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World View : The Fuse Still Sizzles on World Population Bomb : India is emblematic. It lowered fertility rates, but the numbers keep growing.

August 23, 1994|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOMBAY, India — Almost half a century after the first alert about the Earth's swelling population, humankind has entered a critical transition. And no place is more representative of the change than Bombay, which doubles as India's wealthiest city and home to Asia's largest slum, the notorious Dharavi.

Dharavi, a former garbage dump, has been blanketed by almost a million squatters fleeing the poverty of rural India. Hundreds more arrive weekly to live in the stinking squalor of tattered burlap and rag huts, with no access to running water or electricity and only one public toilet for every few dozen families. Women rely on a polluted marsh for cleaning. Barefoot, ill-clad tots play in dusty alleys. Many of their preteen siblings are already scrambling for work.

Dharavi symbolizes teeming India, now expected to crack the 1-billion population level by the year 2000--and then to surpass China as the world's most populous country by 2035.

Yet Bombay also reflects a changing India. The world's oldest official family-planning program, headquartered in the bustling port city, is estimated to have helped India avert at least 90 million births--equivalent to the population of Mexico--since the 1950s through a mix of voluntary and coercive programs.

Now, as the 21st Century nears, India is a microcosm of the world, with both good news and bad.

"We've made enormous progress in the use of family-planning methods around the world. Over the past 30 years, use of birth control in developing countries has increased from 10% of couples to about 55%," said Dr. J. Joseph Speidel, president of Population Action International (PAI), a nonprofit research organization in Washington.

"The average number of children per woman has declined from six to 3.6--more than half the distance to a two-child family," he said. An average of 2.1 children per woman is considered replacement level--or zero growth.

In India, traditional patterns are shifting significantly. Birth control is now used by 45% of married couples. In Bombay, the practice of birth control has increased in five years from 40% to 56% of couples, according to U.N. reports.

These breakthroughs do not, however, mean a decline in the number of the Earth's inhabitants. "Absolute growth" is still adding ever-greater numbers.

"The bad news is that the number of young people entering childbearing years is so large that the absolute size of world population is growing. The yearly increase in population has risen from 75 million in 1969 to 93 million today," Speidel said.

Even after fertility rates fall, absolute increases continue through a whole life cycle, or about 70 years--a phenomenon called "population momentum." So the world is still a long way from stabilizing its numbers.

Despite India's declining fertility rate, for example, its population doubled from 342 million to 685 million in 34 years--between 1947 and 1981. Less than 13 years later, it has reached 897 million, or almost triple the 1947 total, according to PAI.

The numbers are taking a mounting toll on quality of life.

"Bombay is a city built for 2 million trying to cope with 12 million and faced with up to 16 million by 2000," said Avadia Wadia, who founded India's Family Planning Assn. in 1951 and is the leader of India's population movement.

"A half-century ago these avenues were full of blossoming trees, and we had beautiful beaches. Now there aren't many trees left, and over half the population lives in slums. And compared with some of them, Dharavi is almost a showcase."

On the eve of the U.N. Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, which is scheduled for Sept. 5-13, U.N. experts offer three predictions about how the so-called "demographic transition" will end.

* The best-case scenario is a uniform worldwide decline to 1.9 births per family, lower than replacement level. World population would then increase from today's 5.6 billion to a peak of 8 billion in 2050, and then decline to 5.6 billion by 2150.

* The medium scenario is a slower decline to replacement-level fertility, stabilizing population at 11.5 billion people, more than double current numbers, by 2150.

* The worst-case scenario is a continuation of current reduced fertility rates but no further declines. By 2150, the world would then have 694 billion people--124 times today's total.

The worst case is staggering because humankind took untold millennia to reach its first billion in 1800. And it is even more daunting because it doesn't allow for a small lapse to previous fertility patterns.

The impact on some countries would be devastating long before 2150. India already squeezes 16% of the world's people onto 2.4% of the Earth's land. Without further inroads in slowing growth rates, its population will triple again over the next half-century, according to PAI figures.

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