The big taboo – Population and population growth

Look at the news today and it’s like the ‘Day after tomorrow’ has arrived. Resource scarcity and degradation is here and now. So many solutions float around – none, by the way, properly implemented by our political-cycle motivated ‘leaders’. I want to focus your attention on one solution that I believe is neglected and taboo but the most powerful one…

There is one neat equation I came across through my trawls through a climate change textbook recently:

COemissions = population x income/head x watts/income x emissions/watt

Everything we talk about is generally focused on emissions/watt – using renewable energy such as wind, solar, biogas. The easiest and most powerful part of the equation to go after is population. Now, people who are riling with ‘she said what?’, I do NOT mean kill people. No! I mean stop incentivising having lots of children and instead incentivise having one or two. Incentivise. That is different from forced abortion and legal limits. I’m not saying let’s go the way of China and have a forced one-child policy. But I do firmly believe we need to reward people who do the responsible and sensible thing for the environment and act less selfishly by having fewer children.

It’s a common unanalysed belief that having children is a selfless endeavour. People who believe this should revisit their knowledge from basic biology: all species reproduce. Remember MRS GREN or whatever you called it (7 characteristics of living things: Movement, Respiration, Sensitivity, Growth, REPRODUCTION, Excretion and Nutrition). We are hard-wired to reproduce. Our offspring are an extension of ourselves, the closest thing possible without cloning. You are also hard-wired to love and care for them. You are NOT being selfless by having lots of children. You are propagating your own genes, you are actually being SELFISH. So first step in accepting my proposed solution is de-glorifying childbirth as this wonderful holy selfless act. If you love children so much and truly believe you are selfless then why not adopt a few of the millions of orphans in dire need of a loving home? Why not give one of them shelter alongside your one or two biological children?

Nor do we live in a planet that is short of people by any means. There are around 7 billion people in the world right now and projected to be 9 billion by 2050. The strain this puts on our planet’s resources is unbelievable – see ‘Harvesting the biosphere’ by Vaclav Smil. It leads to deforestation; more mining; more plastic production; more landfill; more toxic waste, greater carbon emissions. The knock-on effects of those are well-known: you get more climate change, more tropical disease, more drought, more crop failure, more frequent and more intense storms. In England alone, we produce 177 million tonnes of waste every year. It’s all got to go somewhere. In India, you see plastic lying on the sides of the roads in millions of tiny unintentional landfill sites. In developed countries, just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it disappears, and per capita we produce a lot more than any developing country, so there’s still fair argument to be made about developed nations keeping the right incentives in place for population.

Human overpopulation also leads to less room and resources for all the other species on this planet. I’ve had a ‘who owns the planet’ debate a lot with friends and it seems there are two types of views in the world: 1- the planet is for humans 2- the planet is for all species. I’m in category no.2 and most of my western friends are in category no.1. I wonder if it’s a cultural thing? Hinduism is a pluralistic religion with many animal Gods and I think this has influenced Indian beliefs. In India, we tend to believe that this planet belongs to everyone including those without a voice and without human intellect. In other cultures the prevailing thinking is along the lines of ‘might is right’ and humans have might. I’m going to have the guts and say category no.1ers you need to evolve your thinking and expand your bounds of empathy to other species.

So the choice is ours: we keep growing like mad, creating artificial islands in the sea to house ourselves, keep building upwards, packing each floor with humans, spend time commuting in traffic jams, Governments constantly worrying about high unemployment rates and how do we create enough jobs, happily accepting people in (now predominantly) developing nations having 10 children even though they can barely sustain themselves, keep dumping rubbish until the Great Pacific garbage patch spans the whole friggin’ ocean


We make population control a priority. We choose a world with fewer people who can enjoy more abundance each. When we give out food-aid to poor people, we also educate them on family planning and give them free protection and stop being scared to EMPHASISE IT. We reward those who stopped at two with tax breaks, and penalise those who carry on. The choice is still the family’s but at least now we’re aligning their incentives with the greater good. We choose a world where everyone has a chance to be happy and prosperous because there is enough for everyone.

My concrete policy recommendations are for developed nations to make getting population growth to conservative levels a key priority that influences design and structure of foreign aid packages, and for developing nations to put this on their policy agenda in big letters and roll it into education and healthcare policies.


And if you still don’t believe population is a big challenge for us, please go to India and please try walking on a road in Old Delhi and tell me you had a pleasant time as you walk through hoards of people, poverty-stricken, desperate for a dime, wishing they could pursue their dreams in a world of ever-scarcer resources.  And I haven’t even touched on spiritual aspects yet: how special do you feel when there are 7 billion of us? 

Barely room to walk. Sea of heads. Heads full of dreams. Most dreams won't come true.
Old Delhi: Barely room to walk. Sea of heads. Heads full of dreams. Most dreams won’t come true. Photo by Andrew Harris

The Elephant village in Jaipur: incredible and unforgettable

Sometimes the best days on a trip, and in life, come about unexpectedly. We were looking for something to do for our last day in Jaipur. We were almost lamenting that we hadn’t planned properly and had an extra day in Jaipur. In hindsight, an extra day in Jaipur is never anything to lament about. EVER. It’s a city spilling over the brim with art, talent, beauty, wildlife.

Thank you to my travel companion for not letting me be stingy (a trait I abhor in myself) – we decided to visit the elephant village and spend a few hours hugging elephants, learning about elephants, painting on elephants, riding elephants and bathing elephants.

 Upon arrival at ‘Elefamily’, one of the companies that works in the elephant village, we took part in a ceremony where we tie Rajasthani turbans – they even do this for girls! Which is really nice because I do think girls in India should start wearing turbans to make a statement that we are equal. In fact, would that not be a cool idea for a day in a year – girls wear turbans to show that we can do anything men can do? I’m sure women’s rights groups will object to this on one basis or the other, probably saying that I’m suggesting we have to imitate men to be heard or whatever.  But turbans are fun…for a little while. I took mine off after a while because it was a) falling apart and b) just plain weird for all my photos to be like that. Vanity is something I fear I’ll never be able to get rid of in my life. My late grandmother cared about the kinds of salwaar kameezs and jewellery she wore until she was 80. I probably will too. But hand on heart I can say I’m a hell of a lot better than most girls – you know the types we see on facebook who’ve taken a picture like a million times to get it ‘right’. Eugh. Anyways, like Colonel Haathi from Jungle book I digress…

 Our host, Kabir from Elefamily, has 9 female elephants. In the elephant village, there are a total of 120 female elephants and 4 male elephants. (Guys reading this are thinking that’s a great ratio – you’re all so predictable!).

The female elephants are all working elephants. They carry tourists up to Amber Fort, about a 10 minute ride. They do five rounds up and down and then they can spend the rest of the day just being elephants. I’m happy the Government has come up with this smart arrangement.

 It’s funny when we were at Amber fort, in a queue of tourists from all around the world, there were a number of fairly fat tourists. We watched a fat my-guess-is American woman get on the elephant and my friend goes ‘Poor elephant, having to carry another one of its kind up the hill’. Hehehe.


 Anyways, so let me tell you all I can remember about elephants!

1) Their favourite food is bananas…..


 You’ll notice when you feed them that they store four or five bananas in their mouth at a time before swallowing them. They eat a LOT. We saw the room with all the hay(?) for one day’s feed. They only sleep for an hour in a day and they eat all night. At night in the elephant village, the owners chain up the elephants so that they don’t go wandering and kill someone. They also place sugarcane all around each elephant which the elephants eat all night.

2) They love each other. Like us, elephants have deep bonds with each other. Herds are known to come back to the place where a fellow elephant was poached or died and mourn his/her death.

3) I’d always been curious about the discolouration you see on Indian elephants, on their trunks particularly. Kabir said it was because that’s where the driver and riders climb up the elephant from. Simply rubbing the skin in one place repeatedly causes them to lose pigmentation. Interesting. I like elephants being grey, it’d be weird if they were all pink.

 4) Elephants are very good huggers.Image 

Unrelated to the hugg-ability, they are actually pretty hairy sometimes. I didn’t expect that.

5) The elephant language has around 34 words. Impressive vocabulary, no? We learnt a few. For reference, for the next time you’re on an elephant: ‘agat agat agat’ means ‘go go go’. ‘Dhut’ means stop. ‘Che ghoom’ accompanied by the right foot moving the right ear tells the elephant which way to turn. ‘Peeche hut’ means reverse. Most of these are hindi words as hindi-speakers will recognize.

 It’s actually not that hard to ride and steer and elephant once you know the language. It was an absolute marvel to me that I could steer an elephant and make it go and stop as I pleased. I also marveled at the whole concept of taming elephants. It’s so strange to see a small human telling a huge creature what to do. This particularly struck me as I watched Kabir tell the elephant to back into its ‘apartment’ and it did as it was told. Kabir had his hand outstretched and was angrily saying ‘peeche hut’ as he stepped towards the elephant and the elephant kept stepping back, a little bit reluctantly like she couldn’t really be bothered but she did step back. And then it was bath-time!


 Elephant-riding is also really good assertiveness training for the human involved because elephants do not listen to gentle instructions. You have to be loud, and sure. I should try and get it introduced into the Harvard Business School curriculum as part of leadership and assertiveness training. 

At the start of the day Kabir had told us ‘You’ll fall in love with the elephants’. I thought that was an ESL way of putting things – how can you fall in love with elephants? and that too so soon? But at the end of four hours, I didn’t want to leave and I loved elephants so much – still do. And I was looking at our elephant  ‘Moti’ lovingly (Moti is hindi for pearl, also hindi for ‘fat’ with a slightly different pronunciation) and Moti had tears in her eyes. I was touched. And then Kabir said their eyes are always moist to protect them. Of course. 

Jodhpur: the city built around caste, and the vision and sacrifice of one great man

Jodhpur is famous for being the blue city and the old city indeed is a cool blue. The city is also designed around caste. There are five main caste groups, which sub-divide into sub-categories and many sub-sub-categories. The five main groups are the Brahmins (Priests and academics), the Kshatriyas (Warriors), the Vaisyas (Merchants), the Sudras (Unskilled workers), The Dalits (Untouchables). Each of the ‘top’ four castes lived and probably still do live in the city in an area sectioned for them. The city is encased by a wall as many ancient cities are. The untouchables lived outside the city’s walls, coming into the city only to do ‘lowly work’, for example, as toilet-cleaners. They were not allowed to sleep inside the city and had to take off their shoes and put them on their head whenever they passed the door of a Brahmin or warrior household.

As we stood in one of the high courtyards at the majestic Mehrangarh fort, our guide pointed to the Brahmin quarter “There is one exception. In the middle of the Brahmin quarter is the house of an untouchable”.

The King of Jodhpur consulted a holy seer on what he should do to protect the wealth in his treasure house. The Holy seer (must have been a sinister soul) said that he should bury someone alive under the treasure house and only then would his treasure be safe. The King gathered the city people and asked them ‘Who amongst you will do this for me?’ One untouchable man stepped forward. He said he would if the King fulfilled his three conditions.

The three conditions were 1) that his family would get a house in the Brahmin quarter and be allowed to live there without disturbance; 2) that they would not have to put their shoes on their heads when they pass the house of Brahmin or warrior; 3) that the Royal family would provide them some income every month.

The King agreed and the man was buried alive under the treasure house. To this day, his 150 descendants get 3000 rupees (equivalent of £30 or $50) from the royal family every month and some live in that house.

 I could not believe the cruelty of the seer and the King. It’s a pervasive idea in human history everywhere that to gain something, something must be lost. This is not untrue when you think about working hard to get results, but this type of horrific loss for an uncertain gain from a holy spirit is different. I cannot fully imagine what must have gone through the buried man’s mind as he lay in his grave alive, knowing he was going to slowly suffocate to death. Did he regret it? Had he brought poison for himself? Did he meditate? Did he pray?

Whatever he did, he made a huge sacrifice for his family. He was intelligent and visionary in his conditions.  He made a statement about how awful life was for the lower castes and how that type of life is not acceptable to anyone – the human spirit cannot be broken even if all you’re taught from birth is that you are worthless. We’re all human. We all deserve the same. They should make a temple in his name, in the name of the unsung understated Saint of Jodhpur, a temple for equality.

Jodhpur, the blue city in Rajasthan, India
Jodhpur, the blue city in Rajasthan, India
The majestic Mehrangarh fort, Jodhpur, Rajasthan. I just wish there wasn't some poor guy buried under it. Cruelty taints beauty a bit for me.
The majestic Mehrangarh fort, Jodhpur, Rajasthan. I just wish there wasn’t some poor guy buried under it. Cruelty taints beauty a bit for me.


The aversion to logic: No crocodiles in this part of the Ganges, and why we should all be scared

The old city: Varanasi

I really did not like Varanasi or Benares as my facebook statuses made clear. I was disappointed partly because of my expectations. One of our tour guides in Rajasthan said that there is no place quite like it and we’d love it there – people get so immersed in the spiritualism they never want to leave. I wanted to leave as soon as I got there.

Varanasi symbolises lack of logic in my eyes. The Ganges river is polluted with dead bodies (humans, cows, others), sewage, whatever they use to wash clothes with, cow dung, plastic litter. You name it, it’s probably in there in the murky waters of this poor abused river.

You have to watch your step on the 100 or so ghats of Varanasi – these are stone steps down to the river for those of you who don’t know what a ‘ghat’ is.  There is cow dung, saliva, paan stains and a strong smell of urine in areas. Local people chew on betel leaves (‘paan’) which release a red pigment which they spit out. There are paan stains all over the streets in Varanasi. So first thing that struck me was how people treat and allow others to treat the city they consider holy. If I considered a place holy, I wouldn’t pollute in it. Is that logic or just my opinion? It’s hard to tell sometimes.

The great thing about my trip to India was that I was not in a bubble. I was travelling with locals, talking to tour guides, drivers, rickshaw –wallahs, boatmen, hotel staff and vendors. I got to observe what life is like for the vast majority.

 I spoke to two of our boatmen on hour-long boat rides on the Ganges. Curious and to make conversation I asked them ‘Are there crocodiles in this part of the river?’

The first one said ‘No’ and then he continued ‘…because Lord Shiva enacted a curse on this part of the river that any crocodile that enters it will become blind in both eyes. That’s why you find crocodiles downstream but not in this part of the river’. I was entertained at first. I turned to my fellow tourist, translated into English and added ‘This guy has really drunk the Varanasi cool-aid’.

Boatman 1 took us past Manikarnika Ghat, where cremations happen 24-7. Five hundred dead bodies are burnt there daily. He said that if the Ghat did not get a body one day it would be the end of the world

Why does the irrationality of these seemingly harmless beliefs matter? Because it shows argumentation that is not based on logic or science or anything that we can prove. We could try to disprove these views by putting a crocodile in the river which I honestly think some scientific organisation in the world should do to challenge these long-held and never-tested beliefs. Because if people use such arguments for explaining why crocodiles are not in the river, they can and will use arguments of similar quality to justify why women should not be treated equal to men; why young people are stupider than older people; why their traditions are better than progressive practices. The scariest part for me is that it is impossible to have a discussion with people who bring in unproven mystical explanations to support their assertions. 

His second assertion also triggered an interesting thought experiment for me. What if one day for some reason there was no body at Manikarnika Ghat? (this will not happen, but what if?). My hypothesis is that the people of Varanasi would murder someone to burn, because in their eyes they are saving the world.

I was hoping that this boatman happened to be one who was particularly religious/<insert correct word that doesn’t offend you here> and did not reflect most people’s views. Three days later when I asked boatman 2 the same question, I got the same response with unwavering conviction. Boatman 2 further went on to tell me about ‘Dhobhi Ghat’ (Washerman’s ghat) where washermen wash clothes. He said that because the washermen pray to the Goddess Kali, she blessed that Ghat so that the clothes will always remain clean there whilst washing them at any other Ghat and putting them out to dry would make them dirty. Do we believe the neighbouring ghat makes clothes dirty? The one right next door? Really??

Sunrise in Varanasi, around 6.30am from the boat

From far away, the city is picturesque. The sun, too far away for humans to reach and pollute, is beautiful.

But close up, Varanasi is a mad-hatters tea party. True enlightenment is when people see the truth – good or bad and accept it as the truth. Like accept that the river is no longer clean, try to restore it and stop brushing their teeth and bathing in toxic waters. There are too many unenlightened people in Varanasi for my liking.

Where I began: Patiala


I’ve been bubbling with observations since coming to India. I guess also generally I haven’t said much in my life so far – publicly at least, and it was about time because I’m actually very opinionated and only a few people know this. Here’s my blog, let’s hope it gets better with time 😀

Day 1: Journey from New Delhi

The ‘India’s shining’ rhetoric is everywhere in the world. I hadn’t been to India in five years and because of this rhetoric expected to see an almost-second-world country. But India remains poor and the problems keep growing. I’ll write about population later which I believe is one of the biggest challenges.

Upon landing in New Delhi at least, India manages to keep the ‘India’s shining’ misconception alive. My first thoughts were ‘Well the airport looks great’. I liked how clean it was and how the ladies and gents bathrooms were marked by big beautiful pictures of Indian men and women. 

Traffic out of Delhi was awful. It took us 2 and ½ hours in the Indo-canadian bus to just get out of New Delhi.  Note to all: always take domestic flights to Amritsar OR take the metro from New Delhi airport to the train station and hop on a train.

Days- 2-5: Patiala – my birthplace

I’m in my Grandad’s house. He has a bad cough, poor man, but a cheerful spirit. He makes me happy because every now and again he tells a joke or laughs and his face lights up with such warm smiles. I actually inherited my smile from him. He looks like the sultan in Aladdin more than ever. 

I’m also happy to be in this house because this was where my grandmother was, and I could not attend her funeral which no doubt left a sense of incompleteness about her death. Funerals are so important. She passed away the week I started university.  I’m grateful I could come to her house now. I’ve had dreams where I came back and she was still here. I had to address that she’d gone .

That's where Patiala is
That’s where Patiala is

Observations from all 3 days which have blurred into one big colourful adventure

Some things have not changed in Patiala or my grandad’s house. These are not new to Indians, but remember I hadn’t been back for 5 years and had the luxury of seeing everything from a first-world perspective. Here are my muddled observations:

*There is no water between 10 am to 12pm every day.

*There is no shower, only buckets and mugs. I surprise myself when I discover that it’s actually much more satisfying to wash with a bucket and a mug. It feels more cleansing because there’s a lot of weight in the water and I guess because it’s always satisfying to do manual labour – which you don’t with an on-the-wall shower. I just wish I wasn’t using the bucket I’d thrown up in two nights ago to wash myself. C’est la vie, I guess.

*There is no washing machine or dishwasher. I feel bad giving the maid my underpants to wash. And then I feel kind of ill seeing that she’s using really diluted washing up liquid to wash our dishes – which often still have vegetable stains on the sides. I remember passing my cousin a glass of juice and us both looking at the smudges at the top of the glasses thinking they hardly looked like they’d been washed.

*Visitors come often without phoning ahead of time.  We had various guests come over – doctor friends who also take care of my grandad, the maid’s son who helps in odd jobs around the house (as my granddad put it: “I get three people for one salary, it’s great!” – her daughter also comes over sometimes).  And then a ton of other neighbours – one inviting my granddad to his granddaughter’s wedding and telling me proudly his son-in-law works at IBM. He didn’t mention where his grand-daughter works I noticed. I could be biased as I do have pre-conceived notions, but I still think girls are under-rated here. When people to appreciate daughters it’s in the context of ‘they are more caring than sons’. Which is generally true. But what no one says is: girls can be as smart, as emotionally strong, as ambitious, as courageous and as able to provide material comfort as sons. No one says that. They say they’re more caring, sensitive instead. I fear I could earn the moon and stars, be the CEO of a huge company, solve climate change, and still some old Indian men and women will think a son would have been better. I ought to give up wanting to win everyone’s respect.

*The number and variety of shops amazes me and is almost utopic. Shops that sell only turbans. Shops that dye turbans. Shops that sell only ayurvedic medicines. Those that sell only fabrics. Vendors that mend shoes by the side of the road. You have to give it to people for entrepreneurship and for knowing how to trade and specialise. Beautiful.

*Some people are super-religious. Duhhh. But for example, my Grandad’s physiotherapist sounds like a religious guru. I’d overheard physiotherapy sessions and they sound like sermons. “God is one” etc. I nodded along during the religious lectures various people have given me. My religious beliefs? Agnostic.