On the eve of the millennium in October 1999, the world population was 6bn.
A mere 12 years later, following the birth of baby Nargis Kumar on 30-Oct-2011 in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, this figure topped the 7bn mark. A staggering increase of 1bn!
With high fertility rates in the Third World, demographers at the UN predict that world population will keep on rising until it reaches a peak of 10bn by the year 2050. The million-dollar question is whether the Earth can sustain this many people. Already an entire 1bn+, that is one in every seven goes to bed hungry every night!
Against this background, one would have to be absolutely crazy — not to say highly irresponsible — to even think of suggesting that people should produce more babies. Yet this is exactly what some of our GM Ministers have been doing of late.
Make More Babies
I think it was Mrs Daureeawoo who started it all. “We must make more babies,” she exhorted the nation. Faced with a rising ratio between old, retired people (OAPs) and the young, active population, our esteemed Social Security Minister (SSM) could not find anything better to come up with.
But Mrs D isn’t the only member of the present GM who thinks that further procreation is the solution to the Grey explosion. She was soon to be joined by Health Minister Gayan in her appeal to the population to have larger families.
However the scenario started to attain the burlesque when, irony of all ironies, the Mauritius Family Planning Association (MFPA) whose vocation is to help promote smaller families, threw its weight into the fray. It did however have the “wisdom” to direct its exhortation towards better-off couples.
Not to be outdone of course, Gender Equality Minister Perraud also threw in her dice but, like the MFPA, her appeal targeted rich couples. Now the good people of this small, overcrowded island are waiting with bated breath for the next GM member to lend his support to this barmy idea.
The sum total of OAPs living longer and the majority of couples having only 2 children are upsetting the ratio between OAPs and the active segment of the population. If people continue to have 2 children — the logic goes — there would come a time when there won’t be enough active people to support the rising number of OAPS who, with the help of modern medicine, are living longer than ever before.
On the other hand there are families where we still see panier zenfants, as my politically incorrect friend Keshraj puts it. But for sociological reasons that go beyond the remit of this article, these zenfants do not exactly grow up to become the most productive members of society. On the contrary, often growing up in a tin-shack squat with a single, unemployed mother relying on social security benefits to feed her family, they in turn become reliant on GM hand-outs when they grow up.
Hence the MFPA and Mrs Perraud specifically targeting better-off couples.
But this presumes that well-off couples have the will, and the desire to have more than the average of 2 (rounded from 1.77) children.
In a study conducted in 1952, Professor Titmuss found that the average Mauritian family size was 5 and foresaw a demographic catastrophe of Malthusian proportions awaiting us. In truth Titmuss’ average hid the fact that many couples had upwards of 10+ children. Thus people were — and remained — poor not because they had too little money, but there were just too many mouths to feed. Something had to be done!
So the MFPA was founded in the late 1950s to help stem the tide of population growth. Adult sex education and education in general, education of girls and the consequent increase in female employment coupled with the introduction of contraceptives particularly the pill in the early 1960s are all factors that have contributed to the slashing of the fertility rate from 5.8 in 1962 to the present 1.77.
Having less children in turn led to a quantum jump in number of families joining the ranks of the middle classes. Since both husband and wife work, there is more money coming into the household. With a smaller number of mouths to feed, couples are able to buy a better house, give their children a better education and generally enjoy a higher living standard. Many can even afford the luxury of owning a motor-bicycle/car and an annual holiday overseas has become commonplace.
It is a case of wonderment that all this miracle has been achieved in the space of just two generations. And now our erudite Ministers and the MFPA want those middle class couples to reverse the trend, have more children and return to a life of poverty from which they have managed to escape. Are we totally mad?
In a world, which is still overflowing with the “demographic dividend” from rising fertility rates, is having more babies the only way to cope with the greying population? Why are all those able-bodied young men risking their lives every day to cross the Mediterranean from ports in Libya to reach Italy or Greece? Have we never heard of mechanisation, robotisation, or circular migration? It’s not as if foreign labour was unknown to Mauritius!
At the moment we have a two-tier system: the non-contributory Basic Retirement Pension (BRP), and a rudimentary contributory NPF pension for most private sector employees. A lucky few have a good company pension.
BRP, a vestige of the colonial Poor Law, today takes up a whacking 40+ percent of the Social Security budget of R27bn. It is payable to all resident citizens who have reached the age of 60 irrespective of their financial situation. Since the retirement age in Mauritius is 65, we have this crazy situation where people are being paid a pension while they are still working and drawing a full salary!
At the moment, the BRP is the major, if not the only source of income for most OAPs. Most private sector employees receive a NPF pension; only a small minority draw a company pension. State and parastatal employees are entitled to a non-contributory pension, which is increased in line with PRB rates, as if they were still in employment.
Thus the taxpayer foots the bill for the BRP as well as the ever-increasing pension due to State employees. This is not only grossly unfair, but also de-responsibilises the beneficiaries.
So instead of wasting time asking reluctant couples to produce more babies, our Ministers would do better to spend their energy reforming our crazy, skewed and unfair pension schemes.
It is obvious to any right-thinking person that the universal BRP is unsustainable. In the short run therefore it would be better to target those who need it most. Ultimately though it will have to be phased out and replaced by a comprehensive contributory pension for all private and public sector employees.
Economists tell us that savings are consumption postponed. In a normal world therefore where no one owes anyone a living, people must be made responsible for saving for their future consumption by saving a part of their present income (in a pension scheme). In this, GM can and must help by ensuring that all employers also play the game. If need be, we could copy from countries which have already gone down that route.
Conclusion: Swim with the Tide
It would be naïve to suppose that reforming our pension schemes would be an easy task. Having been used to freebies, people will doubtless put up a lot of resistance. It will take much effort for GM to explain to the population that leaving the status quo unchanged is not an option.
In the span of just two generations, we have foiled the doomsayers and managed to contain population growth. In the same span of time, we have managed to graduate from a backward monocrop economy to a middle-income country with ambitions to become a high-income economy. It cannot be beyond our capacity to incorporate a viable pension regime that is fair to all stakeholders.
Faced with a greying population, developed countries have already gone down that road without increasing their family size. It’s time we started swimming with the tide!
* Published in print edition on 17 June 2016