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."

In the early nineteenth century, when the British East India Company controlled an increasing swath of territory across the subcontinent, Company officials pronounced that large and expanding populations demonstrated the superiority of British governance. In the words of one company publicist in 1815, "It is pleasing to view the cheerful bustle and crowded population … evincing a sense of security, and appearance of happiness, seen in no part of India beyond the Company's territories."

This longstanding equation of large populations with prosperity and good government began to change by the mid-nineteenth century, when British officials confronted a series of famines across the subcontinent. These famines, which occurred with shocking regularity from the 1860s onwards, led some administrators to question whether India was a land depleted of resources straining to support an excessively large population.

Previous Indian rulers had also confronted famines, and the subcontinent was vulnerable to such crises because of its dependence upon monsoon rains. However, the British were the first to develop an official policy that mandated specific responses to famine conditions.

To frame this policy, some administrators turned to Thomas Robert Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population. First published in 1798, Malthus's Essay argued that population growth, if unchecked, would always exceed capacities of food production.

According to Malthus, population growth could be limited either by preventive checks, which lowered the birth rate, or positive checks, which raised the death rate. Preventive checks included such measures as postponement of marriage, celibacy, or contraception, whereas positive checks involved war, disease, or starvation.

The Essay proved enormously influential, and nowhere more so than in India. For some British administrators, Malthus's "positive checks" seemed to explain recurrent famines. They suggested that British rule had created the conditions for rapid population growth across India by ending civil strife and curbing disease.

Under the benign conditions of Pax Britannica, the population grew beyond the capacity of agricultural production. In true Malthusian fashion, famines ensued, resulting in a "positive check" on population growth. From this perspective, famines occurred in India because the British had "freed a tropical population from the tropical checks on its increase, without yet teaching it to submit to prudential restraints."

Even with this rosy view of the success of British rule, the question of how the government ought to respond to famine remained. Followers of Malthusian ideas suggested that famine relief be minimal. While this might lead to starvation deaths in the short run, the fatalities would be from the poorest class of laborers and beggars, a "class of men—so low in intellect, morality, and possessions" that their continued survival and reproduction would only worsen the situation of India.

Official famine policy put some of these principles into practice. Famine relief was held to the bare minimum, and to receive aid, all but the most enfeebled were required to labor for wages below market rates. The goal, from a Malthusian perspective, was simple: to discourage famine victims from seeking any relief, with the long term consequence of reducing their rates of reproduction and holding off the threat of overpopulation.

In the nineteenth century, British fears of Indian overpopulation were not prompted by an increase in population size, but by a crisis—famine—that threatened to reduce population numbers. When the recurrence of famine threatened to undermine British claims that their rule brought prosperity to the Indian colony, the British government responded by blaming Indians themselves for failing to control population growth.

The Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, took this approach when he noted that in 1888, Indian agricultural productivity was low, and famines loomed, because of the "overflow of the population of large districts and territories whose inhabitants are yearly multiplying beyond the number which the soil is capable of sustaining."

Yet despite this dire pronouncement, there is no evidence to suggest that India was undergoing any rapid increase of population in comparison with the rest of the world. Between 1871 and 1941, the average increase in India's population was approximately 0.60% per year, slightly lower than the worldwide average (from 1850-1940) of 0.69%.

Consequently, by blaming "population" rather than colonial exploitation or mismanagement of production, the British colonial rulers essentially dodged any questions about the effects of their rule on Indian society.

Overpopulation or Underproduction?

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, several Indian nationalist intellectuals began to develop a critique of colonial rule that rejected the premises of British thought about the Indian political economy, including its assumptions of overpopulation. They argued that the problem in India was not "overpopulation" but "underproduction."

British rule had destroyed Indian manufacturing, but had failed to replace these sources of production with new modes of industry. This led to a situation in which, according to P.C. Joshi, "production falls off while population is advancing at its normal rate," leading to "the evil of underproduction."

As a corollary to this thesis, Indian nationalists advanced the notion that famines were preventable through better governance. In the short term, they demanded that the British government offer more generous aid to famine-threatened areas, and in the long term, encourage industrial development.

For further proof of their argument, the nationalists looked to Europe itself. In England and France, the population grew significantly during the nineteenth century, but the national income multiplied by even greater amounts. Perhaps most importantly, even when these countries suffered from drought, they "invariably escape from the terrible grip" of famine.

Consequently, the "increase of numbers is per se not necessarily or always an evil," Joshi argued, and in any case, Indian numbers were not increasing very greatly. Colonial mismanagement—or worse—indifference to its colonized subjects was the problem, not overpopulation.

Independent India and a Growing Population

The first two decades of the twentieth century witnessed a relatively slow rate of population growth. As a result, the census of 1931 came as a shock to demographers and the public at large; it revealed a much more rapid growth rate, of one percent annually, between 1921 and 1931. More worrisome to some, the rate of growth continued to accelerate, and after 1951, reached approximately two percent per year.

In the midst of this population increase, colonial India gained its independence from the British Empire in 1947, and was partitioned into the separate states of India and Pakistan. Both nations expressed concerns about population size, but the Indian government took up the issue with greater urgency.

Under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, India developed a bureaucratic infrastructure to monitor, and potentially reduce, rates of population growth. During the 1950s, these efforts were joined enthusiastically by private sources of funding, most notably from American philanthropic organizations such as the Ford Foundation.

Yet even while agreeing that Indian population growth be moderated, Nehru remained steeped in the ideas of earlier Indian nationalists, and focused more on increasing production than on decreasing population.