(Photo: AP)
(Photo: AP)

Contrasting trends in India’s fertility transition

There are two vastly different fertility transitions going on in rural and urban India, and the north and south could well be two different countries

The big story out of the new Sample Registration Survey (2017) data for India is undoubtedly the continuing rapid fall of fertility rates. But nestled within the data is a story of two contrasting trends in rural and urban India that underscore how India can sometimes truly be two (or more) countries.

Over the last decade, fertility has fallen sharply in both rural and urban India. But while it might usually be assumed that women are having fewer children, and later in life, this is only partially true.

Falling fertility in India has produced two diametrically opposite processes going on simultaneously, the new data shows. One, fertility in the higher age groups (mothers aged 35 and above) has fallen substantially in rural areas, as couples choose to limit their family size, and stop having children after they have had the desired number (between two and three children per woman on average). This is also reflected in the fact that the mean age at childbirth is still falling rather than growing in India, although this trend is also expected to reverse within the next five years, according to estimates from the United Nations Population Division’s World Population Prospects (2017 revision).

Second, in urban areas, fertility among older women has grown, as better educated women are able to delay marriage and childbirth, and improved healthcare allows women to have children later in life. While fertility in general is lower among more educated women, there is one notable exception: in urban areas, fertility rates among women in their 30s are higher among better educated rather than less educated women.

In all previous ten-year periods for which data is available over the last 20 years, fertility fell across all age groups in both rural and urban India. But between 2004-06 and 2014-16, and subsequently between 2005-07 and 2015-17, fertility in the older age groups in urban India has risen. Given that the vast majority of female fertility in India remains concentrated among women in their twenties, this increase has not, however, had an impact on the overall trend, which is of steadily falling female fertility.

Among the major states, fertility in the southern states has fallen well below replacement levels. In fact, the Total Fertility Rate or TFR (the average number of children that a woman will have in her lifetime) in urban India as a whole has now fallen to levels that in some countries are taken as a cause for concern in terms of being too low. TFR in urban India fell to 1.7 as of 2017, comparable to that of Belgium, Iceland and Norway, and lower than that of the United States or the United Kingdom (1.8). Japan, which is regarded as being in the grip of a demographic crisis with too low fertility rates is still far behind urban India at 1.4 children per woman.

“It is a crisis," says P Arokiasamy, a leading demographer, and head of the Department of Development Studies at the Mumbai-based International Institute for Population Sciences, “except that nobody is talking about it."

The focus on above-replacement fertility in the northern states has dominated the national dialogue around fertility to the detriment of the southern states and urban areas where fertility is falling far faster than expected, Arokiasamy says.

Across the southern states, TFR is below replacement level (2.1 children per woman). Additionally, save for Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, the urban areas of all states are now at replacement or below-replacement fertility, which means that these urban areas will only grow as long as mortality improves and there is some in-migration. The two phenomenon seen together, fertility in the urban parts of the southern states is now lower than European levels. Some other less affluent states are also now at Japan-like “crisis" levels. Urban Odisha, West Bengal (1.3), Jammu & Kashmir (1.2), Himachal Pradesh (1.1) have TFR even lower than in the south, and lower than that of Japan.

In addition to the natural demographic transition --- by which populations get richer, women get better health and education, child survival rates improve and families choose to have fewer children --- the south is also seeing the impact of aggressive family planning “target-setting" by southern state governments and health officials, he says.

India is not yet having the discussions around low fertility and ageing that it needs to, let alone setting supportive policy, Arokiasamy says.

Rukmini S. is a Chennai-based journalist

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