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Business News/ Politics / Policy/  Falling total fertility rate in Kolkata sets alarm bells ringing

Kolkata: I wish to have a second kid," said the 34-year-old communications professional in Kolkata, the mother of a two-year old daughter. “So does my husband, but raising two kids is a huge challenge because of the limited growth opportunities I have at my job."

Moving out of Kolkata isn’t an option because she and her husband, both of whom asked not to be named, have to look after their ageing parents. Though they are keen to have a second child, they aren’t immediately sure they can afford it, added the husband.

Time flies, and they know it. In a few years her obstetrician, Rahul Sen, may advise her not to have a second child at all because pregnancies tend to get riskier with age.

Sen says he comes across at least one couple in Kolkata every week who want to terminate the second pregnancy, and at least one couple every month considering not having kids at all.

It may not seem so at first look at this ageing and densely populated former colonial capital, but Kolkata has begun to throw up demographic trends that are similar to what European cities have been showing for a decade or so.

Now, the authors of an ongoing study of its implications for the city have proposed that falling TFR may reflect a conscious trade-off between quality and quantity.

Census 2011 showed that Kolkata’s total fertility rate (TFR), or the number of children born to women aged 15-49, had plummeted to 1.2—the lowest among all districts in India.

Kolkata’s TFR fell to the critical replacement rate of 2.1 in the early 1970s, and has sharply declined since. At 1.2, it is lower than even China’s (1.5) and the European average of 1.6. Among Indian metros, Chennai and Mumbai come close second with TFRs of 1.4, followed by Hyderabad (1.6), Bengaluru (1.7) and Delhi (2.2).

As Kolkata’s population of 4.5 million shrinks as a result of falling TFR, it may soon be left with more school places but fewer hospital beds per head than it needs, says Malay Kumar De, principal secretary in the department of health and family welfare in West Bengal. The total population declined by nearly 80,000 between 2001 and 2011, but in addition to falling TFR, another reason can be people moving out because of rising prices in the city.

A slow declining TFR isn’t necessarily a “bad thing" for a populous city, but the implications of this rapid decline need to be closely studied and policies drawn up to deal with the demographic shift, he adds.

It is estimated by the West Bengal government that 9% of Kolkata’s population is currently aged 60 and above. A survey conducted by UNFPA suggest that Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal have a higher percentage of population in the age group of 60 years and above as compared with the national average. United Nations Population Division reported in 2011 that “the share of India’s population aged 60 and older is projected to climb from 8% in 2010 to 19% in 2050."

With life expectancy rising and TFR continuing to fall, the elderly may in the next 25-30 years make up around 20% of the city’s population, according to De. Across the state, life expectancy for men has increased from 62.5 years during 1995-99 to 67.4 years during 2006-10 and for women from 65 years to 71 years over the same period. Infant mortality in West Bengal has fallen from 48 per 1,000 live births in 2000 to 32 per 1,000 in 2012.

In other words, Kolkata’s population profile at some point in the next quarter of a century will begin to resemble that of some European cities. Low fertility and longer lives could mean smaller cities full of old people.

In Kolkata, the reluctance to have more than one child isn’t restricted to the “urban elite", says Saswata Ghosh, an assistant professor at the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata (IDSK), where a study funded by the London School of Economics and Sir Ratan Tata Trust is examining the reasons for the decline in fertility and its consequences.

A similar “demographic transition" has been seen in European countries but for reasons have not been detected in Kolkata. In Europe, TFR declined largely because of “the breakdown in the institution of marriage", according to Ghosh. Many countries in Europe, including Catholic ones, have also seen a dramatic fall in the rate of marriages.

In Kolkata, it appears to be a “quality-quantity trade off", says Ghosh, adding that couples here would much rather have one child and give him or her the best education and facilities they can afford, rather than spread resources thinly between two children or more.

And unlike many other parts of India, preference for the male child is low among Kolkatans, says Sen—it doesn’t matter much if the first born is a girl.

Economically, what this means is that Kolkata’s working-age population is shrinking, while many of those who have the skills are leaving town.

China was way ahead of India in dealing with population issues, says Samir Guha Roy, retired professor of population studies at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. But even China had to relax its one-child policy for fear that its current TFR of 1.5 may leave the country hobbled with an insufficient number workers to keep manufacturing up, he adds.

It remains to be seen if immigration to Kolkata from villages and towns in West Bengal, neighbouring states and Bangladesh will balance out the demographic trough. This is the so-called idea of replacement immigration—often politically controversial—that European policymakers have considered among others.

Kolkata’s falling TFR is also attributed to the exercise of choice by women in marriage.

There are studies to show that back in the late 1940s, 30% of women in Kolkata used some form of contraceptives, says Ghosh.

It seems men and women in West Bengal realized early on that “numbers were not as significant as quality when it comes to building a workforce", according to Ghosh.

The fact remains, however, that this “conscious choice" to limit family size has not brought prosperity to the state—for a variety of political and other reasons, investments haven’t flowed in to match skill levels and jobs have remained scarce since independence.

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Updated: 25 Dec 2014, 12:37 AM IST
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