India’s Rising Population – The Political Scapegoat

Anupama Nair

Does India, the world’s largest democracy, need to control its population? No it does not. Here’s why.

We have heard about how the human population has increased exponentially over the past few decades. We have also heard of overpopulation draining India’s natural resources and being a major cause for concern with regards to the wellbeing of citizens and the environment. What a lot of people might not know, however, is the fact that India’s overall population growth has declined considerably over the past few decades and is now stabilising. We are, in fact, very close to the point in our demographic transition wherein the population size of the following generation will be the same size as the current generation.

A widely used indicator for measuring population growth is the Total Fertility Rate (TFR), which is the number of children a woman passing through her reproductive years would be expected to have during her lifetime, based on prevailing age-specific fertility. In most developed countries, a TFR of 2.1 is considered as the “replacement rate” that is, the TFR at which each generation exactly replaces its previous generation in terms of numbers, without migration. For long-term stability of population size, a woman is expected to give birth to two children in her lifetime, one of whom is expected to be a girl who would go on to give birth later in her life. The 0.1 accounts for factors such as infant mortality and sex ratio. 

 “India’s population is not growing by a high margin anymore and is almost at the replacement rate”

As per the Indian government’s most recent SRS Statistical Report, India’s TFR stood at 2.2 in 2018, all the way down from 5.2 in 1971 and 3.6 in 1991. In other words, India’s population is not growing by a high margin anymore and is almost at the replacement rate. There are regional differences, however, as the TFR varies between states. At the lowest end are Delhi and West Bengal with a TFR of 1.5, and at the higher end are Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh with TFRs of 3.2, 2.9 and 2.7 respectively. The states that continue to have higher fertility rates also happen to have low socio-economic indicators, especially with regards to women. Bihar, for example, with the highest TFR also has the second-lowest female literacy rate. 

Additionally, the TFR in urban areas collectively stood at 1.7 whereas that in rural areas stood at 2.4. Aside from reasons such as more women going to school, working, and marrying later, as one moves to the city, the costs associated with having more children tend to increase considerably. Declining fertility rates in India can, therefore, be attributed to factors such as rising levels of education for girls and urbanisation, and have had little to do with coercive means to control population growth.

Many notable academics and activists have made a serious case for population control based on influential population growth models and theories, especially since the 1960s. Fear of the human population outgrowing food supply and resulting in increased poverty and famine influenced some states to implement coercive policies, such as China’s one-child rule and India’s forced sterilisation camps. However, these measures are not only violations of human rights but also have other negative long-term consequences.

A declining fertility rate and increased life expectancy in China is now resulting in an enormous ageing population that needs to be supported by a much smaller active labour force. Moreover, a cultural preference for sons in China has led to a higher number of men than women.  Fewer young men are now able to find wives and are labelled as “bare branches”. As more women work and earn well, they tend to become increasingly selective of their potential husbands. However, the prevalence of highly patriarchal norms, and a government that is now concerned about its shrinking youth, continue to pressurise women to marry young. Those who remain unmarried beyond their late twenties are also given a label: “leftover women”.

“in spite of an agenda based on women’s reproductive rights and health adopted by the UN in 1994, following the backlash against coercive population control measures, the legacy of sterilization-based family planning programmes in India persisted until as recently as 2016”

Sterilization programmes in India were funded by many international aid organisations and largely comprised of men and women being paid to undergo sterilization. Between 1976 and 1977, over 8 million men had been forcibly sterilized. The loss of the ruling party, Indian National Congress, in the following general elections led to a shift in focus from population control. However, in spite of an agenda based on women’s reproductive rights and health adopted by the UN in 1994, following the backlash against coercive population control measures, the legacy of sterilization-based family planning programmes in India persisted until as recently as 2016.

An important factor to consider when discussing population control is the persistence of unintended pregnancies, a common phenomenon in developed countries as well. This is largely due to the continued lack of reproductive rights, no access to sex education in schools, lack of access to contraceptives, lack of freedom to plan a family, or terminate a pregnancy.  The focus should be on creating equal opportunities for women through education and ensuring reproductive rights for all rather than coercive or punitive measures to control population growth. The choice to decide if, when, and how many children to have should not be a privilege, but a basic human right.

“Due to huge inequalities in consumption levels between countries, a child born and raised in a developed country is likely to have much greater consequences on the planet than one born in a developing country”

While it may seem like a declining human population is beneficial for the planet as a whole, in reality, population size is far from being the most significant determinant of environmental wellbeing. Equally important are the roles played by consumption levels and the prevalent norms of production. The developed world consumes maximum energy and food and is responsible for around 50% of cumulative carbon emissions since industrialisation. Due to huge inequalities in consumption levels between countries, a child born and raised in a developed country is likely to have much greater consequences on the planet than one born in a developing country.

“population control tends to be used as a scapegoat by politicians and policy-makers when they fail to deliver adequate and efficient services to the public”

At the same time, it is imperative to improve living standards in developing nations and bring millions out of abject poverty. If we are to achieve this goal without causing as much harm to the planet as has already been done, it would necessitate limiting consumption levels of the rich and involve vast changes in current production norms. More often than not, those who call for population control make no mention of consumption and production. Population control tends to be used as a scapegoat by politicians and policy-makers when they fail to deliver adequate and efficient services to the public.

The question of controlling a “population explosion” in India has been raised by the government again, after decades. A Population Regulation Bill was tabled in the Rajya Sabha in July 2019, which proposes incentives such as tax cuts and free healthcare to families that have two children or less, and penalises those who have more by withdrawing concessions from them. More recently, a Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2020 has been introduced in the Rajya Sabha, seeking to include similar measures in our constitution under a new Article 47A. There is little doubt that India’s population is overwhelmingly large, considering we account for 18% of the global population but only 2.4% of the total landmass. However, it seems as though the renewed concern for controlling India’s population growth seems misguided and ill-informed.

As explained earlier, India is no longer undergoing explosive population growth and this has happened without strict interventions by the government. By incentivising having two or fewer children, the government is likely to waste resources on families that would probably have decided to have fewer children anyway. On the other hand, it will mostly be the poor who would be disproportionately impacted by punitive action against those who have larger families, decreasing their chances of socio-economic upliftment. 

“one cannot ignore the history of unethical population control methods and their social consequences”

Moreover, one cannot ignore the history of unethical population control methods and their social consequences. Like China, India also has a cultural preference for sons and India’s sex ratio is already skewed, with men outnumbering women by millions. Population control measures are also associated with targeting specific social groups, based on racism, xenophobia, and communalism. The false rhetoric of Muslims having more children to outnumber the Hindu majority in India has been used by politicians and is widely believed. We should be asking how population control legislation might affect these issues in our country?

Educating and empowering girls, and decreasing income inequality have been suggested as far more effective ways to address issues of resource scarcity and poverty, as compared to incentivising people to have fewer children. These will also address a myriad of other problems that plague Indian society. Family planning programmes are important so long as their objective is to provide access to safe contraception and family planning services. There exist many other well-researched suggestions to improve the state of India’s environment and increase resource use efficiency, without any need to address population growth at all. If poverty, resource scarcity, and environment were truly primary concerns for our legislators, surely they would consider better means of intervention than population control.

Anupama is a researcher at the Divecha Centre for Climate Change Indian Institute of Science, currently trying to figure out how her work could help improve the environment and society at large.

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