The ongoing census in India, the sixth since its independence in 1947, is bound to unfold an ocean of data, perhaps bewildering to an outsider given the country’s complex social and caste divisions.

But the gigantic exercise in enumeration — which will end Feb. 28 — is sure to reaffirm an already well-known and disturbing trend: the galloping climb in population.

India is home to over 1 billion people, making it the second most populous nation after China, which is geographically much larger.

The nation is groaning under the weight of its inhabitants. India holds a whopping 16.7 percent of the global population on a mere 2.2 percent of the earth’s landmass.

Each year, the country adds 18 million people, roughly another Australia. By 2045, it will have overtaken China. Indeed a grim scenario.

World Watch, a Washington-based environmental research organization, commenting on India reaching the 1 billion mark last year, said that it was a cause for deep sorrow in a nation where almost half the adults are illiterate, more than half the children are undernourished and one-third of the people are below the poverty line.

Yet successive governments, including the current one, have merely paid lip service to the overpopulation problem.

During the country’s civil emergency in 1975-76, the late Sanjay Gandhi went overboard in the opposite direction and implemented an infamous forced sterilization program.

What Gandhi did cannot be supported, but the virtually unchecked rise in India’s population does need firm and concerted efforts.

The government has never addressed the question the right way. Family planning, for instance, has never been given the priority it screams for.

Only 44 percent of Indian couples use any form contraception at all. Of those that do, 98 percent go in for tubal ligations. Vasectomies are much less complicated to perform, but are perceived as “a threat to manhood,” and are rare. Condom usage is a miserable 2 percent.

Two key things that would help are improved female literacy and health care, but the government is doing very little here.

Rahul Singh, who has written a book on family planning, said: “Take, for example, Indonesia, an almost entirely Muslim state. When it got its independence, it had a literacy rate of just 12 percent (India’s at the time of its own independence was 22 percent). Its life expectancy rate — the best indication of health care — was far below the 39 years of Indians. In the 1970s, soon after Gen. Suharto took over, the country got a financial bonanza of several million dollars in extra revenue from higher oil prices. He put them straight into primary education, health care and family planning.”

Today, Singh says, Indonesia’s literacy rate is 84 percent (India’s is about 60 percent, and even this is misleading, because many of the so-called literates can barely manage to sign their names) and life expectancy has risen to 62 years (India’s is 63).

India needs to go on a massive literacy drive and improve its health care. The use of condoms has to be popularized.

The government must realize that an exploding population will negate growth in just about every other field.

The current census can be useful for the government to take a fresh look at its population and formulate a more effective policy to keep this number under check. Otherwise, there is a very real danger of food shortages, still inadequate education and hospital facilities, and, above all, increasing poverty levels.

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