Falling fertility: The myths and reality of India’s demographic data

New Delhi | Published: May 28, 2019 3:34:28 AM

Policy must not look at the Indian demography as a monolith Because population, education, fertility, per capita income, etc, vary widely amongst states.

education, education sector, education industryThe southern states have focused on education and social services which has reduced fertility and improved economic development, leading to higher per capita income.

A drop in fertility of a country typically correlates with rising education standards, especially amongst women. Such has been the case here in India as well. The literacy rate for women has gone up to from 55.1% as per NFHS-3 (survey period 2003-05) census to 68.4% as per NFHS-4 (survey period 2013-15), a jump of 24%. During the same period, India’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) came down 18.7% from 2.68 to 2.18.

What is of particular note is that this trend is seen across religions. Every religious group has shown a decline in the fertility rate, with the Muslim community showing the highest decline. This puts to rest the alarmist rumours of higher birth rates in Muslim households in comparison to Hindu households. The fertility decline for Muslims lags the Hindus, but is coming down steeply!

As can be seen in the accompanying graphic, the literacy rates amongst Muslim women, which was seen to be quite insufficient in NFHS-3, has improved by 30% in the ten years since, outpacing most other religions. During the same period, we can see fertility rates dip in a striking correlation across all religion groups as well. The TFR for Muslims was down by 23%, the largest reduction amongst all large religion groups. The massive fertility declines for the Jains and Sikhs is very worrisome indeed. Are they beyond the limits of sustainability?

This is a very significant revelation for a nation where policies are often not based on data and opinions are driven by unfounded biases towards religions. India must get in tune with this data and not leave room for speculation and false campaigns. The correlation between literacy and fertility has demonstrated the importance of education in shaping a forward-looking outlook amongst all communities. It is thus obvious that economic backwardness and education of the girl child have significant impact on fertility. The massive increase in education outlays and huge growth in the economy; between 2003-05 to 2013-15 has been very beneficial in reducing population growth, and the Muslim community has seen the largest decline in fertility. NFHS-5, 2018-19 will be a very interesting study to corroborate how this trend continues as the GDP has seen a huge growth in the last 5 years.

In our previous article in Financial Express (Demographic distress: Will India get older before it gets richer? Published: May 17, 2019), we had discussed the importance of improving women’s participation in the workforce to improve the per capita income of India. To further this cause, women must be encouraged to study beyond primary and secondary education, helping them obtain the skills necessary to find promising work opportunities post-education. To this effect, we must introduce policies to provide free education till post-graduation for all girls across all communities.
It is just as essential to understand that centralised models of development cannot hold good in a country like India, where each state’s population is growing at a widely divergent pace than the others. Social policies for each state must be differentiated to accommodate different rates of population growth. As can be seen in the accompanying graphic, the populations in south and west India are growing at a much slower pace than in the central and eastern states.

The southern states and Maharashtra are considerably below replacement levels. Kerala may go the way of Japan and South Korea where population could actually decline barring immigration there. The difference between such states and the ones in central and eastern India is more than one, i.e., each household in south India adds one less person to India’s population than the other states. What this demonstrates is that the Indian demography cannot have a blanket single status for policy considerations, as state-wise macros of population, education, fertility, per capita income, etc, fall in a wide range.

The southern states have focused on education and social services which has reduced fertility and improved economic development, leading to higher per capita income. Clearly, the Union Government must incentivise the eastern and central states through special allocations to continue and improve the focus on education of the girl child at the secondary and tertiary levels. These states must improve infrastructure to rapidly bring themselves up to an ideal state, perhaps to the benchmarks set by the southern states. The holistic growth of India as a nation requires a more nuanced focus on social policies at the state-level. This will help the country continue the impressive growth it has achieved over the last 15 years.

TV Mohandas Pai & Yash Baid.Pai is chairman, Aarin Capital Partners & Baid is head of research, 3one4 Capital. Views are personal

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