Low fertility rates amongst women in the early years of their reproductive life are a marker of economic and social progress—educated women are able to exercise and access options for contraception with ease and are in a position to postpone child-bearing as they pursue professional goals. Therefore, it is certainly good news that fertility rates are receding in 15-24 years age group in the Bimaru states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh). As per the Sample Registration System Statistical Report 2014, fertility rates in the age groups of 15-19 and 20-24 years—corresponding with higher secondary- and tertiary-level age groups—have fallen in the states between 2001 and 2014. In the 15-19 age group, rural areas in Bihar recorded a decline from 56.8 to 19.6, in Madhya Pradesh from 92.1 to 45.1, in Rajasthan from 60.3 to 46.3 and in UP from 40.8 to 25.7. Similar declines have also been noted for the 20-24 years age group.
Qualitatively, a focus on women’s education can make a significant difference. In Bihar, for instance, though only 5.2% of the women in the 15-49 age group—roughly corresponding with a woman’s entire reproductive life—are graduates, compared to, say, Delhi’s 23.4%, more women in the secondary- and tertiary-level age groups in the state were attending educational institutes in 2011, as Census data points out, than in 2001. With fertility skewed heavily within India—the northern states have a higher fertility rate than southern ones—rates in the Bimaru states, all of which (excepting Madhya Pradesh) are big states in the north, will be crucial indicators of the country’s development. To move the total fertility rate in the northern states from 3.5 recorded in 2012 towards the ideal of 2, a focus on improving enrolment of girls and completion of education at the higher secondary and tertiary levels is a must. Creating employment opportunities will then be logical step further. Slowing fertility will increase female participation in the labour force and boost household incomes—with lesser juvenile dependants, household savings too could increase. In China, where fertility rates were artificially lowered with the one-child policy, household savings were 49% of the GDP in 2014, as per World Bank data.
While a one-child policylike China’s is certainly not what is advised, the Union government’s “beti bachao, beti padhao” call sets the right ethos. States will do well to replicate measures that have worked elsewhere; Bihar, for instance, gave bicycles to female students to reduce dropout rates in the secondary and higher secondary levels, something that could work in a state where schools are still a long way from home.