In his Independence Day address to the Indian nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged the challenges posed by population explosion. He suggested that keeping a small family was patriotism in the truest sense. Surely, this had to do with the UN forecast of India overtaking China as the most populous country by 2027. Thus, an analysis of the demographic trends would be essential to understand the issue in-depth.
A basic development studies course would tell you that a sustained increase in per capita income is necessary to bring about economic growth. However, when the rate of growth of population overtakes the growth in the GDP, per capita income starts falling. At present, Sub-Saharan Africa is witnessing a negative per capita economic growth because of the same reason. Thus, highlighting the importance of population studies for comprehensive economic planning. Academicians believe that an indispensable indicator in comparative population studies is the Total Fertility Rate (TFR). It measures the number of children born to a woman at the end of the child-bearing age.
The Sample Registration System (SRS) under the Registrar General of India, the sole authority responsible for analysing and collecting demographic surveys of the country, pegged the TFR at 2.2. This is marginally higher than the replacement rate (2.1), which is the average number of children per woman to keep the population size constant. The latest figures are a sign of relief, as the birth rate is moving closer towards stabilisation levels. Total Fertility Rates declined from 5.2 in 1971 to 4.5 in 1981. The decade in discussion was infamous for coercive population control measures, unveiled during the Emergency of 1975-77, imposed by the then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. BBC described this as a gruesome campaign to sterilise poor men, with police cordoning off entire villages and forcefully taking men for the surgery. From 1991 to 2017, TFR gradually declined from 3.6 to 2.2.
The Indian Experience
Seven Indian states - Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Assam, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand - account for 45% of the total population in 2011 Census. Some of these are part of the BIMARU (translates into ‘sick’ in English; acronym for the Indian states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) states and lag behind on most socio-economic and health parameters. The latest data found TFR being higher than the national average in all the states, with Bihar topping the charts with a TFR of 3.2. While relatively well-off states - Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana - demonstrate fertility rates below the replacement level. An intimate relationship between economic development and fertility rates can thence be established. The difference in fertility rates would result in an ageing population in the South, while the North would host a significantly younger population. This polarity would result in interesting economic implications - the South would open caregiving-related jobs for the young workforce of the North, fueling migration southwards and remittance flow northwards.
In urban areas, TFR declined from 4.1 in 1971 to 1.7 in 2017. The rural areas also witnessed a decline in TFR from 5.4 in 1971 to 2.4 in 2017. The fertility rate of urban areas is lower than the replacement level, while it is quite higher than the replacement level in the rural areas. This disparity indicates a population pressure in the rural areas, which would further accentuate rural-urban migration in the future.
India’s TFR, which is marginally higher than the replacement rate, will help evolve a demographic profile that is more favourable to economic growth. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated India’s working age population to reach a maximum of 65% in 2030, and then decline thereafter. The report further estimated that the demographic dividend would be available for 5 decades, from 2005 to 2055, longer than any other country.
China, on the other hand, witnessed a TFR of 1.62 in 2016. By 2050, a third of its population would be above the age of 60, which has the potential to derail the economic powerhouse of the world. Alarmed by the possible consequences, the Chinese establishment dropped the One-Child Policy in 2013, and unveiled a plan to incentivise couples to have a second child.
Further East, in Japan, TFR stood at 1.41 in 2016. There is a societal problem behind falling birth rates in Japan. Fewer opportunities for young people creates a class of men who do not want to marry and have kids, simply because they cannot afford to. Longer work hours and absence of job security are quoted to be the main issues. The vicious cycle of low fertility and lower spending has led to a loss in the GDP and a population decline of 1 million people. If left unchecked, a severe economic downturn due to ageing population and rising social security costs is imminent.
In European countries such as France, Denmark, Ireland and Sweden, TFR is in the range of 1.7-2. However, in Czech Republic, Lithuania, Poland and Slovenia, TFR is much below 1.3. The trend of ‘demographic ageing’ is observed in the Western and Central Europe, and will worsen the economic situation of EU27 in the future.
Road Ahead for India
There lies a definite opportunity for India to be the next economic powerhouse in the greying world. But it needs to concentrate on promoting family planning to retain the gains and accelerate fertility decline.
The most important challenge that family planning (FP) programmes face is funding. The FP component gets only 4% of the total budget available under the National Health Mission. In the financial year 2016-17, only 60.7% of the funds available for family planning were utilised. Underutilisation of funds hinders expansion of family planning services. The news of the death of several women in sterilisation camps, such as that in Chhattisgarh in 2014, demotivates the couples. Only 56% of married women in India report contraception usage. Access to safe contraceptive methods is a fundamental right. India’s neighbour Bangladesh implemented a fairly effective, non-coercive family planning programme which led to a dramatic reduction in fertility in a short time, from TFR being 7 in 1971 to 2.2 in 2011. There is a high level of awareness about family planning matters and higher reported usage of contraceptive techniques. India, similar to Bangladesh, can employ its ASHA workforce to spread awareness about these. Recently, an initiative by USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and the Government of India led to a campaign promoting usage of oral contraceptive pills titled “Hai Goli Mein Vishwas (Trust the pill).” Such awareness programmes at the micro-regional rural areas can go a long way in fulfilling the above objective.
Certain policies have not rewarded the states which have taken effective measures for controlling population growth. Population growth in North and Central India is far greater than Southern India. Between 1971 and 2011, the population of Kerala grew by 56%, while there was a 140% rise in case of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The 15th Finance Commission has retained 2011 population census for Centre-State revenue allocations as its term of reference. This formula, if used, would lead to higher flow of funds to the North-Central states at the expense of the Southern States, leaving them feeling penalised for better performance in reducing fertility. Using 1971 population numbers for State allocations of Central resources could be a better formula.
Female education is yet a very important move to fight population explosion. Data from the Sample Registration System shows that a class 10-pass or GCSE equivalent qualified woman produces 2 children on average. The TFR further falls to 1.8 in case a woman clears Class 12 exam or the A-level equivalent. A woman with education levels of a graduate or above has a TFR of 1.4. Thus, the total fertility rate falls with the increase in levels of education. And an educated mother is a prerequisite for population stabilisation as she is able to play an active role in family planning.
The nature of the family planning programme should continue to be ‘voluntary’, as suggested by the National Population Policy in 2000. Recently, an eminent Congress leader called for a law on population control. A BJP Rajya Sabha MP introduced a private member’s Bill seeking to enforce a two-child norm. A prominent businessman-yoga guru called for a law ‘disenfranchising’ the third child to prevent larger family size. The fact that 23 states and union territories have fertility rates below 2.1 shows that support works rather than control. In addition, we have the Chinese example to tell us that coercive methods might take things out of control. “The people who have maintained small families need to be honoured, and by setting them as examples, we need to inspire the segment of the society who are still not thinking on those lines,” said PM Modi. Though we have come a long way, still a lot needs to be done.
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