Population explosion: Barking up the wrong tree

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s highlighting of ‘population explosion’ as a challenge, in his Independence Day address, was either ill-informed or ill-intentioned. Either way, it was unwise. The rapid rise in population was a problem once, but it is no longer a threat. The total fertility rate (TFR) is falling in all states. As per the National Family Health Survey (2015-16) it was 2.2, slightly above the replacement level of 2.1. The survey of 2018-19, whose results are yet to come, is likely to show further improvement. There is unevenness in the performance of states, regions, and communities, but it is clear that the absolute numbers may level off soon. 

The laggards are the northern and eastern states where economic development and health and educational levels are low. Even in these states, the TFR has come down. As per the Sample Registration System, the fertility rates in UP and Bihar have fallen from 4.1 and 4.0 a decade ago to 3.0 and 3.2 respectively. The rates are set to go down further with greater social and economic development. So, the raising of the population issue by the Prime Minister can only give rise to misgivings about the government’s intentions. He said the rising population is a cause for worry, and even cited small families as role models of patriotism. The linking of the family’s size and patriotism seems ominous.

It has been a long-standing claim of Hindutva groups that Muslims and other minorities, growing at a faster rate, will overwhelm Hindus in due course. This is a bogey as the rate of decline of the Muslim population between 2005-06 and 2015-16, at 23%, was the highest among all communities. Another flawed argument is that even though the rate of growth of the Muslim population has slackened, it is still high. Any population control policy that does not appeal to the free will and choice of people can only have a negative impact. The experience of China, which has reversed its harsh one-child norm, and the results of the strong-arm measures adopted even in India in the 1970s should inform and guide the government's policy. It will be especially wrong if the plan is to target the minorities, mainly Muslims, using a new population regulation policy that may ostensibly be meant for all communities. It may be noted that a BJP MP, Rakesh Sinha, has introduced a private member’s Bill in the Rajya Sabha for enforcement of the two-child norm. Is the Prime Minister, with his statement on the need for population control, preparing the ground for implementing another pet item on the Hindutva agenda?

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