Demographic change in India: Boon or bane?

Last Updated 04 November 2011, 14:30 IST

The world population reached seven billion on October 31, 2011 and India’s symbolic seventh billion baby was a girl child born in Uttar Pradesh. In the past, these celebrations were meant to create awareness on the rapidly increasing population and the need for control. However, in recent years, the focus of attention has shifted from population control to other critical issues such as gender equity, maternal health, human rights and so on. Perhaps, the shift in the focus only reiterates the fact that even with demographic changes in the country, there is a lot to be desired in ensuring gender equity and providing safe motherhood.

Glimpses of demographic change

Undoubtedly, the demographic patterns are rapidly changing in India. The provisional population figures of 2011 census show a decline in the rate of growth of population from 21.54 per cent in the 1991-2001 to 17.64 per cent in the 2001-11 census decades.  The average number of children per woman in India has come down to 2.6 in 2009. Thus the fertility rate is coming close to the replacement level of two children per woman. Based on the current fertility changes, India will reach the desired two children per woman norm within this decade.

At the same time, there is significant heterogeneity in fertility levels across states in India. The fertility level varied from as low as 1.7 children per woman in Andhra Pradesh to 3.9 in Bihar. Of the 20 major states, constituting nearly 98 per cent of the population in the country, 11 states with 46 per cent of the total population achieved fertility of 2 children or below which include all the southern states in the country. Three other states with a population proportion of around 10 per cent are also close to this norm. Contrary to this, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh having 42 per cent of the total population are considerably away from achieving this goal.

Emanating challenges

What do these rapid demographic changes signify for an average Indian woman?  Has it resulted in significant changes in her position both within the family and society? Perhaps the answer to this question would be rather mixed. Undoubtedly, moving away from spending the entire reproductive period (age group 15-49) for child bearing and rearing has been a significant opportunity for women. The fertility transition, undoubtedly, opens up a window to productively utilise her time outside the home. If such changes take place, it will definitely enhance her position both in the society and at home.

Unfortunately, however, the progress in female labour force participation has been rather dismal in the country. The work participation rate of females in the state of Kerala with faster early demographic changes and higher levels of literacy has been one of the lowest in the country. According to the Census 2001 results, only 15% of the women in Kerala are engaged in productive work. This raises serious doubts on the ability of our labour market to absorb woman productively. Therefore, even when fertility changes expand opportunities for women it could not be realised due to policy failures and discrimination.

While demographic changes are welcome, they are not necessarily an unmitigated blessing always. It has gone hand in hand with strong son preference leading to adverse sex ratio in the country. The masculinity in childhood years is consistently increasing.  The census data show consistent decline in the ratio of female to male in the childhood years (0-6 age group) from 945 to 914 females per 1000 males between 1991 and 2011 census years in the country.  Such decline even in states with rapid fertility changes like Karnataka is attributed to the strong preference for sons within the two child family norm.

Interestingly, even with considerable demographic change, the age at marriage has moved only marginally in the country. Early marriages resulting in women bearing children at younger ages are rather common in the country. India’s fertility transition has been primarily through promoting female sterilisation than changes in the marriage pattern. The sterilisation-focused family planning approach may not result in sudden reversal or fluctuation in fertility because the method itself is nonreversible.

However, there may be several sociopsychological implications given the fact that the age at sterilisation is relatively low and that most women are unemployed. Malnutrition among pregnant women is also one of the highest in the world. Perhaps due to such a child bearing pattern, infant mortality remains relatively high. The current infant mortality rate is around 50 per 1000 live births and varies vastly from 12 in Kerala to 70 in Uttar Pradesh.

In conclusion, India’s demographic pattern generates a broad optimism but also strange paradoxes as far as Indian women are concerned. Undoubtedly the faster decline in fertility in many parts of the country is a boon in terms of providing the potential to enhance women’s position in society. At the same time, this potential could not be realised to a great extent. There is a lot to be done to ensure women’s position both within the family and society. The celebrations are only symbolic but cannot substitute correct policy and programmatic measures.

(The writer is Professor and Head, Population Research Centre, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore)

(Published 04 November 2011, 14:30 IST)

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