Understanding the PM’s concerns on population | Opinion
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s concern about the unabated growth of India’s population will definitely trigger a healthy and constructive debate.
With 1.3 billion people, India is the world’s second most populous country. The country’s population has increased from 361 million in 1951 to 1.2 billion in 2011. Moreover, according to the latest United Nation’s population projection, India is expected to surpass China by 2024 and will have more than 1.6 billion people by 2050. Modi has aptly described the population growth as ‘explosive’.
The country witnessed a dramatic increase in population between 1960s to 1990s when the average population growth rate was 2% per year. Besides unplanned growth, this can be attributed to two reasons - gradually declining mortality level as infant mortality declined from 225 per 1,000 live births in early 1950s to 80 per 1,000 live births by the 90s. This was accompanied with a relatively slow change in Total Fertility Rate (TFR) from six children per woman in 1966 to 3.8 children per woman in 1992. Subsequently, while the rate of population growth has been declining, absolute population has been increasing.
Modi’s concern, first, indicates that there is an uneven relationship between our resources and demography. This causes social misery, undermines growth, and throws a multitude of challenges in the field of education, health, nutrition, among others.
Second, it shows that concerns around population constitute a major priority of the government and indicates the possibility of a concrete policy change, arrived through democratic discourse, in coming days. In the past too, there have been efforts to check population growth but this remained confined to reports and seminars. For instance, in 1992, the National Development Council formed a committee headed by K Karunakaran, the then chief minister of Kerala. It recommended a legislation in Parliament denying people political positions if they have more than two children. This was, however, in vain.
Population policy should be intended to stabilise the current population. This requires both a macro and micro approach. While a two-child norm is required to achieve replacement level, ie 2:1, this policy can be successful only when regions and sub-regions are taken into consideration.
Census data reveals that while southern and western states are experiencing demographic transitions close to replacement level, states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and other northern and eastern states have failed to implement family welfare programmes. This has led to disproportionate migration from these states. This also reflects in their health, education and other social indicators. The recent annual health survey (2010-2013) shows that more than 26 districts have TFR of 3.0, and they are clustered across the nine states of northern and eastern India. These nine states together account for nearly 48% of the total population, 59% of births, and 70% of infant deaths. While 174 districts out of 621 achieved replacement level fertility, there are 72 districts which have TFR of more than four children per woman. Unless the state comes with unambiguous policy measures, our population, and subsequently, development goals will remain elusive.
Any discourse on population stabilisation faces two major challenges.
One, the past experience of coercion during the Emergency (1975-77) still haunts public memory. Draconian modes were applied leading to victimisation. Thus, democratic discourse, which PM Modi indicated, is required to liberate the pseudo fear being spread by a section of liberals who believe that things will sort themselves out. They are just counter- Malthusians.
Another challenge, which undermines healthy debate, is communalisation. Census data shows that the growth of Hindus is slower than Muslims in all the censuses since the first census in 1872. In post-Independent India too, the difference in growth rates have remained undiminished. In 1991-2001, the average growth rate was 22.6 %, while the growth rate of Muslims was 36.02%. In 2011, against the average growth rate of 17.22%, Hindus and Muslims grew at the rates of 16.57 and 24.64% respectively. Some social scientists have contemptuously describe such analysis as saffron demography. But the Hindu population has declined from 84% in 1951 to 79.87% in 2011, and Muslim population, grown from 9 % to 14% in the same period.
Population policy should be region and religion-blind and target areas that breach the national goal. A policy implemented through the requirements of regions and sub regions will be free from religious discourse. Any liberal democratic society must ensure regional, religious and economic stability through neutral population policy and programmes. Modi’s speech must be viewed within this context.
Rakesh Sinha is Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha. He has introduced a private member bill to regulate population.
The views expressed are personal