After a long delay – almost 3 years – the government has finally released the most basic of Census figures – the religious composition of the population. Regardless of the findings, time has come for political parties to stop dictating to number crunchers as to when it is a “good” time to release the data. As the just released figures show, the population, and political parties, and experts will provide their own spin to the data no matter when the data are released. So can we please stop interfering, Congress and the BJP? Congress because it sat on these data for three long years and BJP for further sitting on it for another year.
The headline data in the news is that the share of Muslim’s in the population has increased yet again, to 14.2 percent of the population in 2011, from 11.7 % twenty years ago. What causes the population share of a group to rise? Higher fertility rates, net immigration, and a lower mortality rate. By far the most important is the fertility rates.
What determines this fertility rate? Essentially the education of the mother, and family income. The three are obviously related – poor uneducated families tend to have more babies. So an important and defining way to look at the higher population growth rate of Muslims is to view it as a reflection of their relative poverty. Indeed, as documented well by the Sachar commission, the Muslims are the poorest community in India. This group also does not benefit from the nonsense of the reservation system in India; practically every group has reservations for education, and jobs, except the Muslims.
In this regard, there is nothing but cheers for the demagoguery of Hardik Patel, who is demanding education and job reservations for one of the richest communities in India – the Patels. May he finally succeed in eliminating reservations from the Indian psyche, and the Indian Constitution. And replace it with affirmative action, which the Muslims will also be eligible for.
The good news is that the gap between the Hindu and Muslim annual population growth rates is narrowing. Between 1991 and 2001, Muslim population grew at a decadal rate 1.2 (log) percentage points higher than the Hindus (3.0 vs 1.8 %); the 2001/11 has brought the gap down to 0.6 percentage points – 2.2 vs. 1.6 percent. For all religious groups, population grew at a 1.6 percent per annum rate 2001/2011, a steep decline from the 2.3 % rate a decade earlier.
The Census data shows up some other interesting facts. There is a sharp decline in the fraction of the Sikh population– a decline from a 2 % share in 1991 to a 1.7 % share in 2011. This is entirely around expected lines – Sikh women have the second highest educational attainment level (second only to the Christians), and fertility, to a very large extent, is determined by mothers education. But here is the surprising revelation in the data. Several commentators have noted that the share of the Christian population has stayed relatively constant at 2.3 percent of the population – hence their conclusion that the much hyped up conversion issue remains a hype.
That is a very hasty and very wrong conclusion. It is very surprising that the share of the Christian population has stayed constant; it should have declined by a significant amount. Why? Because along with the Sikhs, the Christians are the richest community in India. In the early 1990s, mean per capita consumption of Christians was Rs. 404 per month, and their fertility rate was 3.8 children per woman. Corresponding numbers for the Sikhs – Rs. 473 and a fertility rate of 3.9. Almost identical, right? If so, then the population growth rate of the Christians should be virtually identical to the population growth rate of the Sikhs; actually, somewhat less because of a higher education level and slightly lower fertility rate.
But that is manifestly not so. Between 1991 and 2011, the Sikh population grew at an average rate of 1.2 % per annum, while the population growth rate of the Christians was a relatively high 1.9 % per annum. This growth rate was higher than that of Hindus (1.8 %) and almost exactly equal to the average for all religions. So, despite having the highest per capita consumption, the highest female education, and the lowest fertility, the Christian growth rate is the same as that of the average Indian!
So what is going on? Conversions. Alone among all the religions, Christianity practices proselytization in the modern times. The analysis allows one to put a figure to the average per year conversions that modern Christian missionaries have been able to achieve. It is the gap between what the Christian population should have been in 2011 versus the reality of 27.8 million. If the Christians had the same population growth rate as the Sikhs (of 1.2 % a year rather than the actual growth rate of 1.9 % a year), then the total number of Christians in India would have been 24.1 million. The “excess” Christian population of 3.7 million in 2011 is very likely due to conversions. This excess translates into an average conversion rate of 1.7 lakh per year between 1991 and 2011.
In an article based on the Ministry of Home Affairs Annual Report 2011-12 “Receipt and Utilization of Foreign Contribution by Voluntary Associations” Shyamlal Yadav (Indian Express, Jan 3, 2012) reports that “In all, of the 958, at least 515 were Christian missionary organizations, which collectively received Rs. 2003.75 crores as foreign contributions”. [In that year, a total of Rs. 11,000 crores was received by all NGOs]. Assuming this money was mostly for conversions, a lower bound estimate of conversion expenditures can be obtained – approximately 1.1 lacs per person or Rs. 5.5 lacs for a family of five (again assuming that a family is converted together).
Possibly the actual conversion expenditures are lower – equally possibly higher. However, it is quite unlikely that a poor converted family gets an amount ranging into several lakhs – if so, the newspapers would have reported it! Since souls are being saved by the modern evangelicals, one presumes that they don’t charge a fat salary to convert poor desperate Hindus. But apparently they do.
Surjit S Bhalla is Contributing Editor, Indian Express, and Senior India Analyst, The Observatory Group, a New York based policy advisory group.