Thomas Robert Malthus in his seminal essay written in 1798, An Essay on the Principle of Population, postulated that large population is a problem for nations, as human numbers grow in geometric progression while food resources grow arithmetically. Three centuries later, that idea has been thoroughly disproved as it fails to account for technological innovation in agriculture and human resourcefulness, through which people have not only been able to provide for themselves despite increasing numbers, but have actually bettered their condition, albeit very unequally, as reflected in improved overall human development indicators worldwide comparer to three centuries earlier.
Demographic transition theory suggests that populations of communities go through three different phases: first of high birth and death rates, second of high birth and low death rate (when population increases), and lastly of low birth and death rate (when population stabilises). India has been passing through these demographic stages for sometime and is now approaching the third phase of low fertility and mortality rates. Population projections by the UN and IHME suggest that Indian population is going to peak around 2050 at nearly 1.6 billion and would start declining steeply after that to come down to as much as 1.1 billion by 2100, with fertility rates down to as low as 1.19. But, recent projections about India taking over China’s population in 2023, which was bound to happen albeit it comes a few years early, saw Neo-Malthusians dancing to the tunes of population explosion rhetoric once again.
Data suggests that current increase in Indian population is coming largely from the phenomena of Demographic Momentum, responsible for about 70% of population growth, when population increases due to relatively young population structure and those who are in reproductive ages. The other major source of population growth currently is the unmet contraceptive needs which contributes about 24% to the population growth as currently married women of ages 15-49 don’t have access to proper contraception according to NFHS-5 data. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to these cycles, and efforts to accelerate population stabilisation through coercive policies like forced sterilisations, two-child norms in a number of states, and incentives/disincentives to influence fertility behaviour, have trampled over the democratic and human rights of the poor and the marginalised, especially the women, the scheduled castes, tribes and religious minorities.
Another popular myth that exists in the population discourse is that the Muslims bear way too many children than Hindus and thus impede national development. However, the data suggests that the fertility rate among Muslims have gone down faster (from 4.4 in 1992-93 to 2.3 during 2019, a 2.1 point decrease) than Hindus (from 3.3 in 1992-93 to 1.94 during 2019, a 1.36 point decline) in the last two decades. Further, fertility rates of Hindus in many states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkahand is higher than Muslims in Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Tamil Nadu, suggesting that fertility rates are a regional phenomena than a religious one, linked to various socio-economic developmental factors of the region in which people live.
The rhetoric of population explosion, population bomb or population emergency mobilises a disproportionate response from the state apparatuses and has been on a rise since Assam Population Bill, 2021 and draft UP Population Bill, 2021 brought two-child policies into popular discourse once again. A number of BJP-ruled states since are discussing bringing in a population control law, despite India reaching fertility rate of 2.0 nationally. This discourse also puts the blame on people for reproducing too much and taking away from the resources of the country, as if people reproduce in a vacuum. This individualisation of blame for the problem overlooks structural problems and policy failures that has led to lower female participation in workforce, education levels and political representation, lack of access to sufficient and diverse contraceptive methods and an overall inequitable developmental process, all of which influences fertility levels of population. It must be kept in mind that resources of the country are not a static entity entirely, and it increases as demographic dividend is reaped.
Definitely, Indian cities look swarming with people, but it would be an exaggeration to say that is just because of too many people in the country, because its correlation to internal migration happening in the country from poorer states where job opportunities are scarce, and to poor urban planning in the absence of strong urban governance systems, can also not be ignored.
If policies to educate, employ and skill the population at hand are in place — huge populations could turn in to demographic dividend. India has been waiting to reap its demographic dividend for decades now, and this opportunity is slowly slipping into a demographic disaster as prospects of employment and education dwindle. Further, with top 10% of the Indian population owning 57% of national income compared to the bottom 50% owning merely 13%, policies for equitable distribution of resources would be a key to address the “resource constraint” argument thrown around casually in the population discourse. Ultimately, the population problem is a story of policies failing the people, not the other way round.
Going forward, our actual future demographic concerns should be a declining sex ratio, an ageing population and weak social security system. As the fertility rates decline, sex ratio will also decline further given the son-preference in Indian society. Further, ageing of the Indian society is also taking place at the same time, increasing the ratio of dependent to working population. In such a scenario, India will need a solid system of social security for its elders, and policy and social interventions for addressing the issue of missing girls.
Sushant Kumar (he/him) is a PhD candidate in Public Policy at Northeastern University and can be reached at [email protected]