The population myth, prejudice and dangers of a misguided policy

It is possible to use the numbers to argue in many ways but what should be reasonable to note is that there is no conspiracy among a certain set of people to grow their numbers. Demographics tells us that as the level of education (particularly of the woman) and the standard of living of the family moves up, the number of children per woman generally comes down.

Jagdish Rattanani Oct 13, 2022
India's population

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has yet again cited population growth as an important issue facing India today. At the Dussehra-day rally, the supreme leader of the Hindu Right fraternity was quoted as saying: “Population control and religion-based population balance is an important subject that can no longer be ignored.” 

Population “control” is an oft-heard phrase across the spectrum; the need for population “balance”, based particularly on religion, lends it a sharp and predictable political edge. But at its root is still the language of “control” to check growing numbers on the thinking that is offered by many well-regarded people and goes something like this: the more the people, the less each one gets of scarce resources, so we stay poor, remain backward and cannot march with the times. We must “control” the population if we are to do well and provide for the numbers we already have. 

This simplistic presentation, well bought by a large section of people, is a precursor to the demand for policy action that applies to all in theory but has its worst impacts in practice on those at the bottom of the pyramid who tend to have more children. This is how the demand for the “two-child norm” would work – those who need support, subsidies, rations and other inputs the most cannot get them if they have more than two children.

There is enough data to argue that this is not how population dynamics work to deliver the results that we may seek. For example, India’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR, loosely put, the number of children per woman) has consistently fallen. TFR was reported at 3.39 (NFHS-1, 1990-92), 2.85 (NFHS-2, 1996-98), 2.68 (NFHS-3, 2003-05), 2.18 (NFHS-4, 2015-16), and 1.99 (NFHS-5, 2019-21). Today, as many as 31 states and union territories, including all the states in the South, the West and the North region have fertility below 2.1, which is the replacement fertility rate (so-called because at this rate a woman and her partner would have replaced themselves). 

Yet, population will continue to grow on what is called the “population momentum” because a large number of women are in the reproductive age bracket. 

TFR is of course impacted by many factors. The number ranges from 1.1 children per woman in Sikkim to a high of 3.0 children per woman in Bihar. TFR among Muslims is higher at 2.36 (NFHS-5) but it too has been following a declining trend, going down over the years: 4.41 in NFHS-1, 3.59 in NFHS-2, 3.40 in NFHS-3, 2.62 in NFHS-4.

It is possible to use the numbers to argue in many ways but what should be reasonable to note is that there is no conspiracy among a certain set of people to grow their numbers. Demographics tells us that as the level of education (particularly of the woman) and the standard of living of the family moves up, the number of children per woman generally comes down.  The gap in TFR seen between rural and urban, between poorer and richer, and those with lower levels of schooling versus high school coverage points to the close connection of population numbers with development indices at the grassroots. The fertility rate therefore holds a mirror to how fast or slow the nation is moving to open opportunities for the weakest and the poorest. 

More opportunity, less control

If the RSS can argue that we need to move faster on population, then the case must be for offering more opportunity to those not benefiting from India’s so-called growth story. The fertility rate then takes care of itself. Muslims and Hindus, rich and the poor, educated and the not-so-educated have similar aspirations, ambitions and the desire to break free. Some have benefited from the system; others have been left behind.

In this picture, the phraseology of “control” then works to put down the weakest. It denies State resources to those who need them the most. It turns attention away from what is urgently required in terms of development to a top-down command-and-control approach that treats people not as citizens with rights but subjects who must be controlled and punished. It refuses to recognise the approach and the language of sexual and reproductive rights and supplants it with power to bureaucrats, who understand little about the subject. 

One example of this is the police being used in many areas of India to dictate behaviour to consenting adult couples; another recent example is that of a bureaucrat in Bihar who mocked a student and wondered if she would ask questions on contraceptives. The bureaucrat in this case later apologised.

As the late Prof. Hans Rosling, who co- founded Médecins sans Frontièrs and is best known for offering insights from UN population data, once said: “The world “used to be 'we' and 'them.' And 'we' is the Western world and 'them' is the Third World.” The difference: the West had long life and small family. The Third World had short life and large family.

Dangers of misallocation

Well, the world has moved, and so has India. But we may be creating a new “us” and “them” problem right within our borders if the issues are not presented in a fair and reasonable manner. Worse, this might also create policies that will go on for long years to impact how India progresses and how our resources are put to use. 

In the quest for controlling family size in particular ways and in select areas so that resources are distributed well, we may be already embarking on a massive misallocation that will live on to harm the growth prospects of the nation. In that talk, Prof. Rosling added about his students, “the problem for me was not ignorance; it was preconceived ideas.”

None of this is to say that family planning must not be encouraged or that infiltration is not to be stopped. The government can police the borders, provide more contraceptive choices but without the concomitant movement up the development ladder, none of this will yield results.

A good way to read this is the population policy offered during the time Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister. It used the world “control” only thrice – to “control” HIV, and another to “control” diarrheal deaths, and to control communicable diseases. That itself is a herculean task, and the government will do well to focus on issues such as these rather than deciding the number of children a woman might have in her lifetime.

(The author is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR, Mumbai. Views are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press)

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