Why population remains a concern when growth rates are declining?
Estimates and statistics of population in India have been showing a slightly positive picture though the country’s population remains a concern for social and economic reasons. While India’s population is projected to overtake China’s in less than a decade as per the United Nations `World Population Prospects 2019’ report released in June this year, the new projections for India are the lowest since the United Nations began these forecasts. The reason is the sharp decline in India’s population growth rates over 10 years from 2001 to 2011. According to Census 2011, the growth rate of population has declined from 21.5% during 1991-2001 to 17.7% during 2001-2011, across all religious groups.
To what several public health experts agree with the PM is that India's growing population was once a dividend it expected to reap benefit from, but possibly not anymore. “The rise in population has also been accompanied by an increase in human activity, from high water use, damming of rivers, cropland expansion, increase in the user of fertilizers and irrigation, loss of forests, and a sharp rise in the use of oil, coal, gas, and an increase in the levels of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases that are a result of changes in the use of land and burning of fuels," said Savitha Kuttan, CEO, Omnicuris, a health and social enterprise.
“Even if you take a probabilistic statistical approach that accounts for uncertainty, the global population will hit the 9 billion mark by 2045. Considering the fact that we're looking at a future where we're going to face chronic drought, food shortages, and mass migration, we need measures to curb the rise in population to combat the adverse effects of resource consumption and waste," she said.
The population explosion has major impacts on the country ranging from health, social, environmental and economic. “In India, we can attribute population explosion to high birth rate. Frequent pregnancies without having a gap can be very hazardous to the health of the mother and the child, leading to increased maternal and infant mortality rates, lowered nutrition and various diseases amongst women. In the long run, higher population burden also leads to poverty, environmental degradation owing to over exploitation of available natural resources," said Sandeep Budhiraja, senior director, institute of internal medicine, Max healthcare.
How India’s social biases add to population growth?
The Economic Survey of 2018 points out that ‘son meta preference’ – the desire to have a male child – has resulted in 21 million “unwanted girls" in India. Such gender preferences are also equally contributing to the population explosion in India along with triggering malpractice of female foeticide.
“The rapid and unchecked growth is at the root of several socio-economic problems that we see today. The Prime Minister's call for controlling population growth gives us just the right window to work on it. The government must take a holistic, multidimensional approach to spread awareness by involving medical options such as the importance of family planning to sterilization means to social measures such as improving the number of educated girls," Ranjana Becon, Consultant Gynaecologist, Columbia Asia hospital said.
India continues to witness a social and gender bias in terms of family planning. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 4-(2015-16) data, 99% of married women and men age 15-49 know at least one method of contraception. However, female sterilization remains the most popular modern contraceptive method.
“We must start by making people use the available contraception methods, which, in view of our social bias, tilts towards women. The mindset of most of the people, including the educated ones, is that family planning is the responsibility of a woman. Social moves like educating girls will empower women to take informed decisions about her body and life, as well as that of the child. Curbing under-age marriage and teenage pregnancy will also help in checking the birth rate," said Becon.
As per the NFHS- 4, the wanted fertility rate in the country is 1.8, which means that women do not want to have more than two children. On the other hand, there is a high unmet need for family planning – an estimated 30 million currently married women in the age group 15-49 years and 10 million young women in the age group 15-24 years wish to delay or avoid pregnancy but do not have access to contraceptives for various reasons.
“Much greater attention has to be paid for expanding the basket of contraceptive choices, with specific focus on spacing methods, to match the needs of a large young population. Budgetary allocations and spending on family planning have to be raised, especially to provide birth spacing methods, adequately train health workers, ensure quality of service delivery and invest in behaviour change communication" said Poonam Muttreja, Executive Director of the Population Foundation of India (PFI).
The proposed 'Population Regulation Bill, 2019’
In July, the government had introduced the `Population Regulation Bill, 2019’, in Rajya Sabha that calls for punitive action against people with more than two living children and making them devoid of all government services. The proposed legislation aims at disqualification from being an elected representative, denial of financial benefits and reduction in benefits under the Public Distribution System (PDS) for people having more than two children. The bill also suggests that government employees should give an undertaking that they will not procreate more than two children.
Public health experts are divided over the proposed `Population Regulation Bill, 2019’. “The Prime Minister's call to reward families who have kept their size small will be crucial in removing the stigma around those couples who willingly do not to have a child - we must encourage such couples. The poor efficacy of policies that limit the number of children is evident in states such as Bihar while China is battling a burgeoning geriatric population due to its one-child policy. We must learn from China and should refrain from implementing any such drastic measure." Becon said.
Muttreja calling the Bill “misguided" and a misreading of India’s demographic trajectory said that disincentives through denial of benefits under anti-poverty schemes such as subsidized food grains through the PDS will impact the poorest and most marginalized sections of the population and worsen their impoverishment.