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Malthusian Miasma

Mohan Rao

By Sanjam Ahluwalia
Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2008, pp. 251, Rs. 595.00


In few areas of public life in India does such consensus prevail as on the issue of population; this is indeed one area in which Indians utterly cease to be argumentative. My medical students, for instance, invariably list ‘the population explosion’ as India’s biggest health problem. The Government of Bihar has recently followed several other states in introducing the two-child norm for contesting panchayati raj elections. Maharashtra charges higher irrigation fees for farmers with more than two children, while restricting education in government schools to two children. Imaginatively, some states have introduced a two-child norm for gun licenses, while in Tamil Nadu, landless labourers losing limbs will receive compensation only if they have two children or less.   In the West, of course, population growth in Third World countries is said to be the primary reason for global warming, for environmental degradation, and consequently, for immigration, and, for ‘refugee flows’. Security interests of the United States are therefore said to be under siege by population growth in these countries, particularly those in Africa and the Arab world. As the discipline of strategic demography that has emerged in response to these security considerations would have it, the ‘youth bulge’ in Islamic countries is primarily responsible for ‘Islamic terror’.   The legacy of Thomas Malthus is not of course restricted to medical professionals, demographers, health planners or security analysts. It provides a strong current to Hindu fundamentalism in India, and indeed to fundamentalists of all varieties all over the world, as they lay claim to controlling ‘their’ women—and their reproductive capacities. Not surprisingly, the media ceaselessly replays these tropes.   Thus over-population has emerged as common sense, self-evident and true. It is of course beside the point that this common sense has been assiduously constructed over more than a hundred and fifty years, commencing precisely in the period when Malthusianism was discredited in England. This common sense—as the book under review demonstrates—thus does not need to be buttressed by facts. The construction of this common sense is necessary for a range of political projects, from colonialism, to privatization of common property resources, to attacks on welfare, and of course to anti-democratic and anti-feminist projects that fall under the rubric of fundamentalism.   This remarkable book under review traces the construction of the discourse of over-population in colonial India and as wedded to the project of nationalism, to modernity, and to some varieties ...

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