“We need to worry about population explosion…This rapidly increasing population poses various new challenges for us and our future generations,” declared Prime Minister Modi from the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15. As someone who has worked on women’s rights and population issues for decades, the PM’s Independence Day speech should have been cause for celebration. Instead, I felt an eerie sense of deja vu.
Notwithstanding the carefully crafted sentences, my mind could not but leap to the population scare of the mid-seventies and the draconian measures in its wake that made family planning too politically explosive to espouse for decades. Vasectomy, earlier adopted by millions of Indian men, largely vanished as a birth-control choice, casting the entire burden of family planning on women.
To recall that history today is imperative. The PM’s speech follows the introduction of the Population Regulation Bill, 2019 by Rakesh Sinha, the Rajya Sabha member nominated by the President, in the house. The bill is a misguided, mainly coercive framework that reeks of Sanjay Gandhi’s actions. It seeks to prospectively exclude citizens who have more than two children from election as members of Parliament, state legislators and local government bodies. Serving government employees will have to give a written undertaking that they will not have more than two kids. There are extensive incentives for those who undergo sterilisation after having two children and penalties for those who contravene the two-child norm. These include reduction in interest rates on savings, higher interest rates for loans and curtailment of benefits from the public distribution system. Eventually, these measures will be extended to all citizens.
The bill’s financial memorandum estimates annual recurring expenditure at a mere Rs 10 crore, a gross under-calculation considering that most government employees would presumably opt for a maximum of two children. It glosses over the real financial requirements to implement the only laudable clause in the bill—the one that seeks to go beyond contraception and influence social factors.
It is particularly ironic that such anachronistic, half-baked thinking is gathering political influence just when India’s population issue has actually crossed the hump. The country has voluntarily moved to practically replacement-level fertility rates. As of 2017, government data show that India’s total fertility rate (TFR)—the number of children a woman will have in her lifetime—is already 2.2. This is marginally more than the nation’s TFR goal of 2.1, the rate at which a couple replaces themselves in their reproductive years, leading to population stabilisation. Some experts argue that given India’s lower sex-ratio (fewer females than males), a TFR of 2.2 already achieves replacement-level fertility.
The population growth rate in the decade from 2001-2011 is 17.7—the lowest since Independence. The current decade could yield an even greater decline in the growth rate. However, despite this dip, absolute population numbers will inevitably grow for the next few decades because longer life expectancies and a large youthful population base combine to create an in-built population momentum that cannot be stopped. This needs to be understood.
Fertility is declining all over the country. Faster drops in fertility are happening in the very areas and communities that lagged before. The movement to smaller families is occurring across religions also. Although socio-economically deprived groups such as Muslims, scheduled castes and tribes have slightly higher fertility, they too experienced significant drops in fertility levels in the previous decade. Amongst all groups, Muslims recorded the steepest downturns in fertility—nearly 23 per cent as opposed to under 18 per cent in the case of Hindus. States and union territories with large Muslim populations, such as Kerala, West Bengal, and Jammu and Kashmir, have among India’s lowest TFRs (1.7, 1.6 and 1.7 respectively).
Therefore, the crying need of the hour is to not rock the fertility boat. Socio-economic development should suffice to accelerate the current positive trends. True, aggregate figures hide regional and district disparities. High fertility rates persist in 72 districts, a little over 11 per cent of the country’s 621 districts. These are clustered in the north, central, eastern and northeastern parts of the country. Another 11 per cent of districts exceed the country’s TFR. These have also been identified as extremely socio-economically backward areas. The solution is more development, not coercive contraception. Those who lack the wherewithal to care for a new life must get it alongside the motivation to plan births if family planning is to be a humanitarian right and not a human-rights violation.
China’s fast demographic engineering through its one-child policy rode roughshod over individuals’ rights. It is now a failure as a fast-ageing population is burdening those of working age, rendering the nation less competitive. The sex-ratio imbalance wrought by this approach has caused widespread social disruption. Across the world, evidence is mounting regarding the consequences of cookie-cutter two-child generations transiting rapidly into below-replacement fertility.
For all its problems, India’s slower, uneven demographic transition has had some trade-offs. One, the billion-plus population has brought higher per-capita entitlements in an era of climate change. Two, the internal migration from populous northern and eastern states has helped maintain productivity and growth in the southern and western states, where fertility rates are low. The mixed progress in family planning across states offers opportunities to make India’s demographic transition painless and yield demographic dividends. But to achieve this, policies must focus on human development indices and eschew coercive contraception. Backward areas and communities must receive extra investments to achieve basic standards of health, education and livelihood. This will lead to later marriages and later first births; and ultimately nurture healthy and small families.
The greater half of India’s total fertility today comes from the below-25 age group; despite an increase in the mean age of marriage, as many as a quarter of the girls in the 15-19 age group are married off. UP and Bihar, the states with the highest TFRs (3.0 and 3.2 respectively), also have large proportions of teenage married girls (46 per cent in Bihar and 33 per cent in UP). This figure is also high in Rajasthan (41 per cent), Jharkhand (36 per cent) and Madhya Pradesh (30 per cent). The enactment of the Child Marriage Restraint Act in 1929 boosted the ‘age at marriage’ in the country by 2.5 years in one decade. Given political will, a three-year increase in age at marriage is feasible within one decade.
Ensuring motherhood only after a woman hits 20—the safest time for childbearing—could empower millions and break the malnutrition trap. It could simultaneously reduce the TFR by almost one child. Scientific studies show that longer inter-generational intervals created by delayed family formation reduce the population size far more dramatically than family-planning measures.
Finally, there are two other policy shifts in population matters that need to be highlighted here. One, the 15th Finance Commission (FC lays down the principles for grant of aid to states and local bodies to ensure equity in public service delivery across India) will submit its recommendations by end-October for implementation over 2020-25. It is necessary that the 15th FC brings on board the incremental population in states that failed to implement family planning, notwithstanding the controversy generated by the southern states over the its decision to use 2011 population data. We must discard the 1971 population data, now irrelevant by 50 years.
Similarly, the freezing of political constituencies at 1971 population levels has prevented delimitation after successive censuses, as earlier envisaged by the Constitution. This has turned parliamentary and legislative constituencies into monstrous behemoths. One nation, one election is the PM’s call. What about equal vote-weightage for each voter, manageable constituencies and fair share of the enlarged cake conceded to women? These are more useful than the arbitrary debarring of citizens from having kids, which will only lead to an increase in sex-selective abortions and the abandoning of unwanted female children, and further fuel the oppression of women.
(The author is a veteran journalist and former member of the National Population Commission. Views expressed are personal.)