A population of one billion might bring a few problems, but there are compensations - at least for the leaders

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The Independent Travel

So India has joined China in the one billion population club, a club that one hopes and assumes will remain limited to just two members for the next century or so.

So India has joined China in the one billion population club, a club that one hopes and assumes will remain limited to just two members for the next century or so.

From my experience, individuals in countries that contain a billion people invariably hate it. "If we had a fifth of the population," Chinese taxi drivers complain to me, "we'd each be five times richer." When I point out that they might be one of the four-fifths to vanish, I am generally dismissed as a small-nation meddler.

Nor does a visit to the Chinese countryside get you away from all this urban stress. Trundling for days on trains through eastern China, I get the impression that the villages are, if anything, more crowded than the cities. Oh look! A thousand people digging a ditch! And look, another thousand bending over in that paddy field! Factories smoking, scaffolding swarming. Forget about nice quiet Sunday afternoons canoodling with pandas in the shade of old bamboo groves. Life in the hectic Chinese countryside, I find, is geared solely towards the goal of escaping to the tranquillity of big cities - in short, escaping from the stresses of overcrowding and poverty to the elysium of hair salons and traffic lights. Are these the miseries that India now has in store? Perhaps, except that from the point of view of the country's leaders, a billion people can look rather more advantageous. People pay more attention to the prime minister of India or the president of China than to the prince of Liechtenstein for example. You can raise a lot of taxes from a billion people.

You can build giant walls thousands of miles long, and palatial mausoleums for the wives of old emperors. You can win medals at Olympic Games and have permanent seats on the UN Security Council. You can exert a fascination over the rest of the world. Eventually you may also be able to pack other, smaller countries with your tourists.

Bearing this in mind, I wonder who will be next to join the billion population club? The United States? Unlike other contenders such as Indonesia or Brazil, the USA will at least be able to afford it, except that the USA with a billion people also sounds scarily like a country that would have eliminated any need for the rest of the world to exist at all.

And Europe? With the birth rate per person heading rapidly towards zero? It is a weird thing, but I have calculated that you could - allowing an average of one square metre of space for each person (something like a gigantic Glastonbury festival)- pack the entire populations of China and India into an area of 2,000 square kilometres. What this presumably means is that there is not yet any reason for the prince of Liechtenstein to give up hope of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

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