India should worry. The country will overtake China as the most populous country by 2027. Not only did the United Nations 26th revision of World Population Prospects forecast it but the need for curbing population growth has been aired by demographers and social scientists for the past few decades. Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi too expressed concern over population explosion and it remains to be seen how the Government proposes to handle it.
India is expected to add nearly 273 million people between 2019 and 2050. The biggest challenge for the country is its unpreparedness to accommodate such huge population from all angles. This appears quite bleak considering the high density of population in most States, poor economic growth in backward States, lack of proper social engineering etc.
Delving into statistics, India’s population increased by more than 5 times in the last 110 years from 238 million in 1901 to 1211 million in 2011. Most of the increase (87%) happened in the post independence era. The highest population growth was 24.8 % during 1961-71 after which the growth rate started declining, going down to 17 per cent during 2001-11. A report of the National Institute for Health and Family Welfare titled ‘The Story of India’s Population’ (2014) confirmed that “India has witnessed steady decline in the population growth rate over the last four decades (1971-2011)”. However, with a huge population, even decreasing growth rate means additions to the total population size.
Moreover, the lack of social infrastructure, specially the critical situation in education and health sectors, poses a big problem to further increase of population. There is need for more and better secondary schools and adequately equipped health care centres with doctors and nurses in the backward regions of the country. This apart, drinking water crisis, sewage accumulation, increased level of pollution will be the additional problem areas for an expanding population. There is already a crisis and with population rising every day, the situation may turn for the worse.
There is no denying that we need to adopt stringent population control policies. History tells us that unless the Indian state can and chooses to act with the ruthlessness of China, the government has few weapons in its arsenal. Almost all weapons that can be used in a democratic nation have already been deployed. These include restriction of maternity leave and other maternity benefits for first two births only and disqualification from panchayat elections for people with more than two children in some States along with minor incentives for sterilisation.
Demographers have stated that people have children, not birth rates and few incentives or disincentives are powerful enough to overcome the desire for children. Ground-level research by former Chief Secretary of Madhya Pradesh Nirmala Buch found that individuals who wanted larger families either circumvented the restrictions or went ahead regardless of the consequences. As one of her informants noted, “The sarpanch’s post is not going to support me during my old age, but my son will. It does not really matter if I lose the post of sarpanch.”
Moreover, if punitive actions won’t work, we must encourage people to have smaller families voluntarily and this can only be possible by aggressive campaigning about the benefits of family planning. Concepts like one-child or two child policy as also propagating child spacing, contraceptive methods and persuading voluntary sterilisation have to be ensured at the grass-root levels. Provision of safe and easily accessible contraceptive services has to be made available at the village level. It has been found that there are sharp differences in fertility among different socio-economic groups. Total Fertility Rate (TFR) for the poorest women was 3.2 compared to only 1.5 for the richest quintile in 2015-16. To get to TFR of 1.5, a substantial proportion of the population among the top 40 per cent must stop at one child.
One may mention here that China, having instituted a one-child policy in 1979, its female population in peak reproductive ages (between 15 and 39 years) is estimated at 235 million (2019) compared to 253 million for India. Thus, even if India could institute a policy that reduces its fertility rate to the Chinese level, India will overtake China as the most populous country by the year 2027, as per UN projections.
In western societies, low fertility is associated with the conflict that working women face between work and child rearing and the individual’s desire to enjoy a child-free life. Not so for Indian couples. In India, couples with one child do not consume more nor are women in these families more likely to work. Among the educated, specially in metros and big cities, it is a desire to invest in their children’s education and future prospects that seems to drive people to stop at one child. Richer individuals see greater potential for ensuring admission to good colleges and better jobs for their children, inspiring them to limit their family size. Thus, improving education and ensuring that access to good jobs is open to all may also spur even poorer households into having fewer children and investing their hopes in the success of their only daughter or son.
There is speculation that an interventionist policy may not be far off. This is very much needed specially in the northern States, where population growth is quite high and education levels low. In the southern States the picture is different due to relatively high education levels. In fact, between the 1971 and 2011 Censuses, the population of Kerala grew by 56 per cent compared to around 140 per cent growth for Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. However, the move to use the 2011 Census for funds allocation will favour the north-central States compared to Kerala and Tamil Nadu and this has raised resentment amongst the latter.
In this context, it is indeed distressing to note that the government has stopped funding the literacy programme for people above 18 years. Had that not been the case, it would have helped them understand the nuances of having a small family. It is a well-known fact that higher the education levels, the urge for smaller families is manifest and the southern States are a case in point.
At this juncture, there is need for mass scale awareness programme in the rural areas, specially in the backward districts of the country to further reduce the growth of population. The involvement of the panchayats as also of the civil society organizations at the grass-root level is necessary to spread this message of having a small family who can be properly looked after. Also in order to maximize the demographic dividend, we must invest in the education and health of the workforce, particularly in States whose demographic window of opportunity is still more than a decade away.
Staying fixated on the notion that revising State allocation of Central resources based on current population rather than population from 1971 punishes States with successful population policies is short-sighted. This is because current laggards will be the greatest contributors of the future for everyone, particularly for ageing populations of early achievers. A detailed strategy is critical. Sooner the better as time is running out.