population Census data 2011: Census 2011. Available at:

Statistics Japan, 2016. Preliminary Counts of the 2015 Population Census of Japan released, Statistics Bureau, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication. Available at: http://

Cabinet Office, 2015. Tables of GDP and its components (1994:I-2015:III) (Expenditure approach): Economic and Social Research Institute, Cabinet Office, Government of Japan. Available at:

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