In the weeks and months prior to the current financial crisis, much of the world media was reporting on a global crisis in food. A seemingly inexorable rise in the price of basic food supplies in 2007-2008 threatened poor populations around the world, and government leaders scrambled to contain the social unrest that followed.
To explain this food crisis to an audience in St. Louis in May 2008, then-President George W. Bush pointed to the size of the Indian population. Claiming that India's "middle class is larger than our entire population," Bush argued that the demand for "better nutrition and better food" among this massive group had caused food price increases worldwide.
Bush's remarks provoked an uproar among Indians, who refused to accept blame for the global food crisis. Many Indian journalists and government officials instead linked the spike in food prices to American policies that favored using grains for ethanol fuel and subsidized U.S. farmers.
Others, like analyst Pradeep Mehta, argued that if Americans would just reduce their weights to the Indian middle class average, "many hungry people in sub-Saharan Africa would find food on their plates."
This heated exchange marked another episode in a longstanding debate about whether India is an "overpopulated" place. Since the early nineteenth century, some observers—Indians and others—have remarked that India's population is too large for the country's resources to sustain.
In more recent years, some in the United States and Europe have argued that this large population poses a global threat, as Indians consume an ever-increasing portion of the world's resources in a bid to satisfy an ever-growing population.
Population numbers seem to support these concerns. The population of India has grown rapidly over the last sixty years, from about 350 million in 1947 to approximately 1.16 billion today. Although the rate of growth has now slowed, India's population size is still increasing, and demographers expect it to reach 1.65 billion people by 2050, making India the most populous country on earth.
The numbers alone cannot tell us the full story, however. The debates about Indian population size have also focused on the related question of under-production—that is, the problem is not so much too many people as too little food. For more than two centuries, the question — is India really "overpopulated" at all?—has been hotly contested and bound up with broader tensions about political power, economic development, and access to global resources.
Population and Prosperity in the Nineteenth Century
In early modern India, a large population was typically taken to be a sign of prosperity and progress. A densely populated area signified fertile land, the availability of labor, good governance, and peaceful conditions. Small populations, by contrast, were seen as a sign of decline.
A Maratha official touring the war-torn Mughal territories near Delhi and Agra in 1784 remarked with concern that "there were no ripening fields to be seen anywhere… The local administration was already oppressive—on top of that came the failure of the rains and the peasants died en masse, so that entire villages were left uninhabited."