The ‘population growth’ debate in India gained in momentum after Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed concern over a “population explosion” in his 2019 Independence Day speech. While Modi has appreciated India’s demographic dividend, he expressed anxiety on this occasion, and asked for measures to deal with the implied stress on the country’s supposedly limited resources. He also said those members of society who had small families were being patriotic.
However, on this World Population Day, we – a demographer and a population scientist – argue that Modi’s words were simply an old fallacy in a new bottle.
In the 21st century, population growth in India is not an economic or social development concern considering the speed with which India achieved its fertility transition and improved its ageing rate relative to many other countries, including developed ones. To see how, it’s important to read the data correctly.
The UN Projections (2019) suggest India’s total fertility rate – or TFR – fell from 5.9 children per woman in 1950 to 2.2 children per woman in 2020. This is very close to the replacement level fertility of 2.1 children per woman; replacement level fertility is, according to this definition, “the total fertility rate … at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next, without migration.”
After 2050, the TFR is expected to stabilise at 1.7 children per woman. Estimates based on the Sample Registration System also support the same conclusion.
All of India’s states except six have already achieved a replacement level fertility close to or at par with the national average. The six exceptions are Bihar (3.2), Uttar Pradesh (2.9), Madhya Pradesh (2.7), Rajasthan (2.5), Jharkhand (2.5) and Chhattisgarh (2.4).
The divergence in fertility rates across India’s states during the transition period, particularly from 1971 to 2001, has turned into a convergence since 2011. And demographers expect this convergent trend to continue for some time.
India’s population growth has also been slowing for the last few decades: from 2.3% per annum in 1975-1985 to an estimated 1.2% per annum in 2010-2015. It is expected to dip below 0.5% in the late 2040s and even become negative after 2060. Recent trends also indicate a decline in all major states, with the volume of decline greater in those states that traditionally experienced higher growth earlier.
The National Family Health Survey reports of 1995, 2000, 2007 and 2017 together suggest fertility rates are converging faster among Hindu and Muslim families and among upper caste families more broadly.
The gap in fertility rates arose and persists because women who have been educated more and are wealthier broadly have a TFR below the replacement level fertility.
The relationship between population and development depends more on the age and gender structure than the absolute size of the population or its growth rate. Policies pertaining to healthcare, education and employment, especially those designed to make use of a changing population structure, also matter a lot. At the family or individual level, income and education level first affects the population growth. Greater access to education, particularly for women, empowers them and exposes them to more family-planning options, including the virtues of maintaining a small family. This then contributes to fertility decline.
At the macro level, we have found that about 1.65 billion additional births could have been averted by the adoption of various family-planning methods from 1990 to 2016. We also projected that continued adoption could avert at least 1.9 billion births if the TFR holds at 1.8 births per woman until 2061.
Following the same assumption, estimates of investments in lifetime returns suggest every rupee invested turned a profit of three rupees in 1991, 44 rupees in 2016 and could rise to 627 rupees by 2061. In effect, India will have a greater elasticity in the ratio of family planning investments to lifetime economic returns compared to the global average (cost-benefit ratio of $1: $120).
This is why the period from 2016 to 2061 is a window of opportunity for India to reap its demographic dividend.
It should be noted that while fertility decline up to the replacement level does contribute to education and economic development, the TFR going below 2.1 births per woman on average will likely be bad news for the country’s economy in the long-run.
Coercive policies and fertility-decline disincentives have failed in India and around the world. Once fertility decline is underway, it’s hard to flip it back. Europe’s population is greying continuously, and their pro-population-growth measures – such as incentives to have children – are not working. The defining geopolitical challenge in the coming decades could involve accommodating an angry, frightened China as it confronts the consequences of its one-child policy.
Today is not the time to blame a specific population for growing. The current moderate to slightly high fertility in a few categories of the population is because of lower education, higher infant mortality, greater preference for sons, and lack of access to good quality family-planning services. So India should focus more on improving access to better education, employment opportunities, good health care, and family planning services. These measures will yield a higher demographic dividend.
Other issues of concern are rapid ageing and disappearing female children at birth. It took 100-120 years to double Europe’s population but India is doing so in only 30-35 years. There are also regional imbalances: north India still has a moderate fertility burden but south India has a large ageing burden. The government should treat both issues with equal priority, especially in terms of funds allocated under population and health policies.
Srinivas Goli is an assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, and Australia India Institute NGN research fellow at the University of Western Australia, Perth. Neha Jain is a doctoral student at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, JNU.