For decades, doomsday theories of our population boom have been used to explainrising poverty and unemployment, food shortages and health crises, environmental degradation and climate change. This New Year’s Day, Unicef, the United Nations’ children’s agency, estimated that nearly 400,000 children were born around the world on the first day of 2020, and that 67,385 of these births were in India. That is the highest number globally. China was second, with 46,299. It seems to have sparked off online conversations about our need for a population control law, talk of which has been in the air since Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to a “population explosion" in his Independence Day address last year. But neither India nor the world is experiencing runaway population growth. The country recorded 2,000 fewer births on the first day of this year than in 2019. Our headcount is rising, but at a slower pace than in any decade before. Fertility rates are dropping, and trends suggest that our population will attain stability without any need for state intervention.
India’s resources are undeniably under pressure, but this is likely to ease in the years ahead. The fertility rate in most Indian states has touched or dropped below the replacement rate—the point at which births do not exceed deaths. The country’s total fertility rate now stands at 2.2 children per woman. It was at 2.3 from 2013 to 2016. As many as 12 states have attained the replacement rate of 2.1. It is an indicator of what studies worldwide have shown: that urbanization, improved education (especially of women), and general prosperity result in smaller families. Many rich countries are actually grappling with a problem of declining numbers, with too few working-age citizens paying taxes to support too many ageing folk. For India, this may not be a concern in the near future. What Indians ought to discuss, instead, is how a coercive policy that caps a family’s size, or even one that disincentivizes having babies, could further distort the country’s already lopsided male-female ratio, given the persistent preference for boys. The gender gap has been worsening over the years. Last reported, the sex ratio at birth had fallen below 900 females per 1,000 males.
Our big challenge is to create the capacity needed to serve a large population, be it healthcare, education, vocational training, skilling or the provision of basic utilities. Population control measures might appeal to policymakers, but they would be hard to implement, and whatever difference they make in numeral termsmay not result in any noticeable gain in the average quality of Indian life. In our quest for higher per capita income, it is the numerator that needs to be raised, and that is a function of a thriving economy. There are also ethical questions that would arise if limits are imposed on how many children a couple can have. The liberty to procreate has been taken for granted ever since our species first began roaming this planet. It is a personal matter. This was among the reasons that India’s experiment with forced sterilization in the 1970s evoked popular resistance.As for disincentives, they already exist in the high cost of raising children, as those who emerge from poverty tend to discover. It is the poor who typically have large families. What they need is to earn and learn more. Until then, our population is no cause for panic.