Go forth and multiply

Written by Sreeram Chaulia | SREERAM CHAULIA | Updated: Jul 30 2010, 04:23am hrs
Irans announcement of a financial incentive package to encourage population growth has come at a moment when several countries are facing precipitous declines in numbers even though the earths human contingent is approaching the nine billion figure by 2050. That population fall can be a widespread problem is itself a recent notion, which turns old Malthusian forebodings on their head.

Post-World War II doomsayers in the West projected overpopulation in the developing world as a grave ill that would stretch finite resources and leave too many mouths and warm bodies to feed, clothe and house. In the 1950s, American geneticist Karl Sax was a canary in the mine portraying uncontrolled human fecundity as a disaster and panning western aid without birth control conditionalities to impoverished countries like India as counterproductive.

Aldous Huxley (Brave New World Revisited, 1958) and Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb, 1968) followed in this vein to advocate strict birth control (including forced sterilisation and abortion) as a dire imperative in decolonised countries. They too insisted that western food aid be predicated on population reduction blueprints. A whole bureaucracy of international organisations and charities was organised from the 1970s under the umbrella of the United Nations Fund for Population (UNFPA) to aggressively peddle family planning solutions in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

While gender equality in families and improved reproductive health were laudable objectives of the family planning brigade, the UNFPA was riddled in controversy for allegedly financing draconian birth reduction policies in China, Vietnam and Peru. Conservative pro-life lobbies in the US claim that an international liberal agenda, backed by American aid, has imposed a system of bribes, legal hurdles and physical abuse against families in nearly 150 countries to deny them their reproductive rights.

Irans Islamic hardliners share this animus against the pro-choice camp (champions of womens access to contraception and abortion) and argue that family planning is a devious trick designed and financed by the West to limit Muslim numbers.

In 2006, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced intentions of scrapping existing birth control policies (earlier lauded by the UN for one of the worlds highest fertility decreases) and fanning a fresh baby boom. He justified the volte-face on grounds that westerners were worried and fear that if our population increases, we will triumph over them.

This week, he lashed out at population control as an ungodly western import and unveiled a new state subsidy scheme of a $950 one-time lump sum grant and $95 annual bank deposits for each child born to a family. Ahmadinejad believes that his land has the carrying capacity of 150 million citizens (i.e., over double the current 70 million Iranians) and that such a vastly populous country could resist future western bullying.

Liberal critics lambast this reasoning by juxtaposing Irans high unemployment, inflation and water shortages with a new youth bulge that is likely to emerge from Ahmadinejads baby factory. In the long run, upping Irans population through state policy may come back to bite the hand that prompts by swelling the ranks of politically volatile youth who utterly hate the Islamic Republics moral policing.

But it is worth noting that two decades of state-backed birth control had brought down Irans population growth rate to just 0.7% per annum by 2007. Irans government is wary of falling into a linear demographic decline pattern that presages labour shortages and shrinkage in the recruitment pool for the military. The Iranian state purposefully orchestrated a population explosion during its war against Iraq in the 1980s due to an urgent need for manpower on the battle front. Today, Iran anticipates and is preparing for another long war against the US and Israel. Thus, apart from social conservative ideology (Ahmadinejad avers that the main mission of women is to bear and raise children), there are economic and strategic rationales underpinning Tehrans flip-flops on opening and shutting the population valves.

Similar anxiety about population decline and its adverse impacts on dependency ratios, pension funds, economic productivity, size of domestic markets and militaries have gripped, inter alia, Australia, France, Russia, Japan, Germany, Italy, Hungary and Ukraine. Even the worlds most populated country, China, is beset with predictions of a sharp fall in birth rates from 2020 onwards due to the One Child norm and individual choices of households that are getting wealthier.

In ageing societies, under-population is a bigger scare than overpopulation because the former is an omen for industrial stagnation, higher costs of healthcare for the senile and loss of national brio. Irans baby bonuses are not unique but part of a trend catching on in de-populating regions around the world.

Theoretically, freeing international immigration is a remedy for societies that are heading towards catastrophic demographic decline. It would be neat and convenient if parts of the world whose populations are still growing at a rapid clip (Africa and the Middle East) could lend surplus labour to countries that are experiencing negative net replacement rates. But cultural prejudices and determination to preserve national identity against a flood-tide of immigrants have crippled governments desperate to arrest the population slide. Unlike the US, countries like Russia, Germany and Japan have legacies of xenophobia and mono-cultural nationalism, which saddle them with uphill struggles of restoring healthy population growth.

Their challenges are compounded by environmentalists calling for an optimum population size in each society, treating human numbers as neither an asset nor a liability but as a factor affecting climate change. Like other complex global governance problems with multiple stakeholders who view the issue from their respective ideal endpoints, the population question awaits consensual problem-solving technologies and paradigms.

The author is associate professor of world politics at the OP Jindal Global University