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1.37 billion and counting: Searching for a fix

No doubt India has a population problem, but any strategy to change fertility rates should be carefully thought out
  • India’s population concern is largely restricted to Bihar, UP, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and MP. Whether a nationwide law is required is the central question
  • India is projected to become the most populous country in the world by 2027. Hemanshi Kamani/HTPremium
    India is projected to become the most populous country in the world by 2027. Hemanshi Kamani/HT

    Standing in the dusty, perennially water-starved belt of Banda in the Bundelkhand region Shiv Prasad Varma gets stumped by the easiest of questions. All one has to do is enquire about the number of children he has fathered. “Thelabhar (a cartful)," he says initially. Then, he takes a good minute to count. “One, two... five girls... three boys," he finally says. “Isn’t that a cartful?"

    His undernourished children drop in and out of school. Varma’s 16-year-old son migrates in search of jobs, but often escapes from worksites to make his way back home, unable to cope with the grinding workload at faraway factories. Varma, a 45-year-old daily wage labourer, doesn’t remember being counselled about the virtues of raising a small family. But by the time his son gets married, things may be in for some dramatic change.

    Though India’s family planning programme is one of the oldest in the world (dating back to 1951), the forced sterilization campaign of the mid-1970s ensured any mention of “population" would take a backseat, at least at the national level. That 40-year spell was broken on 15 August when Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged the challenge of “population explosion". Keeping family size small is an act of patriotism, he said.

    With such a forceful message from the very top, things could move swiftly, say insiders. Rakesh Sinha, a member of the upper house of Parliament from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), says the Centre could enact a new law as early as November, which is when Parliament is expected to convene for the winter session.

    What that new law may contain has already become a matter of feverish debate. While details are sketchy, concerns are plenty. Broadly, they fall under two categories: will it involve coercive measures? And will the measures intentionally or incidentally target Muslims, who tend to have a higher fertility rate, mostly because they are poorer than the average Indian.

    There is a third, more esoteric concern too, which demographers like Srinivas Goli, a population studies professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, point out, citing the examples of Iran and China. Any large-scale “unnatural intervention", even if purely incentive-based, can dramatically change the future age profile of a population, Goli says.

    In Iran, in a short span between the late-1980s and early 2000s, the average number of children born to a woman in her lifetime plummeted from seven to less than three. While population growth rate fell steeply, the share of Iran’s population in the working age band also fell. Simply put, for every 1,000 people, demographers suggest that at least 550 must be of working age, in order to educate the young (below 15) and take care of the old (above 60). Any intervention which doesn’t pay attention to this delicate age composition balance is “ignorant and foolish", says Goli.

    However, with India projected to become the most populous country in the world by 2027 (currently at 1.37 billion), it’s hard to argue against the fact that something must be done. Roughly 163 million Indians still lack access to clean water and close to 40% of children below five are stunted. India’s burgeoning headcount compounds the problem. But in its urgency to solve a 70-year-old problem, new and avoidable ones could be created for a government that will take office 30 years in the future. “Fertility changes cannot be (rapidly) reversed," warns Goli.

    Watch video: Does India need a new law mandating two-child families?

    Genesis of the idea

    I found a restlessness in society… across region, religion and ideology," says Sinha. According to Sinha, who introduced a private member bill in the Rajya Sabha in July seeking population control measures, “the masses are experiencing a burden (due to) lack of resources". “In 2015, Mohan Bhagwat (head of the Rashtriya Sawamsewak Sangh or RSS, the ideological parent of the BJP) made it very clear that population growth should be in proportion to available resources… and that we are not interested in any communal discourse," says Sinha.

    Sinha’s private member bill, titled “Population Regulation Bill, 2019", proposes a carrot-and-stick strategy to ensure that families follow a two-child norm. Parents who stick to less than two children and undergo a sterilization surgery will receive incentives like cheaper healthcare, subsidized loans, and free education for children, among a host of other benefits.

    On the contrary, those with more than two children will see a reduction in government subsidies and reduced benefits from the food subsidy scheme. Moreover, they will be barred from contesting in local or national elections. The bill also proposes that no serving government employee should have more than two children. Sinha calls the bill “non-coercive" and “welfare-centric". “What we need today is a region-religion blind two-child law."

    Though Sinha insists that both his bill and Modi’s renewed emphasis on population control have nothing do with religion, a 21 July cover story in the RSS mouthpiece Organiser, which came out just weeks before Modi’s speech, lays down the deep fears harboured by India’s religious right. The essay titled Out of proportion in the issue terms the increase in the share of minority Muslim population in India, from 9.8% in 1951 to 14.2% in 2011, as inimical to the national interest. “The anticipated fallout of this situation seems so dangerous that no Hindu PM can come to power after 2030. Once a Muslim becomes a PM of India, the existence of Hindus shall be in grave danger."

    Data, however, negates such fears. According to a 13 June Mint analysis, if current growth trends persist, Hindus will still be 81% of India’s population and Muslims no more than 17% even in 2061. Even in the unlikely scenario that Muslims grow at their best decadal growth rate ever, and Hindus at their worst, it will take more than five decades for Muslims to account for 39% of India’s population. The chance of Muslims numerically overtaking Hindus is next to nil.

    The current status

    The facts are these: India’s population growth is already slowing down. And the rate of decline in growth is highest among Muslims. The average number of childbirths per woman fell from 3.4 in the mid-90s to 2.2 by 2015, according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS). The NFHS data also shows that 24 states have already reached the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 (adequate to replace population from one generation to the next without a change in the overall number). India’s population concern is largely restricted to five states: Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Whether a nationwide law is required to address the concerns of these five states is the central question.

    “Even in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, fertility rates have to be lowered through non-coercive means, which have worked in other states," says economist Jean Dreze. “The use of coercive measures during the Emergency (1975-77) actually slowed down the decline in fertility rates and generated a backlash against male sterilization," he added.

    As India moves forward, the bigger worry may be the emerging north-south divide, says K.S. James, director of International Institute of Population Sciences, Mumbai, an autonomous body under the ministry of health and family welfare. “States like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh which constitute 40% of India’s population are still witnessing high population growth, higher fertility and high infant mortality rates… while southern states are ageing. This heterogeneity across states will have political implications in terms of (reconfiguring) Parliament seats as well as resource allocation (a richer south paying for the well-being of a populous north)."

    The two-child norm

    According to a study on the two-child norm (Nirmala Buch, Economic and Political Weekly, 2005) which was adopted by several Indian states like Rajasthan, Haryana and Bihar, the move led to a spike to sex-selective and unsafe abortions. Since the state-level laws linked the ability to contest Panchayat or local body elections with family size, the study found that men divorced their wives to run for elections and families put children up for adoption to avoid disqualification.

    The takeaway: there is no shortcut to right-sizing a country’s population. And coercive laws can sometimes be counter-productive. “There is no evidence whatsoever to show that larger family sizes are due to reasons other than those determined by social and economic circumstances, including poverty, lack of basic services, and governance," reads a briefing note prepared by the Delhi-based think-tank Population Foundation of India (PFI).

    The note titled People before numbers cites the example of Sri Lanka which stabilized fertility rates by simply increasing the age at marriage and ensuring adequate education for girls. Success stories from within India (Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh) and from Indonesia and Bangladesh (predominantly Muslim countries) also show the central importance of investing in education and healthcare access to advance population stabilization, PFI said.

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    Beyond its well-documented distortionary effects, India will also find it hard to announce a nationally mandated two-child policy since it is a signatory to the Cairo declaration in 1994, which gives couples the “right to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children". Following the Cairo declaration, India announced a National Population Policy in 2000 which focused on improving the quality of life, degree of women’s empowerment, and expanding the available basket of contraceptive choices.

    Even the Delhi bureaucracy had largely come around to the conclusion that imposition and fiat will simply not work. At the Delhi launch of the UN’s 2019 State of the World Population Report in April this year, S.K. Sikdar, head of the family planning division at the health ministry, made a crucial observation. “We have learned from the China experience and we are not after targets… we do not talk about one-, two-child norms. We speak about reproductive rights… population control is not our agenda at all. We are talking about population management."

    Despite repeated requests, Sikdar was not available for a comment.

    Closing the gap

    India’s desired fertility rate is 1.8 as per NFHS-4 (2015-16), which means that a large percentage of people already desire fewer children, says Poonam Muttreja, executive director at the PFI. “In a situation where there is a 13% unmet need for family planning, which means either women do not have access to services or women do not have the agency to negotiate inside families, the Prime Minister’s statement becomes very important. People will listen to him—mothers-in-law and men perhaps will be more responsible in ensuring that women do not end up having more children than they want,"she says.

    The NFHS figures show deep gender lacunas which any attempt to tackle the population puzzle will have to address. Over 40% of women in the 20-49 age band still get married before the legal minimum age of 18 years. When it comes to perceptions, the survey results show that close to 40% of men believe that “contraception is a women’s business and a man should not worry about it". Ironically, half of these men also thought that “women who use contraception may become promiscuous". The fallout: less than 6% of married women reported the use of condoms (by their partner) for family planning.

    “For 30 years, India did not introduce new spacing methods while our population was getting younger. The failure of not delivering on temporary contraception services (like injectables and implants) forced women to pay a heavy price. A 2015 study estimated that 15.6 million Indian married women used abortion in a year as a proxy for contraception," says Muttreja.

    The final piece in this jigsaw is funds. India has been spending a mere 4% of its annual budget under the National Health Mission on family planning, which is just over 1,000 crore. Mutterja adds that most of the family planning budget is spent on sterilization and until recently women would be herded into camps where many died. “If men could get pregnant, we would not have neglected the options available for family planning to such an extent."

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    Updated: 28 Aug 2019, 08:23 AM IST
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