For the longest time, I have been mildly embarrassed by India’s large population. Maybe this feeling came from watching too many family planning advertisements while growing up in 70s and 80s. The advertisements left an impression that a large and growing population was something to be ashamed about. Perhaps the feeling was strengthened by regular visits to crowded cities like Mumbai. Or perhaps there is a touch ofMalthus in all of us — We instinctively believe that the number of human beings on the planet is rising too fast and there may not be enough for everyone. This is not just a matter for a therapist though; As countries like India get richer, there is a lot of discussion on whether there are enough resources in the world for every Indian to enjoy the same material quality of life as people in the West. In most such discussions, there is a moral substrate to what on surface is an analytical topic. If India couldn’t ‘control’ its population, do Indians have the same claim on resources of the world as residents of other countries? It is in this context, that I have explored the question — Is India overcrowded?
The starting point for my exploration was a startling fact. The population of India is more than that of Africa although Africa is nine to ten times as large as India. I thought that if I could understand why Africa’s population is relatively small, I would make progress in answering my question.
My first stop on this journey was the book Energy and Civilization a History by Vaclav Smil. The book has an extensive literature survey of food acquisition modes and density of population throughout the history of our planet. This is what I understood.
· Foraging: This is gathering food from naturally growing plants and hunting wild animals. Density supported was one person to several hundred people per 100 Square kilometers. The global mean was just twenty-five people per 100 Square kilometers. 
· Shifting cultivation: This involved planting crops on a piece of land and then abandoning it for another plot, which was usually cleared by burning. The population density that this style of living supported was 0.2 -0.6 people / Hectare which translates to 2,000- 6,000 people per hundred square kilometers.
· Traditional farming: This is repeatedly farming on the same plot of land. The density of people supported could vary quite a lot depending on quality of soil, draft animals used, availability of water, weather, and techniques used for farming including collection and application of fertilizers. The density was around 1 -2 person per Hectare. Which translates to 10,000 to 20,000 people per 100 Square kilometers. In some societies, the density of population supported was more than 5 person per Hectare which is 50,000 People per hundred square kilometers!
In short, as societies moved from foraging to agriculture, the population density increased sharply. This is because farming produces more food for a given land area and human population has been historically limited by the availability of food. Note, that there is an order of magnitude difference between the number supported by foraging and the number supported by farming. That is, farming can support anywhere between tens to hundreds of times more people. Also note that many of the people supported in farming would not be farmers. They would be engaged in occupations like trade, administration, military and the arts.
How does this discussion relate to Africa? To answer this question, I went to another book. Prisoners or Geography by Tim Marshall . I discovered that large parts of Africa are not suitable for farming or even herding. This is what Marshall had to say.
“Much of the land consists of jungle, swamp, desert or steep sided plateau, none of which lend themselves to the growing of wheat or rice or sustaining herds of sheep.”
Here are examples of such land areas,
“…the Sahara, the world’s largest dry desert, which is almost as big as the United States. Directly below the Sahara is the Sahel region, a semiarid, rock-strewn, sandy strip of land measuring more than three thousand miles at its widest points…”
“It (Democratic Republic of Congo) is bigger than Germany, France and Spain combined and contains the Congo Rainforest, second only to the Amazon as the largest in the world.”
Places in Africa such as the Sahara Desert and the Congo forest are very sparsely populated. The low population density of Sahra is bought out starkly by Nile valley in Egypt. Nile allowed the Egyptians to begin agriculture thousands of years ago. In Tim Marshall’s words
“Without the Nile, there would be no one there. It may be a huge country, but the vast majority of its 84 million population lives within a few miles of Nile. Measured by the area in which people dwell, Egypt is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.”
This phenomenon of places that are conducive to agriculture being highly populated is not restricted to Africa, of course. Java, one of the islands of Indonesia, has more than half of the country’s population even as it makes up approximately 7% of the its land mass. We can also see this connection between agriculture and population density in China, the most populous country in the world. It is ranked lower than 50 on density of population but that is misleading. China’s heartland is very densely populated. We go to Marshall again,
“The heartland is the political, cultural, demographic, and — crucially — the agricultural center of gravity. About a billion people live in this part of China despite its being half the size of United States, which has a population of 322 million.”
There are many examples outside Africa of the inverse phenomenon too — of vast tracts of land being very scarcely populated- but none so iconic perhaps as Australia. The world’s sixth largest country has a population of only 26 Million, the same as the estimated population of Mumbai Metropolitan region. As the Wikipedia entry for Australia says,
“Australia is the oldest, flattest, and driest inhabited continent, with the least fertile soils.”
Going back to Africa, having large parts which are unsuitable for farming was not its only challenge. Here is Marshall again
“…there are few plants willing to be domesticated and fewer animals.”
Our ancestors started farming by ‘domesticating’ wild grasses which were the predecessors of grains like rice and wheat. They domesticated the predecessors of horses and cattle to use them as plough animals and for food. African plants and animals were not suitable for domestication. Of course, people in Africa imported domesticated plants and animals from other parts of the world but the great Sahara Desert was a barrier to this import.
If farming is what allows for a sharp increase in population and farming in turn depends on fertile land, is India’s high population due to a lot of fertile land? That was my next stop on this journey.
One measure of extent of land suitable for agriculture is Arable land. As per Wikipedia, Food and Agriculture Organization determined that India had the most arable land of all countries in the world. India has more Arable land than much larger countries like USA  and China. More relevantly, when I added up the Arable land of all African countries, it turns out to be only around 30% more than that in India!
Now the definition of arable land is a bit broad. On one hand, areas that are cropped multiple times are counted only once. On the other hand, an increase in population could be the reason that more and more land is bought under cultivation even if it is not that suitable for agriculture. Also, factors like agriculture techniques, soil quality and weather may mean that different arable lands have very different productivity. So, the 30% difference in arable land between India and Africa needs to be interpreted with caution. However, the fact that arable land in India and Africa is roughly similar, at least in terms of order of magnitude, explains for me the similar level of population.
Incidentally, even within India, we see that regions which have more fertile land are much more densely populated. Bihar and West Bengal have a density of more than a 1,000 people per square kilometer whereas the density in Rajasthan is around 200 people / square kilometer. In the mountainous Himachal Pradesh, the density falls to around 100 people / square kilometer and it falls to less than 20 people / square kilometer in Arunachal Pradesh. As we know, both Bihar and West Bengal have many large rivers and a lot of fertile land. Importantly, as these rivers flow from the Himalayas, they have a yearlong supply of water.
Across the world, places that have good conditions for agriculture have historically had a high population density. For most of human history, there was an upper limit to this population. Numbers would increase if food availability increased and the numbers would fall sharply whenever a famine struck. One striking example of this phenomenon is Ireland. The population of the country declined from 8.2 million to 6.5 million between 1841 and 1851! More than 100 year later, in 1961, the population of the country was only 4.5 million. The main decline happened during the famine year from 1845 to 1847. It is believed that a Million people died in the famine and another Million migrated. There are many other examples of diseases wiping out huge swathes of people from across the world. Even when there were no extraordinary famines or diseases, the childhood mortality was very high and naturally couples chose to have many kids as it was likely that many of them would die in infancy.
In the last hundred odd years, things have changed for humanity. With the help of structures like dams, we can store water and with the help of fossil fuel driven machinery, we can transport it further. We also use manufactured fertilizers to not only increase the yield of existing agricultural land but also increase the land under cultivation. And we have sharply decreased infant mortality. This has meant that population of the whole world has gone up more than three and a half times in the last one hundred years. However, with the exception of mass migration such as that of Europeans to the Americas, population increases have followed existing patterns. The dense agricultural parts of the world became denser even as some humans started settling in previously sparsely populated places. India started off denser than nearly everywhere else in the world and its population has increased sharply in the last few decades as it has nearly all over the world as I discussed in the first blog in this series.
This increase in population will not keep happening indefinitely. Across the world, fertility falls as societies become more prosperous and as women get more educated and independent. India is no exception. The fertility in the country is down to nearly replacement level as I discussed in this piece although there are interstate differences which has political consequences as I have discussed here and here.
As I reached the end of my journey of discovery, I realized that there was no reason to be ashamed of the large population of the country. No, India is not overcrowded. The population density is what you would expect from any place with so much fertile land and a similar history.
· Historically, population density of places was determined by the agricultural productivity.
· India has one of the highest levels of arable lands in the world. All of Africa’s arable land is only around 30% higher than that of India. Given that a lot of this Indian land may be multi-cropped, and that India has had a history of agriculture development, it is not surprising that the country historically had a high population.
· Things have changed in last Hundred odd years across the world. With the help of cheap energy and fertilizers we grow food for a much larger population. Consequently, the population everywhere has gone up. But whichever region had a high population to begin with, naturally had the most absolute increase.
Summary of summary — India is not overcrowded. It just has a lot of fertile land.
 There are some exceptions. For example, abundance of fish allowed some coastal settlements to achieve a higher density of population.
 Both the books I have referred to, are about much more than just what I have taken from them in this post. I highly recommend them. Prisoners of Geography is an easier read.
 In some years, the total arable land in US is more than that in India.
This is the twelfth in a series on population. The first eleven articles can be found here
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