The country's annual population growth rate fell from 2.5% in 1971-81—a time when ‘population explosion’ was bandied around commonly, and when India infamously experimented with forced sterilisation—to 1.3% in 2011-16.
The prime minister, in his Independence Day speech, flagged “population explosion” as a problem and talked of the need to counter it. It is surprising that the government has missed the message on the declining trend in fertility in the country and is gearing up to fight yesterday’s problem. The proponents of population regulation raise the bogey of the absolute population level already being too high and the resulting resources-demand gap fuelling social misery and instability. But this deliberately ignores or underplays the fact that the rates of both absolute population growth and total fertility have been declining steadily, and negate the need for population regulation measures. Rajya Sabha member representing the BJP, Rakesh Sinha, has moved a private member’s Bill that talks of enforcing a two-child policy through measures such as denial of financial benefits and sharply cutting PDS benefits for people who have more than two children. But, the fact is the total fertility rate (TFR) in the country is already down to 2.2, marginally above the 2.1 replacement rate, and both states and communities that have had historically high fertility rates are registering sharp decline in this. Indeed, amongst Muslims, the decline between 2003-06 and 2015-16 was the sharpest, at 23%, and the fertility rates for Christians and Buddhists/neo-Buddhists have fallen below the replacement rate and that for Jains and Sikhs, already below the replacement rate in 2003-06, has slid further.
The country’s annual population growth rate fell from 2.5% in 1971-81—a time when ‘population explosion’ was bandied around commonly, and when India infamously experimented with forced sterilisation—to 1.3% in 2011-16. Similarly, the TFR in the country is down from 5.52 in 1971. As per the Sample Registration System (SRS) that provides the most dynamic data on fertility rates, even the states that have a higher fertility rate—Bihar (3.2), Uttar Pradesh (3), Madhya Pradesh (2.7), Rajasthan (2.6), Jharkhand (2.5), Chhattisgarh (2.4) and Assam (2.3)—than the national TFR have shown precipitous decline in fertility rates.
Just a decade ago, for instance, Bihar had a TFR of 4 and UP of 4.1 while MP, Jharkhand and Rajasthan had a TFR of 3.5 each.
With such trends likely to continue, as demographers predict, the population burden on India’s resources will only ease in the coming decades. Given the improving levels of education, especially amongst women, and access to contraception, late marriage, financial independence of women, etc, fertility rates are coming down sharply. Local culture also plays a strong factor. Thus, as educational attainment levels go up, and more women push marriage for later, TFR will come down further, even child-bearing shifts to the older age-brackets. The solution to achieving population stability rests on increasing access for women to education and jobs. Pushing for active control measures, like a two-child policy that penalises those having more than two children could actually do more harm than good. Indeed, the Economic Survey 2018 talks about a sharp slowdown in population growth over the next two decades, with some states transitioning to an ageing society by the 2030s. India’s 0-19 population is already falling and the share of the elderly is set to double over the next two decades. Against such a backdrop, population regulation seems not just unnecessary, but also harmful.