Population Density and the Environment

Last year there was a great deal of press about India taking over China to become the world’s most populous country. It was an important moment. But the coverage missed an aspect I find even more meaningful than the population number itself, and that is the implication for India’s population density.

India is now the 6th most densely populated country in the world (excluding small countries less than 10 million people). Its population density of 435 per square kilometer puts it among a handful of very dense countries that includes Bangladesh, Taiwan, Rwanda and South Korea. But what sets it apart is that it is far larger than any other densely-populated country. The only other country of similar population size, China, has a population density one third of India’s.

One may think of India as always having been densely populated, so it is important to be aware that such a high level of population density in India is a recent phenomenon. At the time of the 1991 census, only a little more than 30 years ago, the population density of India was just 255 people per square kilometer – similar to Germany’s today. Since then, population density has nearly doubled, and it is continuing to increase. The consequences of this are immense.

India’s population is not uniformly distributed, so there large areas of much higher density. Two states, Bihar and West Bengal have population density greater than 1,000 people per square kilometer, similar to Bangladesh – and their combined population is a little bit more than Bangladesh’s. You could say that India holds a second Bangladesh inside it.

It doesn’t stop there. The next two states in density, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala, with more than 800 people per square kilometer, are both considerably denser than the world’s second most densely-populated large country, Taiwan. And they contain many more people than Taiwan’s 24 million, especially Uttar Pradesh, with its 241 million people.

We could add that the Union Territory of Delhi, with its 17 million people, would itself be populated enough to qualify as a large country in our analysis. With 11,321 people per square kilometer, it would be far and away at the top of the density list.

It should be clear India is uniquely confronted with high population density at very large scale.

This is significant in a number of ways, but I would like to examine the environmental dimension.

If we look the environmental crisis as issues of sharing resources like water, air and land, of managing the pollution of these shared resources by humans and of managing the cohabitation of human with other forms of life, it becomes clear that high human population density is of great relevance. The more people are living in close proximity and are forced to share the commons, the more environmental issues are deeply felt. So although surface area doesn’t tell the whole story of the environmental resources a country has, population density is still a pretty good proxy for the intensity of environmental pressures.

In a densely-populated country, there is no vast repository of unoccupied land to escape to or to use for future degradation. When air is polluted, water resources are depleted, soil is impoverished, and ecosystems are compromised, the consequences are immediately felt by people and there is little alternative but to address the problem itself.

Concretely, what this means is that India, as a densely-populated country, is going to feel the bite of human destruction of earth systems much more strongly and much more quickly than most other places in the world. And as a very large country, India will face these issues at a scale seen nowhere else on Earth.

I believe this very basic and inescapable fact will profoundly structure Indian policy in the years to come. Environmental problems look very, very different when you have more than 400 people sharing each and every square kilometer in the country and when you have 35 people sharing each square kilometer like the United States, 8 people like Russia, or 3 people like Australia. This will shape India’s actions in a way fundamentally different to countries who have the luxury of space and resources to damage and squander.

The pressures of the environmental crisis are more or less bearable today because the average Indian has a much more modest environmental footprint than a citizen of an OECD country. But, with development in high gear, the pressure is rapidly increasing and the pain points will truly start be felt. We are very clearly seeing this process at work in certain specific areas, and it will only become more pervasive.

My hypothesis is that this density will lead to India having no practical alternative to being at the forefront of careful environmental management. The feedback loops will be so short that ignoring problems or kicking them down the road will be not be a viable approach for long. Indians will have to face the music well before the citizens of many other countries.

I cannot say I truly see signs of this happening yet at scale, as a matter of national policy outside of isolated initiatives and programs. But I do think we are increasingly seeing signs both of the awareness of this reality and of the development of instruments necessary to implement robust environmental management at the city, state and national levels.

India’s population and population density can be seen as a problem and a grave danger. I prefer to see it as an opportunity. It will be fascinating to see if India’s leaders indeed take it as such and put in place the ambitious strategy for comprehensive national environmental management that this reality calls for. If they do, they will be assuming a leadership position that will be of enormous benefit to the well-being of the Indian population and that will make India a global leader in an age where climate change will be a defining reality.

Note: State population data is from https://iced.niti.gov.in/economy-and-demography/demography