TFR fall to ease pressure on infra, resources

The TFR decline means India doesn’t have any compelling need for population control laws

Against the estimated 12-13 million jobs needed to be created every year to reap the demographic dividend, India has been faring unimpressively.
Against the estimated 12-13 million jobs needed to be created every year to reap the demographic dividend, India has been faring unimpressively.

India’s total fertility rate (TFR), at 2.0 as per the findings of the National Family Health Survey 2019-21 (NFHS 5), is now below the replacement rate of 2.1. This signals the country’s population is stabilising and would eventually enter an absolute decline. It is also a testament to the strength of the country’s family planning efforts, given just a little over a decade ago, top global agencies working on population estimation believed India would hit the replacement rate of 2.1 only by 2040 at the earliest.

NFHS data shows voluntary uptake of contraception, including sterilisation, is on the rise. This can be attributed to the improvement in educational attainment, especially among women. Reduced child mortality has also been a factor.

NFHS 5 found that the contraceptive prevalence rate has jumped sharply since the last round, and the use of modern contraception, at 56.5%, has risen significantly from the 47.8% just half a decade ago. This, in turn, means the unmet need for contraception, which was still a worry a few years back, has shrunk meaningfully.

This is, on the whole, a good sign. However, read against the decline in female labour participation, it would suggest a lessening of the care burden that women disproportionately shoulder in the economy hasn’t really translated to increased job-seeking by them. Thus, there could be a need for policy initiatives to lower the care burden on women further and encourage job-seeking.

That said, a lower strain on resources—especially at a time when a lot of these are predicted to come under pressure because of climate change effects—can only be reason for cheer. If pressure on infrastructure eases—almost each area, from healthcare to affordable mass transport, suffers from critical inadequacies at present—the gain for the economy and the standard of living for the citizens will be surely significant.

The fact that India’s population will remain overwhelmingly young over the next few decades even as the overall population is put on the path to stability, and eventual decline, also offers an opportunity to realise development goals more efficiently. However, as this newspaper has maintained so far, without deeper efforts to bolster human potential—through education, improved healthcare, and skilling—this opportunity could be lost. In such a scenario, higher dependency as the current generation ages without meaningful economic growth—or in a scenario where the growth is automation-led and doesn’t percolate down adequately to the masses—social security needs could prove a monumental challenge. Against the estimated 12-13 million jobs needed to be created every year to reap the demographic dividend, India has been faring unimpressively.

The pandemic has made this worse—even with increased formalisation, SBI research shows a decline of 1.6 million net new payroll (adjusted for re-joined/re-subscribed) additions in FY21 over FY20 based on pension fund data. How strongly manufacturing PLIs add to job creation remains to be seen as does efficacy of the renewed skilling efforts.

The TFR decline also means India doesn’t have any compelling need for population control laws like Uttar Pradesh’s (even though the state is still posting a TFR above the replacement rate). TFR trends over the last two decades had already pointed out the futility of this. While such laws may serve narrow and divisive political ends, the danger from this is evident from the experiences of China and Singapore, both of which enforced disincentives for breaching policy-mandated caps on the number of children a couple could have.

The decline also means, as The Indian Express says quoting Dr Srinath Reddy of PHFI, India will have little excuse on not working on environment and conservation; population pressures are often cited in the development versus environment debate.

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