In a highly personal attempt to look into the labyrinthine ""population problem,"" this Bombay-born New York Times correspondent journeyed to China and Saudi Arabia, Sweden and Brazil--and returns with a bewilderingly shallow travelogue. Not that Gupte doesn't conscientiously review a range of thorny issues--whether the exacerbation of tribal rivalries by the mere act of census-taking in ethnic patchworks like Nigeria, or the certainty that underpopulation in affluent lands means an influx of foreign labor from disadvantaged regions. He also makes plain the long-range nightmare for Third World societies in the need to keep employment opportunities growing in proportion to labor-force increases, and the contrasting problems that confront countries like Japan and Sweden where shrinking family size leaves an increasing percentage of elderly people with needs to be met by society as a whole (rather than siblings and children). But complexities and differences of opinion tend to be fumbled or ignored. One can well understand Gupte's impatience with the Germaine Greer-John Billings argument that Western birth-control propaganda is an attempt to suppress or degrade other societies' fertility-centered or child-centered values. Why then does he never get down to systematically refuting this line of thought, or seriously examining the kindred fundamentalist Moslem position on birth control? Still more damaging is his failure to tie in the disastrous, universal Third World phenomenon of migration from the land to the cities with patterns of land ownership, or to look at the ecological and economic issues that lie behind his official interlocutors' glib assertions of the need for ""modernized agriculture."" One salutes his insistence that there are no global solutions, that the primary need is for determined, flexible national and local initiatives toward ""adequate nutrition, health, education, housing, and employment, particularly jobs for women."" But his translation of concern into argument remains obtuse and unskillful.