The average Indian woman gave birth to two children in 2019-21, which marks not only the lowest level reached ever but also an important milestone since the total fertility rate (TFR) has now fallen below the replacement level.
The replacement level, usually pegged at 2.1, is the number of children per woman needed to keep a balance between births and deaths in a country. It is the number that keeps the population from declining.
So, India’s population has actually begun decreasing now, as per results of the second phase of the National Family Health Survey–5 (NFHS-5).
Poonam Muttreja, executive director at the Population Foundation of India, said the “Indian population has stabilised and is now declining. We welcome this.” According to NHFS-5 data, India’s TFR in 2019-21 was 2 compared with 2.2 five years ago in the previous survey. The TFR graph has been steadily declining, borne out by the fact that in 1998-99, it was 3.2.
In 2019-21, TFR fell or remained below the replacement rate in all but five of the 37 states and Union territories in the country. The only outliers were the three populous north Indian states, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Uttar Pradesh, and two northeastern states, Meghalaya and Manipur.
Sikkim has the country’s lowest TFR at just 1.1 while Ladakh has seen one of the most dramatic declines in TFR in the last five years. In 2015-16, the TFR there was 2.3 but it has fallen to 1.3 now. Goa and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands too have a TFR of 1.3.
In states where the fertility rate remains well above the replacement rate, the silver lining is that there has been a decline from the previous survey. In Uttar Pradesh, TFR fell from 2.7 to 2.4 whereas in Bihar it fell from 3.4 to 3 in the last five years.
Between the two surveys, the percentage of women who were married before they reached 18 years of age dropped to 23.3 percent from 26.6 percent earlier. This still means that almost one in four women are getting married before 18. Also, though there has been an increase in the adoption of some kind of family planning method in the five years under review, one in three Indians still does not use any birth control method even now.
The overall contraceptive prevalence rate (CPR), however, has risen from 54 percent to 67 percent at the all-India level and in almost all Phase-II states and Union territories, with an exception of Punjab. The use of modern methods of contraception has also increased in almost all states/UTs.
Muttreja pointed out that the “wanted fertility rate” in India was 1.8 in NFHS-4 (it has not been measured in the latest round). “The wanted fertility rate is a measure of the desired number of kids people would like to have, if they had access to contraceptives if the age at marriage for girls was increased and more attention was paid to female literacy,” said Muttreja.
This underlines the need for more work from the government in making more methods of contraception available and working harder to ensure that women do not marry early and instead of that more of them become literate.
Data from NFHS-5 also shows that the unmet needs of family planning (inability to implement family planning) have also declined, from 13 percent to 9 percent at the all-India level and in most of the Phase-II states/UTs. The unmet need for spacing (the gap between two kids), which remained a major issue in India in the past, has come down to less than 10% in all states except Jharkhand (12 percent), Arunachal Pradesh (13 percent), and Uttar Pradesh (13 percent).
The survey also shows that institutional births (not at home, conducted by a midwife) have increased to 89 percent from 79 percent earlier at the pan-India level. Institutional delivery is 100 percent in Puducherry and Tamil Nadu.
But what does a declining population mean for India’s famed demographic dividend? The country has one of the largest proportions of young people driving its economy. Experts have warned that the window of this dividend may close by 2035 when the proportion of the elderly in India will rise markedly in relation to the youth. Here again, unless more people are skilled and are able to find employment, this dividend will remain underutilised.Arunachal Pradesh, Chandigarh, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, the National Capital Territory of Delhi, Odisha, Puducherry, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand were surveyed in the second phase of NFHS-5 and the findings were released on Wednesday. Findings for 22 other states had been released in December last year.