Given the stark variations across Indian states, it makes little sense to talk about Hindu or Muslim or Christian fertility rates
The release of census data pertaining to religion is often accompanied by acrimonious debates on which religious group is outstripping the others. This time was no different.
The higher rate of population growth among Muslims compared with Hindus was projected by some as a threat, although careful analysis showed otherwise. The debate went even further and involved Christians, and how conversions could possibly explain the growth in their numbers.
In an Indian Express article, economist Surjit Bhalla argued that because of mass conversions, the share of Christians in India’s population had remained constant although those of Sikhs, who had similar income levels, had fallen between 1991 and 2001.
These debates raise several important demographic questions. To what extent can religious or cultural differences explain differences in population growth? And to what extent can differences in incomes explain differences in fertility rates (which refers to the ratio of live births to population size)?
Economic theory suggests that as income rises, fertility rates decline. Ukrainian economist Harvey Leibenstein was among the first economists to have come up with a theory on fertility. Leibenstein argued that decisions on childbearing are made by doing a cost-benefit analysis.
Nobel-winning economist Gary Becker refined Leibenstein’s argument by introducing the trade-off between investing in a kid’s education vis-à-vis having an additional child. Becker argued that as income rises, parents would like to forgo quantity and will prefer quality as measured by investment in education.
Becker had another theory about the gap in fertility rates across groups. He proposed that multiple equilibria exist where greater returns from education lead to people substituting childbearing with investment in education. “One has large families and little human capital, and the other has small families and large and perhaps growing human and physical capital," he said. “A country may switch from the first ‘Malthusian’ equilibrium to the second ‘development’ equilibrium if it has reasonably prolonged good fortune and policies that favour investment."
The theories of Becker and Leibenstein suggest a strong link between economic development and fertility decline. The main shortcoming of this theory is that it does not consider socio-cultural norms to be of much importance.
In a 1996 research paper, demographers John Bongaarts of the Population Council and Susan Watkins of the University of Pennsylvania argued that cultural norms play an important role in determining fertility behaviour. They pointed out that regardless of the level of economic development, the diffusion of information about fertility control methods occurs through social interaction.
“At the early stages of a fertility transition, when deliberate control of fertility is still considered deviant, social influence may constrain behaviour that demographers as objective observers assume is in the actors’ best interest," the authors wrote. “Thus, where individuals estimate social disapproval to be strong, even cosmopolitans may hesitate to express or adopt preference for smaller families. Similarly, social disapproval of contraception may in part account for a frequently found gap between preference for fewer children and the absence of contraceptive use that we noted earlier."
According to this thesis, even if two groups have similar income levels, they may exhibit different fertility behaviour. Economist Kaivan Munshi and public health expert Jacques Myaux tested this theory using data from rural Bangladesh. Munshi and Myaux found that fertility behaviour changed very slowly and the change only occurred through learning within a community.
In India, fertility differences have been starker among regions than among religious groups. In a 2005 research paper, demographers P.M. Kulkarni and Manoj Alagarajan used data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) to show that for the same religious community, fertility varies significantly across states. Fertility among Hindus in Uttar Pradesh is higher than that of Hindus in Tamil Nadu and the same holds true for Muslims.
“This suggests that there is no ‘Hindu fertility’ or ‘Muslim fertility’ or ‘Christian fertility’ as such," the authors wrote. “Besides, even in individual states, there is heterogeneity within a religion."
As a Mint analysis pointed out, differences in fertility rates between Indian states are so stark that they resemble different countries. The low-fertility states have already attained the total fertility rate (TFR) levels of developed countries, while the high-fertility states have TFR levels comparable with those of the poorest African nations.
West Bengal’s TFR (1.6) roughly equals that of Canada and Tamil Nadu’s TFR (1.7) equals that of Denmark. Uttar Pradesh, with a TFR of 3.1, is comparable with Namibia, and Bihar with a TFR of 3.4 is comparable with Swaziland. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which already account for one-fourth of India’s population, will continue to account for much of the population growth in the coming decades.
The analysis suggested that female literacy rates have the greatest bearing on TFR levels across states, followed by per capita income and urbanization. A large body of demographic research emphasizes the role of female autonomy in explaining variations in fertility rates and hence in population growth rates within India.
Higher educational attainments make family planning more acceptable among women, increase the opportunity cost of having more kids and lead them to invest more in the quality than in the quantity of children, Drèze and Murthi argued.
One of India’s pioneering demographers, Leela Visaria, consistently argued in her writings that women’s autonomy is the key to understanding fertility changes.
“In order to promote the use of family planning, we have to address the issue of strong son preference with its roots in social mores and which contributes to raising wanted fertility and leads to some unwanted fertility," wrote Visaria in a 1999 article published in the Economic and Political Weekly. “Measures to weaken the preference for sons include improving the status of women through education and employment."
Visaria’s words are as true today as they were then.
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