Population: Should India worry?

Population: Should India worry?

Representative image. (PTI photo)

The debate over population growth has once again surfaced as a result of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s concern over “population explosion” in the country. Modi, who is known to usually rejoice over India’s ‘demographic dividend,’ is now showing anxiety over population growth. Modi said population increase will cause new challenges for the coming generations and emphasized the need for the central and state governments to launch measures to deal with the issue. Modi said that a small section of society keeps its families small and deserves respect for doing so, going on to even call it an act of patriotism. This is the first time Modi has raised the population issue, though other BJP leaders have been vocal about the matter, often as a Hindu-Muslim issue. As a demographer and population scientist, I see this as an old fallacy in a new garb. Previously, such arguments were made by many scholars and political leaders across the globe but corrected themselves after seeing the data and trends. Population growth and numbers in India by themselves are no more an economic or social development concern, especially given the speed at which India has achieved its fertility transition and the rate at which our population is ageing, compared to trends in many developed and developing countries. Let’s understand the data correctly.

READ: Population explosion or declining fertility in India?

What the evidence says

The population size estimates of India mainly come from the decadal Census counts and the Sample Registration System (SRS). SRS reports show that with a total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.2, India is already on the verge of achieving the replacement level fertility rate (TFR 2.1). Except in six states in the Hindi heartland -- Bihar (3.2), Uttar Pradesh (3.0), Madhya Pradesh (2.7), Rajasthan (2.6), Jharkhand (2.5), Chhattisgarh (2.4) – and Assam (2.3), all the major states have either already achieved TFR of 2.1 or are at the national average of 2.2. The divergence in fertility rates across the states during the transition period, particularly from 1971 to 2001, has given way to an emerging convergence since. Therefore, the future will be a period of continued convergence in fertility rates across the states of India.

Moreover, population growth in India has been slowing for the last few decades, from an annual growth rate of 2.5% during 1971-81 to an estimated 1.3% in 2011-16, and is projected to go below 1% in the late 2040s.

The recent trends in annual growth rates for major states suggest a decline in population growth rates in all major states, with the exception of Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu already has a low growth rate and the current increase in the population growth rate is the result of considerable in-migration to the state.

The volume of decline is also greater in states which traditionally had high growth rates, indicating the convergence in growth rates.

The assessment of evidence from the National Family Health Survey 1-4 shows that although fertility rates among the major social groups diverged during the transition phase post-1990s, convergence has set in post-2000.

Thus, fertility rates are converging across Hindu and Muslims, upper castes and others. Also, they are converging across educational and economic categories, but the gap is basically because higher educated and wealthier women have reached much below the replacement level, which is not desirable and could be disastrous in the long run. The truth is, India’s fertility transition is unparalleled, having happened much faster than in many developed and developing countries and under much lower socio-economic development.

What we should worry about

Undesired interventions, coercion and disincentive/punishment-based fertility decline policies have failed around the world. Once fertility decline takes hold, it is hard to reverse it. Countries that implemented coercive policies are regretting now. Europe’s population is greying rapidly, and the pro-population growth measures (incentives to have children) across the continent are hardly working. The defining geopolitical challenge of the coming decades could involve accommodating an angry, frightened China as it confronts the consequences of its disastrous one-child policy, which it has now rescinded. Thus, in India, this is not the time to blame a specific social group or religious group for population growth.

The current moderate to slightly high fertility amongst a few categories of the population is because of lower education, higher infant mortality and greater son-preference and lack of access to quality family planning services. Therefore, the country should focus more on improving access to better education, quality healthcare, and family planning services, which will together help not only in keeping a check on the population number but also to improve the quality of the population.

Another important and growing concern over population in India is the age-gender composition of the population -- rapid ageing and ‘disappearing’ female children at birth and during childhood. It took 100 to 120 years for the ageing population to double in size in the European countries, while it is happening over just 30-35 years in India.

There is also a regional imbalance in the population burden.  While North India still has moderate fertility burden, South India has a huge ageing burden. These burdens should be given equal priority in fund allocation in our population and health policies. 

India currently has a huge demographic bonus until 2061. However, reaping the ‘demographic dividend’ is subject to investments in quality education, healthcare and employment generation as well as how best we deal with ageing, disease and disability burdens. Thus, India needs to focus more on these aspects rather than on absolute population numbers or on an imagined religion divide in it. The best population law for India would be a ‘Right to Good Health.’

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Population Studies, Centre for the Study of Regional Development, JNU, New Delhi)