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 (Image Courtesy: Dance of Death - World Digital Library)
India’s annual Economic Survey (ES) sees the ghost of Malthuson the horizon. This should alarm dream merchants who have been fooling the masses on their way to power by flaunting elusive demographic dividend.
With full respect to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his predecessor, Dr. Manmohan Singh, this column deplores their obsession for demographic dividend. Both have failed to make any significant dent in unemployment and underemployment. 
We all have to actually work for saving India from impending demographic disaster against backdrop of triple challenge. It comprises: 1) booming population, 2) agrarian crisis marked by stagnant yields, farmers’ unrest & climate change and 3) ubiquitous spread of automation with the near-arrival of driverless cars and unmanned container ships. 
Citizens should thus view ES as the trigger to set a national agenda on India’s Population Bomb, Resources Crunch, Climate Change and Malthus.
Mind you, ES is not the sole official document to voice worry over India’s long-term prospects. The country’s development, when assessed on basis of per capita availability of resources, has been virtually offset by burgeoning population.
It is very difficult to ensure peace and happiness for teeming millions without major innovations including legislative and policy action to control population. And innovations on farm & jobs fronts can’t happen without imaginative policies and without restraining eco-terrorists and judicial activists.
Before elaborating the roadmap to ward off Malthusian jitters, a bit of background is required. 
Thomas Malthus, a British Professor in 18th century, expounded population growth will outpace increase in food supply, resulting in catastrophe such as famines and epidemics. He thus made a case for population control.  He incorporated his views in classical work ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’.
Rapid strides in agricultural science, expansion of cropped area & irrigation have so far kept Malthusianism at bay. Climate change threatens to tilt the balance in favour of doomsayers at the global level. As for India, it has to live with curse of over-population and resulting socio-economic tensions, which often morph into riots and all sort of daily crimes.
Mr. Modi should show the same zeal for 17 pending population control bills as he has shown for Triple Talaq Bill. All the population bills have been introduced by individual MPs. Of these Private Members’ Bill, five were introduced after Mr. Modi became Prime Minister. What stops him for undertaking a multi-facet action on population control? Is he scared of swimming against populism? 
Parliament once unanimously agreed that “unsustainable growth of population” was the root cause of “most of our human, social and economic problems.” It is another matter that Modi Government maintains stony silence on this and other sage ideas for action incorporated in ‘Agenda for India’. It is a resolution that Parliament passed to mark Golden Jubilee of Independence during Aug-Sept 1997. 
This Agenda has now got rebirth in form of Pre-Budget Economic Survey for 2017-18, presented to Parliament on 29th January. It says: “in the medium to long term, the 
ghost of Malthus looms over Indian agriculture. Productivity will have to be increased, and price and income volatility reduced, against the backdrop of increasing resource constraints”.
In the chapter titled ‘Climate, Climate Change, and Agriculture’, ES has projected impact of climate change or crop yields and farmers’ income in irrigated and rainfed farms. Projections are based on the assumptions that neither farmers nor the Government take any call on climate change. 
ES concluded: “In a year where temperatures are 1 degree Celsius higher farmer incomes would fall by 6.2 percent during the kharif season and 6 percent during rabi in unirrigated districts. Similarly, in a year when rainfall levels were 100 millimetres less than average, farmer incomes would fall by 15 percent during kharif and by 7 percent during the rabi season”.
It has reckoned farm income losses of 15 percent to 18 percent on average, rising to 20 percent-25 percent for unirrigated areas. These translate into more than Rs. 3,600 per year for the median farm household at curent levels of income.
Underscoring the urgent need to provide irrigation to all farms, it says that this challenge has to be met against the backdrop of declining levels of groundwater in large parts of the country and rising water scarcity. 
The Government recently told Parliament that India has about 18 per cent of the world’s population but only 4% of the world’s renewable water. The average annual per capita water availability in the years 2001 and 2011 was assessed as 1820 cubic meters and 1545 cubic meters, respectively. This may reduce further to 1340 and 1140 cubic meters in the years 2025 and 2050, respectively.
Annual per-capita water availability of less than 1700 cubic meters is considered as water stressed condition, whereas annual per-capita water availability below 1000 cubic meters is considered as a water scarcity condition.
Thus, virtually, entire India would face water scarcity in 2050, when it would host the world’s largest single chunk of population estimated in the range of 1.57-1.7 billion. India, with paltry 2.4 percent of the world surface area, already supports and sustains 16.9 percent of the world population.
The resources crisis has been succinctly noted by Chairman of Doubling Farmers’ Income Committee (DFIC) Dr. Ashok Dalwai. He notes that the number of farming households has more than doubled to 119 million in 2011 from 70 million in 1951. The army of landless, farm workers has swelled to to144.30 million from 27.30 million during the same period. 
As put by Dr. Dalwai, “The welfare of this elephantine size of India’s population is predicated upon a robust agricultural growth strategy that is guided by an income enhancement approach”.
In its Vision 2030, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) estimated that the average size of an Indian farm would decline to 0.32 hectares in 2030 from 1.32 hectares in 2000-01 and from 2.30 hectares in 1970-71.
It is anybody's guess how farming families would eke out a living from such tiny farms, assuming there is no robust action plan to break free the present rut. 
DFIC, which has so far submitted nine of its 14 reports, would obviously offer a multi-facet approach to rejuvenate agriculture. 
The action plan resulting from recommendations of DFIC and many other recent and old reports should focus on five issues. These are: 1) Vertical farming, 2) precision farming, 3) diversified farm families, 4) easily accessible, robust marketing and storage infrastructure 5) agricultural risks offset policies.
Land shortages calls for vertical solutions for habitations as well as work places in cities & villages. Vertical farming systems and solutions are available for both rural and urban areas. 
Vertical farming is an exciting concept that may help diffuse the population bomb, allowing comfortable accommodation of continued population growth”, says GreenGro Technologies, a US company that specializes in vertical farming techniques.   
This innovation can be combined with precision farming, which focuses on optimum availability of all inputs to plants with aid of information & allied technologies including drones. Genetic-engineered crops should constitute an integral component of all formats of farming. 
The Government must thus convince the judiciary to vacate the genetic engineering policy turf that it has grabbed following public interest litigations initiated by environmental activists. 
Development and manufacture of vertical and precision farming systems is a sunrise industry that should be promoted under ‘Make In India’ Initiative. This, coupled with operation of vertical farms in urban areas, would create new job opportunity for millions including landless migrants from the countryside.
This would kindle a ray hope for demographic dividend. It is defined by United Nations Population Fund Agency (UNFPA) as “economic growth potential that can result from shifts in a population’s age structure, mainly when the share of the working-age population (15 to 64) is larger than the non-working-age share of the population (14 and younger, and 65 and older)”. 
As for diversification, farm families would not mind diversifying into segments other than crop cultivation provided Government facilities purchase of all farm produce at fair and remunerative prices. 
This calls for big-bang approach towards making investments in marketing, logistics and creation of agri-value chains. ‘Farm to Fork’ concept should be enlivened with credible policy outcomes in value-addition. 
As for offsetting risks faced by farmers, the Central and State Governments must jointly fix a timeframe to provide irrigation, insurance and assured fair and remunerative price for all farm produce to all farmers.
Solutions to problems are aplenty. What is lacking is political will at the Centre. 
As put by ES, “It is easy to say what needs to be done. How this will happen given that agriculture is a state subject is an open political economy question.”
It continues: “Clearly, the Hirschmanian (a term derived political economist late Albert Otto Hirschman) bottom-up forces of ‘voice’ and ‘exit’ along with benevolent-and-strategic top-down planning and reforms will all have to play a key part. The cooperative federalism ‘technology’ of the GST Council that brings together the Center and States could be promisingly deployed to further agricultural reforms and durably raise farmers’ incomes”.
Mr. Modi should convene an urgent meeting of Inter-State Council to finalize a joint roadmap for population control, jobs creation and agricultural rejuvenation. 
The ghost of Malthus can’t be kept at bay through goody-goody tweets and positive speeches. Good governance requires leaders to face challenges on the ground and not find great escape in social media. 
Published by taxindiaonline.com on 31st January 2018
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