We've known we are a billion people for some time now. Now we know for sure. At the last count on March 1, 2001, we were 1,027,015,247. So says the first round of results released by India's Census Commission last week.
And the 184-page-long Provisional Population Totals does more than just record this humongous headcount of the second most populous nation on earth. It notches up many more numbers; numbers that speak of the quality of our life, our achievements and failures. Snapshot statistics that bring us heartening news of India's declining population growth rate, her growing literacy, improving sex ratio. Along with disturbingly dwindling numbers that point to the continuing decline in our girl child's fortunes. Also, the spectre of a free fall in key social indicators accompanied by a continuing rise in population in some north Indian states.
All this, however, is at a glance. Demographic arithmetic is already adding up these fresh census numbers to draw quite another picture from them.
Even as the Census Commission flashes the good news of a fall in the decadal growth rate in our population by 2.5 per cent points—the sharpest decline since Independence—experts are wary of giving it their unqualified approval. "The census count is 14.63 million people more than we had projected for the year 2000. So, actually we have grown more than we expected to," says Delhi-based demographer Mahendra Premi, who was a member of the Technical Group for Population Projection appointed by the Planning Commission in 1996. Besides, the current annual rate is still too high to expect early stabilisation of population.
Had the family welfare programme been as successful as expected, observes demographer Ashish Bose, the growth rate should have been even lower than it is. Says he: "We're adding about 50,000 people to our population every day. There's little sense in celebrating a decline in growth rate, and that too one that falls short of expectation."
The narrowing gap in the country's sex ratio may be good tidings, but it is also tempered by some sobering facts. The number of women per 1,000 men has gone up to 933 from 927 over the last decade. "But this is no reason for complacency. There is sufficient reason to be sceptical about this improvement in figures," says Rameshwar Prasad Tyagi, managing editor of Demography India, a publication brought out by the Indian Association for the Study of Population. Pointing out that the '81 census had recorded 934 women per 1,000 men, Tyagi says that the '91 census most likely undercounted women at 927: "We are quite probably comparing this decade's figures with artificially low numbers of the 1991 census and overemphasising an improvement in gender balance. Compare this time's 933 with 1981's 934 and we have, in fact, lost some women."
Premi agrees and points out that the latest figure actually remains far below even what it was a century ago—972 in 1902. The current increase in the numbers of women to men, he says, might also be because life expectancy for women has been edging ahead of that for men in the 1990s. So, because women are living longer now, there are more of them to be counted this time. "But for the real story of gender imbalance in India," says Premi, "look at the figures that speak of our vanishing girl child."
This census has indeed registered an alarming decline in the number of girl children in the below-seven year age group. Only 927 girls per 1,000 boys against 945 girls in 1991. "Sex determination tests, gender selective abortions, amniocentesis, foeticide, infanticide... all seem to have taken their toll," says Saraswati Raju, professor of social geography at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Take away social malices and there should be more women than men in the overall sex ratio, she contends. "Statistically, in most parts of the world, more boys are born than girls," says Raju. "But it evens out because boys have a higher mortality rate, plus women usually have higher longevity. The new numbers in the 2001 census speak of horrific prejudices that aren't giving our girls a chance to survive and that is a matter of great concern."
Significantly, and paradoxically, experts like Raju are finding an "uncomfortable fit" between growing literacy and diminishing girl children. Himachal Pradesh, for instance, has made an impressive improvement in literacy rates but has also seen a decline in its sex ratio. "This is speculative, but education could be even teaching us how to access modern methods of foeticide," says Raju.
Some statistical succour, though, is provided by the considerable leap in the number of literates in the country. At 65.3 per cent, the literacy level has never been better. According to the 2001 census figures, three-fourths of our male population (75.85 per cent) and over half our female population (54.16 per cent) is lettered now.
However, most demographers do make the point that enumerators often tot up literacy figures without checking whether the 'literates' in question fit the census definition of "persons with the ability to read and write a simple letter". Nor do enumerators factor in the reality of "relapse into illiteracy" when, for instance, a 45-year-old who remembers nothing of what he was taught in the two years he attended school in childhood says he is literate.
"Having accounted for all these errors in enumeration, however, one must concede that these mistakes couldn't have been peculiar only to the present census," says Premi. "So if these figures are inflated, then all the past figures would have been too." There seems little doubt that the country is better educated than before. Two National Family Health Surveys and a National Sample Survey conducted over the last decade did indicate a trend towards higher literacy levels much before the census presented the new literacy figures. Says Tyagi: "The increase in numbers of government and private schools, teachers, education schemes would have all contributed towards an increase in literacy."
Also, for the first time since independence, the number of "absolute" illiterates has shown a decline. And yet, we do still have a whopping 31.96 million people who aren't acquainted at all with the written word. Moreover, as Raju says, "Averages mean little. It doesn't help that nearly all of Mizoram is literate and most of Bihar isn't. More than rejoicing at these figures, we should be using them to home in on the regions that need urgent help."
The theory doing the rounds currently suggests that the provisional results have highlighted yet again the gaping divide between the North and the South. "Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan have some of the highest growth rates and lowest literacy levels; Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka have done so much better," says Bose. "Development in our country seems to be so lopsided."
Jayant Kumar Banthia, Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India, advises that we wait some more before making any such demographic conclusions. "Let the district-level data come and then we'll see many areas in the South mimicking the prejudices of the North," he says. "Meanwhile, let us talk of the disturbingly increasing masculinity of our population and, more importantly, our growth rate that is more than most countries in the world. A broader perspective would help us comprehend what our burgeoning populace is doing to the earth's resources." Because, any which way we look at it, every sixth person in the world is an Indian. And it's official now.