‘Every Indian is an asset’

Poonam Muttreja is not one for holding back. The executive director of the Population Foundation of India (PFI) — a nonprofit founded in 1970 by a group of industrialists under the leadership of then Tata group chairman, JRD Tata, and Bharat Ram of DCM — Ms Muttreja has a lot to say about what it means for India to become the country with the most human beings in the world. And almost all of her thoughts on a subject as big as it comes are positive, but with riders.

More than 35 years of experience in the development sector has equipped Ms Muttreja with knowledge and ideas that go beyond India’s population numbers to the people who comprise them. An inclination to contribute to social uplift was what led her to cofound Sruti, which champions social justice, and Dastkar, an organisation devoted to the wellbeing of the crafts industry. Ms Muttreja opens up here to Christabelle Noronha on a range of issues. Edited excerpts from the interview:

India is on the cusp of overtaking China as the world’s most populous country, if it hasn’t already. This is largely symbolic, but what are the wider social implications here?

It was expected that India would overtake China sometime in 2023. While the milestone may be symbolic, the socioeconomic implications are many, given the limited resources we have and the limited opportunities available. India has a very large young population which has huge potential to contribute to the country’s economic growth and development. We have to leverage this potential; it doesn’t happen automatically.

We need to create an infrastructure where there is universal access to family planning services for all people in the reproductive age group. We need to develop the infrastructure for more schools and colleges, better health facilities, skilling and job opportunities for the young.

India’s population story has a north and a south to it. People numbers are still rising in the north, while the population is plateauing or even declining in the south. What sort of political and economic consequences can we expect as a result?

There is a profound demographic diversity that exists between the north and the south. The states in the south have seen a demographic decline. Some have had a population stabilisation and also a decline (in states such as Kerala). Fertility reduction has worked in the south but this is taking more time in the north. 

Much of the population growth in India today is in the north. States here have a much bigger youth population that is at a reproductive age. This is a demographic advantage if we can generate opportunities for them.

From a political standpoint, the northern states will have more parliamentary constituencies when the delimitation exercise takes place. There will, therefore, be an imbalance between north and south. The number of parliamentary seats in each state — calculated on the basis of the 1971 census — is frozen till 2026. Standardising the number of people per constituency through a delimitation exercise, which will happen sooner than later, will lead to reduced representation for the southern states.

This means we are disadvantaging those who have stabilised their population, those who have invested in human development. It’s a situation that could cause political and other kinds of discord. For instance, budgetary allocations by the centre to the southern states will decrease. That doesn’t sound fair.

You have been quoted as saying “India’s demographic dividend could turn into a demographic disaster” if we don’t invest wisely and well in “adolescent education, health and sexual health.”

India’s population is young and that augers well for the future, but the country needs to urgently and greatly step up investments in health, nutrition, education and skilling. We need pathways to employment.

A demographic disaster will happen when we have a large population of young and unhappy people who do not have employment, who lose hope, whose aspirations are being scuttled or are not getting realised. That’s when we will have a problem.

We are not a dysfunctional society as of now, but there could be a situation where a large number of people with poor psychological health are attracted to violence, addictive drugs and the like. We have seen that in Punjab, where many young people are not willing to, or who don’t aspire to, work in farming.

In terms of policymaking, how best can India deal with the challenges of population growth? What can we learn from other countries in this context?

India has the best of demographic data, thanks to our census. We need to use that data to plan for our people. If you look at the data, you will see the stress-and-supply failure to meet the demand for education and healthcare.

Members of a tribal community sorting out forest produce; Sruti, the organisation that Ms Muttreja cofounded, has been a votary of the rights of such communities

Not only do we need universal healthcare, we need universal access to family planning services. We must empower our women to be able to decide when and how many children they will have. This is something that India can do and has the courage to do. We have some of the most liberal laws on abortion but we cannot be pushing our women to have millions of abortions every year. These are not irresponsible teenage pregnancies; it is, primarily, proxy contraception.

The completion of the 2021 India census has been pushed back to at least October 2023. Could we not have avoided the delay, and how important is the census itself?

The census should have happened in 2021, but the government had a good excuse in that Covid was raging then. The question is whether the census can be completed before the 2024 general election. That’s one for the government to answer but the implications of delaying the census are serious for planning and governance. 

With census data, the real action is at the district level. That’s what best reveals information and data on the state of our human resources, demography, culture and our economic status. This information is vital in shaping our country’s future, and beyond merely development. 

The precise and detailed data provided by the census on population size, population composition and spatial distribution are necessary. We keep talking about the two-child norm and we keep saying one religion is going to explode in terms of numbers, but the last two censuses have shown a decline in the Muslim growth rate.

We ought to know what happened because once population starts declining, it declines at a faster rate. That is the phenomenon we have seen across the world. We need to know by how much the Muslim growth rate has come down and the reasons for it, so that we can strengthen those reasons. Policies and programmes without updated data can lead to many unforeseen distortions.

The people who fail the poor the most are at the village and [subdistrict] levels, specifically the bureaucracy and the [village councils].”

You cofounded Sruti, which works in the area of social justice, as also Dastkar, which is involved with crafts. How have the two experiences panned out?

I am privileged to have been associated with these organisations. We got the best of people when we founded Sruti and Dastkar, even though I was young (in my 20s). Sruti not only facilitates and supports social action, but also strengthens it through the intermediary processes of advocacy, engagement, association, capacity building and solidarity.

Investment in the social sector by foreign funding organisations is becoming more and more difficult. That’s why it was a wise decision to have the Sruti fellowships and to raise funding from sources and individuals in India. As for me, I just set up and move on because I’m a person in a hurry. There’s so much to do.

Unfortunately, the problems addressed by Sruti and Dastkar continue to linger, particularly poverty. The people who fail the poor the most are at the village and block [subdistrict] levels, specifically the bureaucracy and the panchayats [village councils]. Panchayats can do good work — as seen in Kerala, for example — when they have greater autonomy.

What about Dastkar?

My dream was to bring artisans into the market. Craftspeople have had a tough time in India; the only place you could find crafts were at the craft emporiums. I thought that, given the number of skilled artisans in India, I could help bring them to the forefront as assets for the country.

The demand for crafts is huge and India could have done what China did. I still hope India will do what China has done, which is invest seriously in crafts and craftspeople. I’m disappointed that we don’t have a policy that promotes artisans. We keep talking about skill development but what about the millions of artisans who have skills?

The NGO ecosystem in India has been going through a churn, to put it mildly, in recent times. What are your hopes and expectations for the sector?   

My hope is that people stay the course because, at this point, it’s a question of life and death for NGOs. Many are closing down, especially at the grassroots level. The new regulations in place prevent intermediary or larger organisations from collaborating financially with smaller ones. 

We are not going to be able to support [the smaller NGOs] if we can’t support people at the community level financially. We are here to make the government infrastructure stronger and the government must realise that. NGOs enable improved governance at the community level, something that political leaders, parties and governments cannot do on their own. 

Considering the fragile and dysfunctional delivery system we have, the NGO sector and social activism at the grassroots are more important than ever, but they are being starved financially. They are facing an existential crisis. My hope is that the corporate sector will step in and that mechanisms will be found; there is a solution for everything.

We have to, moreover, make every effort to ensure that we have a dialogue with the government and help it understand that there are NGOs that are good for the country. Separating the wheat from the chaff is not difficult for the government. There is no point damning the entire sector.

We have to... make every effort to ensure that we have a dialogue with the government and help it understand that there are NGOs that are good for the country.”

As for PFI, I must say we are in a happy situation. We continue to work with the central government on both policy and programmes. At the state level, we have recently crafted a population policy for Uttar Pradesh. This provides a fine example of collaboration with the government.

We need to point out what needs to change, instead of just condemning the government. We need a dialogue with the government, we need civil society members outside of NGOs raising these issues. We need champions for the sector.

How would you rate, on a scale from one to ten, the socioeconomic progress India has made in the 75 years since independence? 

If you had asked me this question 25 years ago I would have found it difficult to answer. I think we have seen the impact of India’s investment in the development sector over the last two decades and the census is one of the best indicators of this. I would rate India at five.

India’s population is expected to peak at about 1.7 billion people in 2064. What sort of a country do you foresee at that point?        

That depends on what we do between now and then. Do we plan for the population or curse it? I think we need to do the former. I am hoping that by 2048 we will have the essential education infrastructure required for every Indian who wishes to study, whether at the village, district or state level.

We should stop complaining about our population numbers and start considering every Indian as an asset. We are on the right trajectory but there has to be more inclusive growth and more progressive attitudes. If we can do away with the strife and discomfort and focus on the prize, we will do well.

Dastkar, another organisation that Ms Muttreja cofounded, has been an ardent supporter of crafts and craftspeople across the country