A couple of centuries after Thomas Malthus stoked fears of high population growth leading to scarcities and conflict, the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) has brought home a message of caution in a world in which population growth is being accompanied by urbanisation that leads to congestion. The ‘State of the World Population 2007’ report points out that, for the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population — some 3.3 billion people — will be living in cities by 2008, though urban growth is declining in most regions, as far more people move out of major cities in the world than into them.
The population of only half-a-dozen seems to have grown at rates consistently above three per cent a year over the last 30 years. The others, as the report indicates, experienced “mainly moderate or low growth”. What should be of particular concern to India, however, is the warning provided by the report on the drought, flooding, and the other consequences of climate change which could not only hit drier cities like Delhi, but also modify the migration patterns of rural and urban areas, as fewer “environmental refugees” return to the rural areas from which they were displaced. Job opportunities in India’s formal sector have not been expanding and much of the urban labour force works in the informal sector. This doesn’t appear to have discouraged migrants from flocking to cities in search of “intangible advantages, opportunities and amenities”. Villages still hold no attraction for the poor. This is reflected in the world’s rural population that is expected to decrease by 28 million between 2005 and 2030. If India is to enable a healthy balance between urban growth and rural displacement, the State should see if the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme can be boosted or modified to reduce rural stresses.
As the report rightly points out, “the future of those in developing countries, and humanity itself will depend on the decisions of policymakers today”. Therefore, the approach to urban growth of India and China — who happen to have 37 per cent of the world’s slums between them — becomes critical for the world’s future.