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Fiji’s population is not a time bomb [The Fiji Times, 27 Sep 2002]


In many poor countries of the world, economic planners worry about the “population time bomb”- when the growth of population would outstrip the country’s ability to sustain the people.

InFiji, for decades, indigenous Fijian leaders worried about being swamped by the once fast-growing Indo-Fijian population.

And even today, some political rhetoric suggests that Indo-Fijian numbers are still threatening the well-being of Indo-Fijians.

But in Fiji, population growth is notgoing to be a time bomb.  On the contrary, it is likely to defuse tension.

Because, far more than people imagine, the population numbers have been swinging more and more in favour of indigenous Fijians.

And the swing in numbers is far more pronounced for the children of today, who will needs resources in the future, as youth and adults.

This will soon have a dramatic impact not only on political balances, but also on economic tensions in areas where public money needs to be spent on health, social welfare and other public goods for all our citizens.

The great political tensions of the last twenty five years between the two ethnic groups, will almost certainly never be replicated in similar fashion.

And if politicians were to choose to allocate public funds on the basis of needfor all our citizens, they would be unlikely to deny any other ethnic group their fair share of resources.

Our population trends

   So what is happening to our population?

A watershed in Fiji’s history was around 1945, when the population of Indo-Fijians exceeded that of the indigenous Fijians for the first time (see first graph).

pop 21 t 27

And this alone had all kinds of political implications.

One impact was on the design of the 1970 Constitution and its electoral system, which tried to ensure that Fijians would not lose control of Government.

But the increase in the Indo-Fijian population to almost 50 percent of the total population meant that with just a small proportion of indigenous Fijians lending their support, and the accidents of the “first past the post” system, political control did occasionally pass out of the hands of the Fijian leaders.

This happened in 1977 and in 1987.  It happened again in 1999, under a different electoral system with a major failing that it lacked proportionality.

Each time, Fijian politicians lost control of government, there were coups of one sort or another.  Some purportedly legal; some blatantly illegal.

But the effects were always the same- re-assertion of political leadership by the indigenous Fijian political leaders.

Well, the first graph should also put this period of political instability into a long-term perspective.

Historians will look at that that hump of the Indo-Fijian population curve (between 1945 and 1989), when it was higher than that of the indigenous Fijian population curve  as a defining characteristic ofFiji’s political instability for the last fifteen years.

That hump is gone for ever.

Indo-Fijians, currently around 40 percent of the population, will drop to around 30 percent within ten years, and around 20% percent within 20 years.

This trend will not be reversed for two reasons. Firstly, Indo-Fijians have for decades had fewer children than indigenous Fijians.  Around 1998, Fijian “total fertility rate” was more than 50 percent higher than that for Indo-Fijians.

Currently, Indo-Fijian live births are probably less than 30 percent of total live births, while Fijian live births are probably in excess of 65 percent- more than twice as many as Indo-Fijians.

Secondly, the large-scale Indo-Fijian emigration after 1987 has not abated, and is unlikely to do so, given the events of 2000.

These pure numbers and proportions have powerful political and economic implications (forget the loss of skills for the moment).

The long-term political implications

  The trend is crucial politically, because the proportions of voters (over 21) will follow the  trend on total population, with a small time lag (and more quickly if the voting age were brought down to 18).

It is not likely that Indo-Fijian parties will in future dominate Parliament by dint of their numbers alone.

And if a genuine proportional electoral system is ever adopted, indigenous Fijians will always be in the majority in Parliament and likely to be a majority in Cabinet.

Economically, the slogan “50:50 by the year 2020” in some areas may even seem a  conservative target, given that the actual Fijian population is likely to be closer to 70 percent by  the year 2020.

Also implies reduced conflict over resources

  And theses demographic projections have powerful implications for the relative demands that different ethnic groups are likely to make on Government, for needs such as education, health, housing or social welfare.

Take the second graph, which gives the ethnic proportions of five to nine year olds- the age group which represents pre-school and primary school age children.

Indo-Fijian demographics

Already, Indo-Fijians are only about 35 percent, and will drop to around 30 percent in ten years time.  The indigenous Fijian proportion will correspondingly rise to around 65 percent.

Addressing the needs of all children on the basis of need, will in all probability still allocate the bulk of the funds to indigenous Fijian children, even without any explicit affirmative action program.

It therefore makes little sense to insist on a policy of assistance based purely on race, especially as this gives rise to political unhappiness and genuine concern about the neglect of needy children of other ethnic groups.

Neither does it make sense economically to deny needy Indo-Fijian children fair access to education.

Even if 10 percent of Indo-Fijian primary school children needed assistance that would now constitute less than 5 percent of all primary school children in Fiji.  Surely not a big “drain” on taxpayers’ funds, especially since Indo-Fijians will continue to contribute a much larger proportion of taxes.

Similar logic applies to needs in health services, housing, social welfare and the rest.

Because their share of total population will keep falling, the Indo-Fijians’ “call” on pubic resources of all kinds, will similarly decline, relative to the size of the “call” by indigenous Fijians.

This surely has the great potential to reduce the political tensions in this country.

All our politicians need to pay attention to what the population numbers are saying.


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