Few surprises, but a great paradox

Few surprises, but a great paradox

The provisional census data released Thursday holds few surprises. First, the total population size does not come as a surprise. Various projections had given us estimates of what the population would be in 2011. The main projections varied between 1.19 billion and 1.22 billion. The provisional census figure says it is 1.21 billion. Neither does the falling population growth rate come as a surprise, which this time is 17%.

On an annualized basis, it is 1.6%. This was expected because we now have a fairly good estimate of birth and death rates. The difference is the growth. Except for international migration, which in terms of numbers may be large, in terms of contribution to population, migration does not really affect population growth.

So, most of the growth is natural growth. The average birth rate was 23.7 per 1,000 and the death rate would be 7.6 per 1,000. The difference is 16.1 per 1,000, or 1.6% a year. The fertility rate has come down and that is why the birth rate has come down, which is also why the population growth rate has declined.

Rates of population growth in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Punjab, etc., are at replacement levels, which means one woman producing one daughter on average. So, the alarmist view people had some 30 years ago that there will be a population explosion is no longer there. Population is increasing, but at a slower rate and the pace is becoming slower and slower.

With greater communication, the rural-urban gap is hardly there. Now people travel a lot. You see how other people live and this has brought in a lot of change, specially in people’s desire for a family and what they expect out of children.

Contrary to popular belief, even the poor, even the illiterate, don’t want to have large families. It was thought that the poor want large families because children produce more; that is no longer true. The poor also want their children to go to school, to dress well. This means you have to spend money. Desired family size has come down. Broadly, people want more quality than quantity.

One thing that appears paradoxical is that the overall sex ratio has improved, but the child sex ratio has worsened.

Sex ratio at birth was very bad in the early 1990s. There was some improvement in the late 1990s.

After 2001, it had again worsened but showed signs of improvement after 2005, though far below rates one can call normal. If adverse sex ratio at birth persists, the sex ratio will become skewed over time because at birth itself there is such a disadvantage.

Sex ratio is a combination—imbalance at birth and imbalance during lifetime.

Traditionally, at birth, the sex ratio has always been in favour of males, about 105 boys for 100 girls. But male mortality has been higher than female mortality and it continues to be so. Age distribution plays a very crucial role in the overall population sex ratio. If what has been happening for the past 10 years (fewer female births compared with males) persists for the next 30 or 40 years, the sex ratio will become worse.

This represents a failure of public policy. There are some issues that haven’t been resolved—such as sex selection. The other is child mortality especially mortality rates of children under five, which is still very high. Though the rates have declined compared with other developing countries, India still has a long way to go.

Despite this, India’s demographic transition is on track. It will have to run its course and in the process there will be a demographic dividend, the advantage of which India will have for the next 30 or 40 years depending on the pace of the demographic transition.

Then, there will be the ageing of population. But in India it will be staggered unlike in countries like China. Ageing will become a major issue in Kerala much earlier than in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, for example.

The southern states, especially, will have to prepare for an increase in ageing populations. This could lead to heavy migration from high-population growth states with more numbers of youth to low-population growth states. We will have to analyse the data and see whether there will be huge migration from high-growth areas to low-growth states, labour demand, etc.

For India as a whole it does not matter, but for states it could make a difference.

The author is professor, Centre for the Study of Regional Development, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

As told to Elizabeth Roche.