The Environmental Effects of India's Overpopulation

Colin Perkins-Taylor

When India earned its independence from England in 1947, its total population was approximately 342 million people (Nagdeve 4). Currently, however, the total population of India is slightly more than 1.3 billion people, which is second only to China. This means that in the past six decades, India’s total population has doubled twice (Nagdeve 4). However, the rapid rate of population growth has had many negative consequences on India’s people and its environment. In particular, India’s overpopulation has led to a large gap between the wealthy and the poor, who make up around 60% of India’s total population (Ninkovic et al., 2013). With more people in the state, it has become very difficult for many Indians to obtain a well-paying job. Therefore, many of India’s people have begun farming for themselves in order to provide sustenance for their families (Ninkovic et al., 2013). In fact, it is estimated that farming is the main livelihood of 75% of India’s total population (Shukla 196). Since such a high proportion of Indians are farmers, it has begun to take a noticeable effect on India’s environment. The process of environmental degradation in India has also only accelerated with the growing effects of climate change. The primary people in India affected by environmental degradation are the farmers because they rely on the land to provide them with the resources they need in order to survive.

The majority of India’s people who engage in farming are only able to utilize the available natural resources around them because they live in rural areas, but their reliance on the environment has often had negative consequences in their lives (Nagdeve 5). One reason many farmers cannot sustain themselves without the help of the environment is because they do not have the money to do so. Originally, many Indian farmers utilized natural underground reservoirs to water their crops (Nagdeve 7). However, as more individuals have begun farming, these natural sources of water are used more frequently. Because of constant usage, Indian farmers have overexploited India’s main water reservoirs, so they no longer serve as a viable source of water (Ninkovic et al., 2013). Indian farmers mainly rely on the annual monsoons to water their crops, but because of climate change the yearly monsoon patterns have changed (Ninkovic et al., 2013). Lack of water often results in insufficient crop growth and farmers not being able to produce the expected number of crops. For those who farm commercially, they fail to meet their sales obligations and are usually forced to take a loan to account for their loss of sales (Ninkovic et al., 2013). However, if the monsoons do not arrive at the correct time in the subsequent year and the same process occurs once more, commercial farmers are then unable to pay off their loan from the previous year (Ninkovic et al., 2013). In this situation, it is common for them to have to sell their land. For the farmers who rely on their crops as their main source of food, they often starve if the monsoons do not occur at the right time or do not produce enough rainfall. Unfortunately, one result of the difficulty to grow crops is that approximately 17,500 of the farmers who rely on their harvest as a food source throughout India commit suicide annually (Shukla 196). The rate of suicide is staggeringly high because of India’s overpopulation problem, which forces many poor families to solely depend on their agriculture.

While overpopulation has greatly altered India’s environment, India’s forests in particular have been drastically affected. In 1951, the amount of land used for cultivation in India was 118.75 million hectares of land, but in 2001 that number increased to 142.82 million hectares of land (Nagdeve 6). Most of the land that became available in this 50-year span was because of forests being chopped down. While deforestation has created more opportunities for people to engage in agriculture, it ultimately has had a negative impact on poor farmers because they need the resources that the forest provides in order to survive. For instance, farmers typically use forests for hunting and gathering food while their crops grow (Nagdeve 5). In addition, farmers often use wood as their main source of fuel because they cannot afford gasoline. However, as deforestation has become more widespread, it has become more difficult for farmers to sustain themselves on forest resources (Nagdeve 7). Today, forests have become the primary cause of conflict between the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forest and other companies whose goal is to cut down forests and use the land for economic purposes (“Degradation,” 2010). The Indian Ministry of Environment and Forest is aware that forests are essential to the poor, which is part of why they are fighting so hard to protect them. However, this has not slowed the deforestation process that occurs throughout India. The root of the deforestation problem is overpopulation because forests have to be cleared so that the consistently increasing population has places to live and more land can be dedicated to agriculture.

Because an extensive amount of land in India is exclusively agricultural and there are so many poor people working on farms, it has created an overexploitation of the land that has even affected the soil. Soil degradation initially began in the middle of the 20th century when India experienced the Green Revolution. During this time, India was facing a grave food crisis because they were unable to grow enough food to support their large population. However, the Green Revolution introduced specialized seeds that produced high crop yields as well as pesticides and fertilizers to increase plant growth (Ninkovic et al., 2013). Although the food crisis of the time was averted, the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers has had many long-term effects on the environment. For instance, pesticides often come into contact with large bodies of water when it rains, which ultimately contaminates them (Nagdeve 7). In addition, the regular and heavy use of pesticides kills micro-organisms that live in the soil (Nagdeve 7). These soil micro-organisms are vital to the productivity of crops because they decompose carbon in the soil and create many nutrients that plants need to grow (Shukla 200). Without sufficient soil micro-organism activity, the fertility of the land is quickly reduced (Shukla 200). The process of soil degradation in India is currently having a large effect on the nation. Of the 328.7 million hectares of land in India, approximately 175 million hectares have been deemed as land and soil degraded (Nagdeve 7). This only makes it more difficult for the poor farmers because not only are the resources they need to sustain themselves constantly being cut down, but the total amount of fertile land that they can work with is relatively very low.

One potential solution that India began implementing in 2015 is the use of genetically modified crops, otherwise known as GMOs. This is particularly notable because India has a reputation for being opposed to GMOs (MintPress News Deck, 2015). However, that political stance changed in 2014 with the election of the new Indian Prime Minister, Narenda Modi, because he approved field trials for many genetically modified crops (MintPress News Deck, 2015). It is speculated that because so much of the land in India does not provide adequate nutrients for crops to grow, GMOs were approved to make the most use of the land that is fertile. However, some argue that GMO crops are industrializing India’s agricultural sector and that realistically they are not a viable option for many farmers because the GMO seed prices vary from year to year (MintPress News Deck, 2015). Regardless, it is clear that India’s current use of the environment for farming is not working and that something needs to change in the near future.

While the majority of India’s population are poor and work as farmers, there is still a wealthy class as well as a growing middle class (Ninkovic et al., 2013). In fact, in recent years the overall income in India has increased by 7-8% (Ninkovic et al., 2013). Since many people have recently acquired decent amounts of wealth, there has been an increased demand for not only more food, but also better quality food. Some have proposed that the attempt to switch to genetically modified crops is a way of appealing to this demand, yet it is unclear if this is true or not. Regardless, the request of the wealthy for more and better quality food exemplifies a major trend in India, which is that overall the nation is aspiring to live by the standard of living conditions held by the most developed countries of the world (“Degradation,” 2010). In order to achieve that goal, however, India is going to have to undergo many changes, particularly in regards to its agricultural practices. The poor farmers can barely even sustain themselves, much less an entire country. In addition, India’s environment is suffering and degrading. If India truly wishes to provide its people with a new quality of life, they need to reinvent the nation to engage in more sustainable practices that will safeguard the environment for the future.

Works Cited

MintPress News Deck. “India’s Government Increasingly Embraces GMOs Despite High Rate of Farmer Suicide.” MintPress News, Mint Press, 14 Aug. 2015, Accessed 30 Nov. 2016.

Nagdeve, Dewaram A. “Population Growth and Environmental Degradation in India.” Princeton University,

Ninkovic, Nina, and Jean-Pierre Lehmann. “India’s Food Crises: A Close-Up.” The Globalist, 1 Sept. 2013, Accessed 30 Nov. 2016.

“Overpopulation Causes Environmental Degradation in India and Pakistan.” South Asia Investor Review, 29 July 2010, Accessed 30 Nov. 2016.

Shukla, Priyadarshi R. Climate Change and India: Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation. Universities Press, 2003.