Home / Opinion / Views /  Population: A promise rather than a problem

India’s population boom is over. Headcount stability is assured. For the first time on record, the country’s total fertility rate (TFR) has dropped below the replacement rate of 2.1, as assessed. According to data crunched from findings of the fifth National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) and released on Wednesday, the average number of children per woman has fallen from 2.2 found by the survey of 2015-16 to 2.0 in 2019-20, slipping into a zone that would leave us with fewer people overall if sustained. For a country that is both proud of and alarmed by its own multitudes, this is momentous news, regardless of bright or dismal views on the value of our being a billion plus. In academia, the gloom of Malthus’s crystal ball has long been lifted by the ingenuity of human enterprise in staying ahead of a doomsday scenario on this front. Yet, anxiety over how populous we are has prevailed for decades and even prodded policy along. Our TFR estimate of 2.0 is drawn from a study with a sample large enough to reflect reality, and even if we allow for some margin of error, a major bulge of demography that endured for a century can now be consigned to history. And yesterday’s battles should not detain us.

The fieldwork for India’s official health report was done almost entirely before the covid pandemic. It shows both gains and losses, with a slide-back on anaemia a cause for worry. But it is the fertility finding that stands out. Not just for a long trend about to snap, but also the controversy that efforts at population control often whip up. Our two-child norm of ‘family planning’ was always advisory in nature, unlike China’s strict one-child policy that it had to reverse after its TFR slumped just as its demography began to drive its economy. But the Emergency in India saw a wave of forced sterilizations, a scandal whose effects have lingered in the suspicion that state-led vaccination drives arouse—think polio or covid—among some citizens. That was back in the misguided 1970s. Attempts at setting limits for offspring, however, have outlived that gloomy era of population pessimism: Uttar Pradesh recently sought to use selective state employment and welfare provisions as an instrument to cap the size of families. While UP has had a relatively high TFR, it too has seen it slide from 2.7% in 2015-16 to 2.4% in 2019-20, as per NFHS-5 data. At this pace, its state-level rate will go below 2.1 in a few years. The uproar that followed UP’s policy announcement was justified not by this trend, though, but by a matter of principle.

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, adopted on 26 November 1949, grants us all the fundamental right to personal liberty. While exceptions exist under the law, how many children an individual opts for is a self-evident personal choice and any conception of liberty must cover reproductive autonomy. Regardless of how deliberate a couple’s decisions on having kids are, few other life choices are so intimate that it is hard to see why the state should meddle with family size at all. Any post-Malthusian reading of economics holds population as an asset and not liability, as creators of value and not mouths to feed, and so a common cause can’t be cited for intervention. Families have been shrinking on their own anyway, with diverse socio-economic factors at play, and the emergence of our economy could see us clubbed in the same bracket as countries that have fallen short of people. Ironies rarely get richer.

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