Quality is as important

Despite the current economic turmoil, most analysts agree that the fundamentals of the economy are strong. They would particularly mention a savings rate of above 30 per cent, self-sufficiency in food grains and the so-called ‘demographic dividend’ meaning a much higher percentage of young working age people in the total population (54 per cent of population below 25 years of age), unlike most other emerging economies and all of the developed world.

Thus, the current huge population of India (1.2 billion and projected to exceed China’s population by 2028), feared at one time to be our biggest liability, is now often regarded as a national asset. In addition, population control has become a ‘politically incorrect’ topic. The number of children a family would like to have is treated as individual’s private decision which should be of no concern for the government in a democracy. The government’s job is being increasingly viewed as ensuring that the people are provided minimum food, education, health and other basic needs of life - using tax revenue - irrespective of the size of the family.

But can we really afford to be so complacent about the nature of population growth in India? The truth is that the overall growth rate of population is coming down but the worsening quality of population should be a matter of grave concern.

In the decade 1950-60, the growth rate of population was 1.9 per cent per year. This went up to 2.2 per cent in the three subsequent decades, mainly because of significant reduction in death rates brought about by access to improved medical facilities including immunisation.  But, then, it came down to 1.6 per cent in 2000-2010. This can be attributed to a reduction in birth rates achieved through the spread of education and awareness—specially among women—of the benefits of a small family and the methods of birth control available to achieve it. But the spread of this awareness has been highly uneven.

Detailed data are not readily available for total fertility rate (TFR) – the number of children a woman bears over her lifetime --  for different  income and education classes. However, casual empiricism by looking at the number of children that my friends and acquaintances  - who are all from relatively educated and affluent families - tells me that most of them (in the current generation) have got only one child and the rest have at most two children. In other words, the average TFR for such families is well below 2. But the average TFR for families who are close to the poverty line or have low levels of education or both is clearly much higher to produce an overall all-India TFR of 2.6 in 2011.

Roughly constant

Note that TFR for China was 1.6, South Korea 1.2, Bangladesh 2.2 and  Pakistan 3.4 at around the same time. A TFR of 2 would imply that over time the population would become roughly constant since the children would simply replace their parents. So, the implication is that in India the number of people who can afford to give their children good education and a decent standard of living would be going down while the number of people who, by and large, are not able to do so would be rising over time, worsening the overall quality of the population.

The same picture of unevenness emerges if we consider the differences across states and ethnic/religious groups. For 2011, the TFR for Bihar was 3.6 and for Uttar Pradesh 3.4 (two of the most populous, poorest and least literate states) while for both Kerala and Himachal Pradesh  it was 1.8 and  for Tamil Nadu 1.2. The last three states are among the states with the highest literacy rates for women and the lowest poverty rates in India.

While the TFR for Hindus, Sikhs and Christians are all in the range of 2.0-2.1, that for Muslims it is 3.4 and for tribals 3.16. Since the average level of education and per capita income is higher for the first three groups than for the latter two, again we see the negative correlation between the birth rate and the level of education and poverty.

The first best solution is clear enough. We need to spread education, awareness and health care facilities among the backward sections. High child mortality rate among the poor is one major reason behind their high fertility rate as an insurance against the high risk of subsequent death of offsprings. Economic growth, by itself, would help by raising income.

But the problem is that we can not afford to wait till the spread of education and economic growth takes care of the problem, however long it may take. In a democracy, we can not impose a draconian rule – like the Chinese state-imposed one-child policy - with strict penalties for violating the rule. So, along with spread of education, awareness and availability of cheap birth control devices, some other positive incentives may need to be provided to the less educated poor families to opt for a smaller family. One option could be conditional cash transfers. For example, cash subsidies (‘child allowance’) can be provided  to poor families on the condition that the parents  will have to send their children to school but the subsidies would be limited to, say, only two children per family, of course, with exceptions like twins at second birth or handicapped children.
(The writer is a former professor of economics at IIM, Calcutta)

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