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Does India need a population control law? Data, survey say no

The number of babies being born in the country is almost at the level required to stabilise the size of the population. Any law to reduce child births at this point can lead to a rapid decline in the proportion of young people in the population.

July 21, 2021 / 06:20 PM IST
Representative Image (Source: ShutterStock)

Representative Image (Source: ShutterStock)

Uttar Pradesh and Assam have proposed to introduce legislation that will compel couples to restrict the number of children they produce to two. These states intend to bar those with more than two children from contesting local body elections, applying for government jobs and accessing various subsidies.

Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state with an estimated population of 240 million while Assam’s population was estimated at 34 million in 2021. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has called for similar legislation in Karnataka, a state with a population of 68 million.

Are such policies and legislation required in any of these states or for the country? India is the second largest country by population after China and estimates are that India may overtake China during this decade. China had recently eased its population control measures to allow three-children households in an effort to reverse the rapid greying of its populace.

Population control measures are expected to rely on accurate population numbers and growth trends. There is no better measure than the decadal Census to count the number of people living in the country and how the population has grown within the nation, states and communities. India had to postpone the population enumeration process due to the Covid19 pandemic.

What the numbers show

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The enumeration process was to begin last year and be completed by now with provisional population numbers ready for release, as data was to be digitally recorded. The Census is unlikely to be carried out till the pandemic has abated.

So what’s available is projections of the National Commission on Population. According to these estimates, India’s population is currently rising by about 1% per annum compared to about 2% in 1991-92.

India has been adding on average about 17 million to its population a year since 1991. That’s like adding the current population of The Netherlands every year to the already large population.

In the last few years, the addition has declined to about 14 million per year. The expansion of the population is alarming, but a falling total fertility rate (TFR) provides comfort. TFR is an indicator of the average number of children expected to be born to a woman. It has slid close to a level as necessary to keep the population of a country stable.

India’s fertility rate was estimated at 2.2 in 2018 by Sample Registration System (SRS), a demographic survey carried out by the Registrar General of India, the same body that is responsible for the decadal Census. It was 4 in 1990.

A TFR of 2.1 is considered as the replacement level fertility rate or the rate at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to another in the absence of migration.

What the survey reveals

The findings of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), a survey carried out periodically by the International Institute for Population Studies on behalf of the Union ministry of health and family welfare, corroborate the trends seen in the SRS surveys. Field studies for the latest round of the NFHS were carried out in 2019-20, and results of 22 states and union territories have been released. Results of states such as Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are yet to be released, as work was disrupted by the pandemic.

The SRS data show that the average TFR for the country had declined from 2.7 during the period 2006-08 to 2.2 during 2016-18. In Uttar Pradesh (which included data for Uttarakhand), the average TFR had declined from 3.9 to 3 during this period, in Bihar from 3.8 to 3.2, in Rajasthan from 3.4 to 2.6 and in Madhya Pradesh from 3.3 to 2.7. In Karnataka, the average TFR declined from 2.1 to 1.7 during the period, implying the population of the state has begun to contract and grey.

The TFR for Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar remain above the national average of 2.2 in 2018. It was 2.5, 2.7, 2.9 and 3.2, respectively, for the four states. The TFR in these states is likely to have slid a little more since then.

The NFHS report estimated the TFR for Bihar at 3 in 2019-20 and Karnataka at 1.7. Corresponding data for Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh has not yet been released.

Both surveys also show that TFR usually tends to be lower in urban areas. The difference is about 0.7 points at the all India level, according to the 2018 SRS Statistical report.

The south Indian states were an exception to that rule – there was no difference in the TFR for urban and rural areas of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and the difference was just 0.2 points for Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana. The NFHS show a difference of 0.3 points for Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and 0.1 points for Telangana.

There is a close relationship between the TFR and women’s literacy. Better literacy among women is one of the reasons for lower TFR in South Indian states. It would also be useful to consider literacy levels in states such as Assam and Karnataka and compare them with Bihar. According to the NFHS survey, the literacy rate among women in Assam and Karnataka was 77.2% and 76.2% and their TFRs stood at 1.9 and 1.7, respectively, well below the replacement level fertility.

The SRS Statistical report also shows that states with high TFR had a high proportion of illiterate women. The illiteracy rate was over 20% for women in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan and over 23% in Bihar in 2018. In comparison, only 0.5% in Kerala and 3.2% in Tamil Nadu were illiterate.

The level of education is also an important determinant of TFR. The SRS Statistical report found a gradual decline in the TFR with the rise in the level of education of women. At the all India level, the TFR for totally illiterate women was 3, for those with less than primary education was 2.9 and 1.7 for women who had a graduate or a higher degree.

This trend was visible across most states, implying that encouraging young women to continue their education helps to slow population growth. Longer years spent in education usually leads to some delay in marriage and the birth of the first child.

Women in reproductive age

The education factor

The TFR for illiterate women in Uttar Pradesh was 3.2, for those who had not completed primary level of education at 3.8 and for graduates, 2.6. Likewise, in Bihar, it was seen at 4, 4.1 and 2.1 for the three groups, and in Madhya Pradesh at 4.1, 3.6 and 2.2. Assam, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu defied the trend - the TFR for illiterate women was found to be lower than for graduates, according to the SRS Statistical Report for 2018.

The TFR for Assam and Karnataka are already below the population replacement level fertility and any policy or legislation can prove disastrous for the demographic balance in these states. Additional population control measures will speed up greying of the society in these two states.

Uttar Pradesh is gradually reaching the population replacement level fertility. The technical group on population projections in its July 2020 report has estimated that the TFR in Uttar Pradesh will fall to 2.1 by 2025 and continue to decline after that.

Madhya Pradesh and Bihar will take longer to reduce their TFR to 2.1 – Madhya Pradesh is estimated to reach that level only in 2028 and Bihar in 2039. These states would do well to focus on improving literacy among girls, ensure that they stay longer years in schools and colleges and discourage early marriages.
Tina Edwin is a senior financial journalist based in New Delhi.
first published: Jul 21, 2021 06:18 pm

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