Lower fertility, contrary to all the alarms being sounded on depopulation and the communal scare-mongering some politicians have indulged in, could prove a blessing for India.
The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2015-16 findings on fertility are further proof that education and household wealth hold the key to bring fertility down to sustainable levels. The NFHS Round 4 has found that the overall fertility rate fell from 2.7 in 2005-06 to 2.2 in 2015-16 even as the proportion of women in the survey who had completed at least 10 years of schooling went up from 22.3% to 35.7%. This falling fertility must be welcomed as it augurs well for the future. While sustaining a large population is difficult, it will get increasingly so with the growth of automation. A lower population is also a boon for the environment—having one fewer child reduces a household’s carbon footprint by 58 tonnes of CO2 each year. The NFHS-4 data show that only Hindus and Muslims, amongst major communities in India by religion, have fertility rates higher than the replacement rate. Jains have the lowest fertility rate, at 1.2. The high negative correlation between levels of literacy and educational attainment is mirrored in the fact that, as per the 2011 Census data, Muslims and Hindus have the highest proportion of illiterates above the age of 7 years—Muslims, who have the highest fertility rate, also have the highest above-7 illiteracy while Hindus, who have a fertility rate of 2.13, have the second-highest above-7 illiteracy rate. The relationship between literacy and lower fertility is borne out by the fact that, in the NFHS sorting of fertility rates by years of schooling, people with no schooling had the highest fertility—1.8 times that of those who had at least 12 or more years of education.
As the literature on educational attainment by women and its relationship with fertility points out, the pursuit of each additional year of education could itself be one of the biggest factors behind a corresponding lower fertility rate as it is likely to push marriage and child-bearing decisions later by that much. Education also improves a woman’s knowledge of contraception and safe child-bearing, which means ensuring the implementation of a woman’s reproductive rights entails a priori implementation of her right to education, health and employment. Investment in health and education, for women in particular, could have much larger dividends—various studies show that improvements in access to healthcare and education for women has led to lower infant mortality, which could be a factor behind the country’s overall fertility coming down from the 1970s-80s. While fertility has also declined in less educated communities, greater efforts must be made to bring up overall women’s educational attainment in these.
Lower fertility, contrary to all the alarms being sounded on depopulation and the communal scare-mongering some politicians have indulged in, could prove a blessing for India. While the needs of an ageing population in the future decades must be kept in mind as the country designs its population policy, falling fertility, hand-in-hand with higher educational attainment by women, could push up female labour force participation. Key to this would be facilitating women in professional achievements while ensuring that parenthood doesn’t become a collateral.