Census India 1931: The Population Problem in Bengal
This article is an extract from
CENSUS OF INDIA, 1931
J. H. HUTTON, C.I.E., D.Sc., F.A.S.B.,
Corresponding Member of the Anthropologische Gesselschaft of Vienna.
Delhi: Manager of Publications
(Hutton was the Census Commissioner for India)
Indpaedia is an archive. It neither agrees nor disagrees
Census India 1931: The Population problem in Bengal
Bengal, ninth of the provinces of India in area, is first in respect of population. The British districts cover 77,521 sq. miles, exclusive of large surfaces of river and estuary, and the Bengal States 5,434. To these for census purposes was added Sikkim State, another 2,818 sq. miles. Thirty sq. miles have been added since 1921 from Bihar and Orissa but changes in calculation of area have increased the size shown in the tables by an additional 678 sq. miles. The total population returned is 51,087,338 for Bengal (of which 50,114,002 were in British and 973,336 in State territory) and 109,808 for Sikkim, the population of Bengal being more than onesixth of the total for British India. The density in British Bengal is now 646 persons per sq. mile, while that of Sikkim is only 39. Excluding Calcutta the density of Bengal varies from 2,105 in Howrah district to 43 in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, but by far the greater part of the province has a density of over 500 to the sq. mile, and if smaller units are taken a much higher rural density is found in many places, Dacca Division having a mean density of 935, Munshiganj sub-division of 2,413, and Lohajang thana of 3,228 per sq. mile. The rate of increase of population has been 7.3 per cent.
since 1921 and that of Sikkim 34.4 per cent. Cooch Behar State is one of the few in India that shows a decrease since 1921. This decrease, 0.27 per cent., is entirely Hindu (-4 .76%) and is attributed to the expansion of settled cultivation by Muslims which has .the effect of driving the Hinduised tribes, Koch, Mech, Poliya, etc., into the foothills or eastwards into Assam, a process observed likewise in the adjoining Bengal districts. It is also suggested that this decrease is partly due to changes in social custom, such as the abandonment of widow remarriage as part of a campaign of social elevation, and to changes in environment unfavourable to pre-existing adaptations. Tripura State on the other hand, with only 93 persons to the sq. mile; has experienced an increase of 25 . 6 per cent., and the thinly populated Chittagong Hill Tracts one of 22.9 per cent.
Conditions during the decade from the economic standpoint are described as having been " not entirely insatisfactory".
Harvests have been generally good and prices high until 1929, though there have been severe floods in three years, some cyclones and an earthquake. Wages were high till 1930, but their high level was of little benefit to middle class families with fixed incomes, and it was the skilled workman who reaped the most benefit. In industry cotton mills have been prosperous throughout, and jute until 1929 ; tea was prosperous till 1927 ; coal has not been prosperous.
Throughout Bengal there seems to have been a general rise in the standard of living. not shown in an improved or more expensive diet, though it is reported that the need for a better balanced dietary is indicated by the fact that an ordinary cultivator is found to improve and gain weight on prison fare, but in minor amenities such as umbrellas and shoes, shirts and coats " now worn by thousands who would never have dreamt of wearing them ten years ago ", while the hurricane lantern is almost universally displacing the indigenous oil lamp.
In some areas union boards are taking advantage of their powers to tax the union for schemes of village improvement such as the clearing of jungle, maintenance of roads and the excavation of tanks or wells. On the other hand increased earnings have not led to any reduction of the indebtedness of the ryot or labourer. The average debt of an agricultural family seems to be about Rs. 180 and that of a non-agricultural one perhaps a little more, while the average debt of the total population is about Rs. 166 per household. The debts of members of co-operative societies have increased by 3 . 5 per cent. to which borrowing to forestall the Sarda Act has largely contributed.
In an interesting examination of the population question printed as an appendix to this chapter the Census Superintendent reaches the conclusion that Bengal might have a population of some 53 millions in 1941, and that the maximum population will be from 68 to 74 millions ; that the Hindu population has passed the point at which the rate of increase accelerates in successive decades and is approaching a stationary population, whereas the Muslim population has not yet progressed so far along its present cycle of growth but will ultimately be to the Hindu as 4 to 3 ; and that Bengal could support at the present standard of living nearly double its present population.
Malthus and Doubleday
Starting with the proposition that population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence there are in the field two principal rival theories of population growth. That deriving from Malthus has been* stated thus first that population invariably increased where the means of subsistence increased unless prevented by some very powerful and obvious checks ; and secondly that these checks which repress the superior power of population and keep its effects on a level with the means of subsistence are all resolvable into moral restraint, vice and misery. In other words nature having arranged for population to increase at a rate at which it is bound to overtake and pass the means of subsistence periodically redresses the balance by famines, epidemics and other calamities unless human intelligence steps in and prevents the excessive increase either by moral restraint or by measures for limiting the birth rate or for despatching the excess of population.
The other theory derives from Thomas Doubleday and gives nature a rather less sinister role. It is that when the existence of a species is endangered " a corresponding effort is invariably made by nature for its preservation and continuance by an increase of fertility, and that this especially takes place whenever such danger arises from a diminution of proper nourishment or food, so that consequently the state of depletion or the deplethe-ic state is favourable to fertility, and that, on the other hand, the plethoric state or the state of rtpietion, is unfavourable to fertility in the ratio of the intensity of each state ". It has been thought that this statement lays too much stress upon food and. the position has been thust restated : " In circumstances of ease the birth-rate tends to fall : in circumstances of hardship the birth-rate tends to rise ".
Poll's Law of Births and Deaths
The recorded census figures of population in Bengal probably cover too short a period to offer clear support to either one of these theories against the other. During the last sixty years the population of Bengal has become nearly half as large again as it was in 1872. There can be no question o' intelligence checks having operated, and Bengal has been free from major calamities except in the decade before last when the influenza epidemic from which virtually the whole world suffered operated to reduce the rate of increase during the decade to a figure lower than any in its recorded census history.
If the Malthusian doctrine holds, Nature is not yet aware of any need to apply a check to the increase of population in Bengal. If the Darwinian theory holds and " fecundity is in direct relation to the chances of death ", and if the " law " of Doubleday applies, Nature still finds it necessary to maintain in Bengal a high birth-rate in order to keep pace with the high death-rate. In some points at least the Malthusian theory fails to explain the facts. In European countries and America, where most investigation has been carried out, it has been foundfi (a) that the birth-rate is negatively correlated with wealth and (b) that the indirect psychological and social effect of relative poverty as contrasted with relative wealth express themselves definitely and clearly in the sexual activity of human beings and through sexual activity in birth-rates. On the Malthusian theory in the wealthier classes where the means of subsistence are plentiful the population should increase more rapidly than in the poorer classes where they are less plentiful unless there were some voluntary interference with the rate of birth.
The evidence of any such voluntary restriction is not conclusive and the theory generally held is that fertility itself decreases in the higher classes with increasing wealth and culture. The Malthusian doctrine also fails to account for the fact that a high birth-rate and a high death-rate are apparently invariably found together and that conversely where there is a low birth-rate there is also a low death-rate. This fact and the extreme doubtfulness of any evidence to show that conscious limitation of the family can account for the whole or a considerable part of the decrease in the birth-rate where it is low have led to the enunciation of the theory§ that " the net result of the variations of the degree of fertility under the direct action of the environment will bear an inverse proportion to the variations of the capacity for survival ." Under this theory variations in the birth-rate are mainly due to the operation of a natural law which adjusts the degree of fertility to suit the death-rate of the race. The theory involves the postulate that the same conditions which lead to a reduction in the death-rate lead also to a decrease in fertility in some manner not yet known. The author of the theory suggests that the hormones assist in regulating the fertility of the germ cells, that the output of hormones by the endocrine glands is regulated by the nervous system which responds to the action of the environment and that the variations in the degree of fertility in response to the direct action of the environment will bear an inverse proportion to the development of nervous energy.
Raymond Pearl's Logistic Curve
What may be considered to be a development of the second of these two theories is that put forward by Raymond Pearl. This theory deduces that populations grow in size according to the same mathematical law that individual animals and plants follow in the growth of their bodies in size, and that human populations grow according to the same law as do experimental populations of lower organisms. The law of growth postulated on these deductions may be expressed by an equation with three constants, and the curve representing this equation is called by Pearl a " logistic curve ".
Equations have been worked out and fitted to the populations of fifteen countries of the world, the whole world and the population of certain cities and have been shown to give over the whole recorded census history of each a very reasonable congruity with the recorded facts. Assuming the mathematical form of the curve this theory allows account to be taken of the fact that a population is necessarily confined to a certain area and therefore must have an upper limit of population as well as a lower (which may be nil) and for the fact that population growth takes place in cycles conditioned amongst other factors by cultural achievement. It is possible that over a restricted period the logistic curve may not give so accurate an approximation to the recorded population as a curve of some other form. As a method of predicting future growth also it is liable to the irruption of influences not previously prevalent.
Pearl states " predictions of future growth may at any time be altered by the entrance into the situation of new economic or social factors of a different sort to those which have operated during that past period which the equation covers. The population may be stimulated to start upon a new cycle of growth or slighter but still in kind new factors may alter somewhat the upper limiting value of the present cycle ". In certain instances however the logistic curve calculated by him gives astonishingly close approximations to the population actually recorded later. For the United States of America in 1930, for instance, a curve worked out before the census of 1920 suggested a population within. 5 per 1,000 of that actually enumerated.
The logistic curve applied to Bengal
Three curves of Pearl's logistic type have been fitted to the census population of Bengal and the population calculated from them is compared with the observed population. The first is the equation worked out by Mr. P. J. Griffiths, I.C.S., and it was hoped to give in an appendix brief notes on the method by which it was calculated. Difficulties in setting up the rather complicated mathematical formulae involved however have prevented this.
Briefly however, the method consists in fitting a curve of the required type to three of the recorded census figures and then adjusting it by successive approximations to all the recorded figures. The desired approximation is one in which the algebraic sum of differences between the calculated and the actually recorded populations is nil and the sum of the squares of these differences is a minimum. Mr. Griffiths' curve was worked out for the population actually recorded in Bengal treating the interval between each census count as being exactly ten years and assuming that a negligible error only was introduced by this treatment and by neglecting to make an adjustment for change of area. For the other two calculations the recorded census population was adjusted to represent the estimated population in the area now constituting Bengal on the 1st March of each census year after 1881 and on the 1st March 1871. In making this calculation it was assumed that the population between any two census years changed at a uniform rate and that the rate of change between March 1871 and the date of the census in 1872 was the same as between 1872 and 1881. In arriving at the third equation allowance has been made for a small factor which Mr. Griffiths has noted as being disregarded in his calculation.
The equations give a curve of reasonable fit and the last shown is the most accurate approximation for the observations in so far as the algebraic sum and the sum of squares of differences between the observed and calculated population at all census years from 1881 to 1931 is less with this equation than with the other two, whilst for all years including 1871 the sum of the differences is least and the sum of their squares not indeed least but very near to it.
General tendencies of growth and upper limit of population suggested
On the first equation the rate of increase was being successively enhanced till 1881 when it began to decline and the maximum population would be about 74 millions, which would be practically attained in 2063 A. D. On the third equation the point of maximum increase was passed in 1872, the rate of growth is also diminishing and a maximum population of about 681 millions would be expected which would be approximately reached in 2076 A. D. On neither equation population is any lower limits of population implied, i.e., the equations do not suggest that the present cycle of population growth began at any definite period, although on the third equation Bengal should have had a population of not less than two millions in 1668 A. D
The logistic curve applied to the Muslim and Hindu population
Mr.Griffiths also fitted curves to the population of Muslims and Hindus The correspondence of these figures, particularly for Hindus, is not so close as is obtained by the equation for the total population, but the Muslim equation gives a reasonable fit for the years 1881 to 1921. The total maximum population and Hindu towards which the equations suggest that each community is tending would be for population. Muslims about 32 millions and for Hindus about 23 3/4 millions :,in aggregate these figures fall short by 14 to 20 millions of the upper asymptotic population calculated for all communities.
The Muslim and Hindu equations imply that the point at which the rate of increase ceased to be successively greater than in previous decades was passed in about 1886 by the Muslims and 1812 by the Hindus who are now approaching a stationary population. In any case the implication is that the Hindu community is further along its present growth cycle than the Muslim : in other words that it is approaching its maximum whilst by comparison the Muslim community is still rapidly growing. It is possible to find a suggested explanation, if this is actually .,rue, in the fact that Muslims live mainly in the healthier regions of Eastern Bengal and Hindus in the less healthy and less progressive portions of West Bengal : but it would be interesting if similar calculations have been made, to know whether the implication arises also in the case of other provinces.
Estimate of Population In 1941
The equations for total populations suggest a population of between 53 and 531 millions in 1941. The communal equations appear (and Mr. Griffiths holds them) to be inappropriate. Equations of a more complicated form might give closer correspondence with the observed census figures, but the calculation involves very great labour, they might give no better estimates for the future and in any case they are scarcely worth making in view of the fact that only seven counts are on record. For the future all that can be said is that if the type of equation used is applicable to population growth and if the conditions influencing population growth in Bengal over the period to which it has been applied continue substantially unchanged for the future, the estimates of total population made by use of the equations deduced should represent the population to be expected.
The equation themselves suffer however by being fitted to so few observed counts and the conditions influencing population growth cannot be predicted and are difficult to discover if a change in the cycle suggests their existence. Thus after the formation of the German Empire and the institution of the present constitutions in Japan, Pearl found that the cycle of growth was, as it were, speeded up and Germany and Japan starting from the population of that critical time took a leap forward and continued their cycle as if they had been at an earlier stage when growth was more rapid. It is by no means impossible that constitutional change may have a similar effect in Bengal and may affect the different communities to a different degree.
Can Bengal support a larger population
The prospect or even the possibility of so considerable an increase in a population already one of the densest in the world may lead to apprehension that the population of Bengal is rapidly approaching numbers which cannot be sustained at any reasonable standard of living upon the means of subsistence which Bengal can produce for long. If population actually does increase according to some such law as that illustrated by the logistic curve the fact that considerable increases are inevitable makes the apprehension futile. Pearl himself has pointed out that this inevitable increase need not necessarily increase the misery in the world since first this result has not happened up to the present, secondly " the orderly evolution of human knowledge justifies us in assuming that science will keep pace in discovering means of expanding opportunities of happy human subsistence ", and thirdly the human organism is itself adaptable to an extent not yet imagined.
It cannot be denied that a large part of the population of Bengal lives at a very low level of subsistence, and that any increase of population must lead to increased distress unless the potentialities of the province are developed. What is suggested here is that these potentialities are such that pessimism as to the future condition of its population if considerable increase take place is not necessarily justified. Like the rest of India Bengal is notable for its undeveloped resources and the inefficiency with which such resources as it has are exploited. The soil is probably unlikely to deteriorate further and the general opinion about areas such as Bengal, where scanty manuring necessitates small crops, is that a dead level of yield was reached long ago and is conditioned by the rate at which plant food constituents are made available by weathering. The cultivator in Bengal practically never enriches the soil with any manure and the use of manures together with an improvement in the implements of agriculture which would then be rendered possible would probably increase enormously the output of the soil.
It has been* estimated that improved methods would result in a reasonable expectation of increased food output of 30 per cent. throughout the whole of India. There is no doubt that any additional labour required under a more intensive form of cultivation could easily be obtained since the agriculturist in Bengal on the whole probably works less than agriculturists in almost any other part of the world. Subsidiary Table I [Bengal Report) also shows that of the total area cultivable only 67 per cent. is now actually under cultivation. If the total cultivable area were brought under cultivation and if improved methods of cultivation yielding an increase of 30 per cent.
over the present yield were adopted it is clear from a simple rule of three calculationt that Bengal could support at its present standard of living a population very nearly twice as large as that recorded in 1931. Fresh areas in course of, time will be brought under cultivation as lands on the Bay of Bengal accrete and reach a stage suitable for cultivation. Even at present it is clear that by far the majority of the food stuffs consumed in Bengal are locally produced. During 1930-31, taking only grains, pulses and flour, salt, sugar and spices, provisions and oilman's stores Bengal imported goods of the value of Rs. 821 lakhs and exported goods of the value of Rs. 2811akhs. But the balance of trade during the same year amounted to Rs. 31,52 .41 lakhs or more than three times the aggregate export and import trade. The seaborne trade of Calcutta is not confined to goods originating in or meant exclusively for Bengal, but in the year 1930-1931 jute, tei'and hides contributed 771 per cent. of the total and Bengal contributed all the jutes, nearly all the hides and a very considerable part of the tea.
It is consequently clear that the favourable balance of trade to a very small extent only was dissipated outside Bengal and that the balance itself provides sufficiently for an enormously increased importation of food stuffs were it necessary to import them at any time. Not only agriculture but also industry is at present in Bengal practically in its infancy. Reviewing production in India a Bengali writers in 1924 came to the conclusion that the " outstanding feature of the productive system of India is its inefficiency which is shown by the great wastage of resources on the one hand and the lower productivity of the industries on the other.... It is insufficient production to which is due India's poverty, both absolute and relative.... The lack of capital is partly responsible for the present low productivity ....but .... could not .... he regarded as the fundamental cause of insufficient production in India Insufficient production is the result of inefficient labour, i.e., lack of capacity on the part of the people to mobilise the physical, intellectual and moral forces of the country and to organise land and capital effectively for national production ".
Improvement in methods of production both agricultural and industrial should therefore very easily make possible the subsistence of such an increased population-as is suggested by the figures already discussed, and the considerations deduced in this paragraph also make it possible to hope that such an increase of population may be attended with a very considerable increase in the material condition of the people and in the standard of living. It is clear at least that it is not yet time to indulge in gloomy forebodings on the ground that Bengal is over-populated, provided full use is made of the available resources of the country by improved methods.
Extravagant methods of Population are increase are a practical problem
A final problem suggested by the growth of population in Bengal concerns the enormous Extravagant wastage of life with which that growth is achieved. It is clear that what is of importance in pmoeptuioatonot population growth is the rate of increment. A high rate of increment can be achieved by a increase are relatively low birth-rate if the death-rate is also low, whilst on the contrary a comparatively low a practical rate of increase results from even a high birth-rate if the death-rate also is high. problem. actually both the birth-rate and the death-rate in Bengal are very high and there is consequently an appalling wastage of reproductive energy in maintain - ing the present increase of population. If the logistic theory of population growth is correct a retarded rate of increase is inevitable at the upper stages of the cycle of growth until finally a population is reached which to all intents and purposes is stationary. France in Europe where there is a notoriously low birth-rate probably illustrates this position best but an exhaustive* enquiry into the Arab population of Algiers suggested to Pearl that the retardation of the rate of increase is in general effected at the upper stages of the population growth by decrease both in the birth-rate and in the death-rate. The Arab population of Algiers showed both a decrease in the birth-rate which could not be ascribed to any voluntary measures and a decrease in the death-rate which equally could not be ascribed to improvement in public health measures since the traditional custom of the Arabs offer the utmost possible resistance to any changes in their habits which would improve sanitary conditions. Attempts to effect a retardation of the rate of increase by voluntary limitation of the birth-rate are almost certainly doomed to failure particularly in Bengal.
They are repugnant to common sentiment in this country, the methods adopted are so expensive as to be beyond the reach of the great majority of the inhabitants and it is probably true to say that there are as yet none which can be relied upon as being absolutely certain and satisfactory. Figures for the different strata of society show that there is no evidence to believe that contraceptive measures are used by the upper classes or those engaged in professions and the liberal arts ; and it is certain that they are not practised at all in the lower strata of society.
What appears to happen, if the analogy of Western Europe may be accepted, is that a decrease in the death-rate is inevitably followed at some period by a corresponding decrease in the birth-rate. It is clear also that fertility in western countries decreases with the increase of wealth and intellectual interests. It is therefore possible to expect that a reduction of the birth-rate by the adoption of improved measures of public health accompanied by an improvement in the standard of living, an increase in the spread of education and perhaps principally by a further emancipation of women and their introduction to spheres of usefulness and activity from which they are now in Bengal generally debarred by social custom and by the institution of purdah will in due course result in a decrease in the birth-rate corresponding with the decrease in the death-rate which it is the object of public health measures to bring about.