Population (under) control

Population (under) control: Two types of people argue for state intervention in birth rates. Both miss or ignore evidence

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Here we are, in the middle of the umpteenth wave – not of Covid, but of an even more persistent pathogen that has defied elimination for close to half a century.

This is the idea that we need coercive measures or diktats to rein in population growth – from the Emergency’s infamous forced sterilisation drives to latest attempts in Assam, Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere. In every case, the refusal to look at the evidence on what works and what doesn’t is stunning.

The impetus behind such attempts vary. Some are more bothered by population growth of a specific community and others are concerned about population growth per se. But both lots are equally blind to the evidence.

Let’s nevertheless look at the facts.

Since 1980s, India’s population has grown by a smaller percentage in each subsequent decade. Even better, the rate of decrease has been accelerating. Between 1971 and 1981 censuses, the decadal growth rate was just under 25%. In the subsequent decade, it dropped to a little under 24%, in the one after that to 21.5% and then to 17.6% between 2001 and 2011.

The census office projects that between 2011 and 2021, it has grown by just 12.6%. This has been achieved not by forced sterilisation or by penalising people for having more children than an officially prescribed norm.

We can anticipate a counter. This might be true for India as a whole, but what about states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh? Aren’t they still growing too fast? The same story is playing out in UP and Bihar.

UP’s population grew at between 25% and 26% each decade from the 1970s to the 1990s. Between 2001 and 2011, that dropped to under 21%. Census projections estimate that between 2011 and 2021 it has dropped further to 15.6%. In Bihar, a 28.6% growth between 1991 and 2001 was followed by a 25.1% rate in the next decade and is estimated to have been 18.2% between 2011 and 2021.

Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Jharkhand and Assam are all, like the rest of the country, estimated to have registered sharply lower population growth in the last 10 years than in the previous decade. Indeed, Assam’s population is estimated to have grown by just 12.3%, a little lower than the national average.

You could argue, of course, that decadal growth rates in the 16-18% range are still too high and something needs to be done to bring them down further and faster. The truth is that to a large extent that something has already been done.

India’s fertility level is now estimated to be no more than the replacement level. Even states with relatively high fertility levels have seen sharp drops. That drop in fertility will translate into a slowing down of population growth in the years to come.

You might also want to look at the state with the most impressive record in rapidly reducing population growth – Kerala. Between 1961 and 1971, Kerala’s population grew by 26.3%. Between 2001 and 2011 it grew by under 5%.

This was achieved not through coercive measures but by focussing on socio-economic determinants of fertility. High levels of education, in women in particular, and low levels of poverty will translate into lower fertility levels without having to wield any stick.

All this is addressed at those who are concerned with a fast growing population per se. They should, if they see the evidence, have reason to believe that their fears are misplaced and India is approaching population stabilisation in the not-too-distant future.

But what of those whose concern really is about what they would refer to as demographic change on the rare occasions they wish to be delicate? For this lot, the real problem is that the population of Muslims is growing faster than that of Hindus.

Once again, the evidence shows that while the growth of the Muslim population is indeed higher than that of the Hindu population in any particular state, the variation between states is greater than that between communities.

So, UP’s Hindu population is growing at a significantly faster rate than, say, Kerala’s Muslim population. Clearly, it is not religion that is the key determinant of fertility and population growth.

Those seeking community-specific population control should also be asked: Why is it of concern that one religious community happens to be growing faster than another? If, as they suggest, what worries them is the prospect of social tensions as the demographic balance shifts, why is it that we have never heard them agitated about Hindus growing faster than Sikhs in Punjab or growing faster than Christians in Goa?

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Sikhs were 63% of Punjab’s population in 2001 and less than 58% in 2011. Why is this demographic change not worrying but a similar trend in Assam is?

The answer to that would require these types of population control advocates to shed pretences. Something not all of them are willing to do.