Within sight of a major breakthrough on population front

Within sight of a major breakthrough on population front

Amid the political din created by the impending presidential election, the furore over a 1949 cartoon and other controversies that seem to take up most of the space in newspapers and television channels, scant attention has been paid to the good news: for the first time India seems to be within sight of its population goal of a total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1 children born on an average to every woman during her entire reproductive life-span.

The new population estimates hold out hope that within the next decade, if not earlier, India will have reached population replacement level fertility rate. However, for the next three or four decades the population will continue to increase as death rates come down, the average life-span increases and the ‘bulge’ of babies produced when India’s population was still exploding unchecked reaches adulthood and produces children.

Urban India comprising more than 30 per cent of the population has already reached a TFR level of 1.9, that is, just below replacement level, according to the Registrar-General’s report based on the sample registration system that came out in January this year. More importantly, for rural India the figure is 2.8 as against 3.4 just a decade earlier, a drop of 0.6 points. The all India TFR now stands at 2.5, just 0.4 points above replacement level.

It took urban Indian women just five years to move from a TFR of 2.5 in 2005 to 1.9 by 2010, down 0.6 points in half a decade. At the all India level, TFR moved down 0.4 points during this period from 2.9 in 2005 to 2.5 by 2010. If the trend continues, India’s overall TFR could reach the desired 2.1 level by 2015-16, although that would be six years later than the millennium development goal of reaching replacement level TFR by 2010.

There are several factors that could in fact push the country towards its goal – increasing urbanisation, faster pace of literacy among girls and higher rural incomes. But to give this a real momentum, infant mortality rates – current levels are way too high at about 50 per 1000 live births -- will have to be lowered to around 20 or less, a figure some states have achieved.

In the last decade, for the first time more literate females than males were added to the population – 117 million females to 110 million males, a remarkable fact that has yet to be taken note of by the media. Also for the first time, the absolute number of illiterates fell by 31 million since 2001. Over previous decades no matter what the achievement in literacy was, the absolute number of illiterates kept growing. The effort to make people literate could not keep pace with the burgeoning population.

The good news is that with female literacy reaching 65 per cent, there could be a positive fallout on fertility rates. An analysis of TFR by education of women carried out by the Registrar-General’s office established that even in rural areas fertility rates fell rapidly from 3.5 for illiterate women to 2.6 for women with primary education and down to 1.8 for those who had passed class XII. This was also true of urban India where TFR fell from 2.6 for illiterate women to 1.38 for those who completed high school. The table, in fact, shows fertility rates to be inversely related to women’s education, the higher the education, the lower the TFR.

India has been too slow to make education compulsory and only recently there has been a big leap forward in girls’ education. This will not only empower women, but will also help India reach its population goal. Other factors like enhanced incomes and rapid urbanisation are likely to further hasten the process.

In fact, the new provisional census figures and the 2010 sample registration system show that on the population front there are two Indias. All of the South – Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and even Andhra Pradesh – have reached below replacement level TFR. Maharashtra in the West, West Bengal in the East, Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and, of course, Delhi in the North have also joined this group of states doing well on the population front. Even Odisha and Haryana have better than national average TFRs at 2.3 while Assam and Gujarat at 2.5 are not too far behind.

The ‘other India’ – mostly the BIMARU states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh – will continue to add to India’s population for some time, although even in these states there are signs of a breakthrough. The TFR in Uttar Pradesh lowered by 0.7 points in five years from 4.2 in 2005 to 3.5 in 2010 while TFR Bihar during that same period came down from 4.3 to 3.7. What was surprising is that the winds of change have also been felt in Rajasthan, where the status of women has been traditionally low and the practice of child marriage continues to this day. Here TFR came down to 3.1 in 2010 from 3.7 five years earlier. What is worth noting is that the rate of drop in TFR in these BIMARU states is in line with the falling rates in the rest of the country.

High fertility rates have been associated with poverty and female illiteracy, both factors preventing women from taking decisions on how many children they want to bear. This has begun changing fast. The take-off stage has been reached with two-thirds of all women literate. In the coming decade many more girls will go up to middle and high school. The net effect on TFR could be dramatic. After all, it is not just a coincidence that states that achieved higher literacy among women were also the first to reach lower TFR rates. Kerala is a prime example.

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