Why India can shed its population obsession
India will overtake China as the most populous country by 2025 or perhaps sooner.
That population control is crucial for making India a prosperous nation is an entrenched stereotype. To be sure, India is not the only country which has embraced this idea. China, currently the world’s second largest economy and a one-party state since 1949, enforced a one-child norm in the 1980s. That it was not a democracy, helped in imposing such a policy. Four decades later, the same state is now encouraging couples to have three children (more on this later).
Modern capitalism, as we know it, has developed in relatively less densely populated regions of Western Europe and North America (with the exception of Japan). It is no wonder that low population was seen as a virtue for economic growth. It is only recently that densely populated countries with very large populations such as China and India have placed themselves among the world’s largest economies. The world is yet to come to terms with this economic churning.
What makes population control an even more vexed issue in India is the religious polarisation around it. The bogey of population explosion is often used (directly or indirectly) to politically target Muslims, the largest religious minority group in the country. For example, while stressing on the need for controlling population to reduce poverty, Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma recently asked stakeholders of the minority community to speak to the members to work towards effective population control measures.
Following Assam, now Uttar Pradesh is talking about introducing a two-child norm for entitlement to government benefits. “Population is nearing an explosive stage. It is causing other issues too — related to hospitals, foodgrains, houses, or employment. We believe that there should be a check on population. Population control is different from family planning,” Uttar Pradesh Law Commission chairman, Aditya Nath Mittal was quoted as saying by news agency ANI. Mittal further said that his statements are not targeted towards any community nor does he want to challenge human rights’ of citizens. “We don’t want to give a message in Uttar Pradesh that we are against any particular religion or anyone’s human rights. We just want to see to it that the government resources and facilities are available to those who are helping in and contributing towards population control,” Mittal further added.
Here are nine charts which show why India should stop obsessing about population growth and linking it to religion.
India’s population growth peaked long time ago
India will overtake China as the most populous country by 2025 or perhaps sooner. However, this should not be inferred to assume that India is undergoing a proverbial population explosion. Population statistics show that India’s population growth peaked decades ago and it is already on a downward trajectory. According to the United Nation’s population projections, India’s population will increase by a multiple of 1.09 between 2021 and 2031. This number was 1.25 between 1981 and 1991. From 2060 onwards, India’s population will start falling, which happens when fertility rate falls below replacement levels. By 2100, which is as far as UN population projections go to, India’s population will be 1.45 billion after having peaked at 1.65 billion in 2059 (See Chart 1).
A high population is not necessarily a bad thing for the economy
What the proponents of the high-population-is-bad-for-the-economy theory do not realise is that an economy needs workers to contribute to output growth. So, a low population, which means fewer workers, also means a scarcity of productive hands in the economy. This actually generates headwinds, rather than tailwinds for economic growth. An increasing share of older people in its popualtion, thanks to its one-child policy, is what has forced China to abandon the old policy and encourage couple to have more children.
A simple comparison of India and China brings out this point clearly. The ratio of per capita GDP of China and India is much higher than the ratio of per worker GDP of the two countries. This means that if India were able to gainfully employ more people, it would actually help to bridge its economic gap with China. That labour force participation of women is significantly lower in India than China is an obvious area which needs to be acted upon in this regard (see Chart 2).
India needs to focus on exploiting its demographic dividend rather than worry about it
India is poised at a unique moment in history, where it can exploit its demographic advantage to realise its economic goals. According to the government’s population projections, 53.6% of India’s population in 2021 is under the age of 29. More than a quarter of India’s population is 14 years or younger. This young cohort can become extremely productive or unproductive depending on the skill sets it acquires.
We are nowhere close to guaranteeing the best possible opportunities to young Indians. For example, an HT analysis of the latest All India Survey on Higher Education data found that India’s higher education sector is mired in deep structural inequalities. Our policy makers will do well to focus on exploiting India’s demographic dividend rather than worrying about it (Chart 3).
Fertility rates are higher among the poor and uneducated women
The macro numbers on India’s population do not mean that a high number of children is not a problem . The evidence at hand, from the 2015-16 (latest available all-India data) findings of National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) points to what is well established in the theory of demographic transition. Total fertility rates (TFR) are higher among the poor and they come down as incomes increase. TFR is the average number of children a woman bears in her lifetime. Education of women also plays a role, both in case of fertility rates as well as age of mother at the time of birth of first child. This clearly shows that any policy which seeks to exclude families with more than two children from government welfare programmes will end up hurting the poor, who need such help the most (See Chart 4 and 5).
Patriarchy driven preference for a male child is an important driver of higher fertility rates
To be sure, India’s entrenched cultural beliefs -- patriarchy is among the strongest of them -- also plays a role in driving up fertility rates. According to the 2015-16 NFHS findings, the desire to have a third child was strongly influenced by whether or not one of the two existing children was a son. 89% women and 92% men with two children did not want a third child if they had two living sons. This number came down to 63% and 64% for men and women with two children but no living son. Such preference is believed to have had an adverse effect on the sex ratio of the population through practices such as female foeticide etc. Many studies have shown that this attitude tend to be higher in the relatively well-off, especially in northern states (See Chart 6).
Muslims do have higher fertility rates, but they are a minority when it comes to total families with more than two children
There is an element of truth to the assertion that Muslims tend to have higher fertility rates in India. While some of this can be explained by their relative socio-economic backwardness, an HT analysis using NFHS data had found that Muslims have a higher share of married women with more than two children than Hindus, even in same education and wealth cohorts.
Perhaps, it is this fact, which encourages a mixing of political rhetoric around population control and religion. However, what the proponents of such politics do not realise is the fact that in case the government were to formulate any policies which exclude families with more than two-children, 83% of the affected families would be Hindus. Not only is such a policy regressive; it will hurt the ‘have-nots’ more than the ‘haves’, it will also fail to achieve its communal design as more Hindus will suffer than Muslims (See Chart 7 and 8).
Total fertility rate differential for Muslims and the Hindu-Muslim TFR ratio has been falling
While Muslims to have a higher fertility rate than Hindus, the former are not an outlier when it comes to the trend of falling TFR. Data from successive rounds of NFHS clearly prove this point. TFR for Hindus and Muslims was 3.3 and 4.41 in the first round of NFHS which was conducted in 1992-93. It has come down to 2.13 and 2.62 respectively in the fourth round which was conducted in 2015-16. This means that TFR has fallen by 40.6% for Muslims during this period, more than 35.5% decline for Hindus. Even the ratio of Muslim-Hindu TFR has come down from 1.34 in 1992-93 to 1.23 in 2015-16. We now have fifth round of NFHS data from 2019-20 for some states. Assam is one of them. It shows that the trend of falling TFR among Muslims and Hindus continues to hold. The TFR for Hindus was 1.8 and 1.6 in the 2015-16 and 2019-20 NFHS rounds. These numbers were 2.9 and 2.4 respectively for Muslims (See Chart 9).