Women, babies, growth: ‘Not a switch that can be turned on and off’ - Hindustan Times

Women, babies, growth: ‘Not a switch that can be turned on and off’

ByRachel Lopez
Mar 04, 2024 01:04 PM IST

Poonam Muttreja, director of Population Foundation of India, on the tendency to blame women for dips in population, and the challenges that lie ahead for India.

Q. Some estimates say India’s population will peak as early as the 2040s – close enough to worry about. How do you see the numbers unfolding, given that we’re three years behind on the census?

We need to plan migration policies and invest in rural communities once India approaches or hits peak population, Muttreja says. PREMIUM
We need to plan migration policies and invest in rural communities once India approaches or hits peak population, Muttreja says.

I would say the India estimate is accurate. Even without the census, we have good data via The National Family Health Survey and other studies. Round 5 of the NFHS (2021) shows that India’s fertility level is below the replacement rate of 2.1 in all but five states [Bihar, Meghalaya, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Manipur]. And that most women don’t want more than two children.

Women’s aspirations are growing. We have not yet grasped that Indian women have the courage to defy social norms. They now have so much more exposure to changing cultures and lifestyles—sometimes from something as basic as a smartphone. The high-fertility states are ones with low indicators for socioeconomic development. Migrant fathers work away from the home, return on breaks and that’s when babies are made. There is low use of contraception.

Q. It’s easy to see a declining population as a woman’s fault or a solely the wife’s responsibility. What are we missing?

There are two irreversible trajectories with fertility, especially in the developing world. One is that once women decide to have fewer children, it’s not a switch that can be turned on and off. Pushing for them to have more children as a national duty, as is happening in Russia, is ridiculous.

The other trajectory is that when women bear the burden of being denied education, of marrying early, of staying home to raise children, it affects their participation in the workforce. A large majority of women globally find their careers disrupted after having a child, many of them permanently. The fact that most men still do not get involved in child rearing makes it worse. No one talks about male involvement when they discuss why women want fewer children. Adults are more than economic units. Women are more than baby machines. Employed women should not be deprived of social security, paid maternity benefits, and job security. We talk of the demographic dividend that comes with having a young population. A gender dividend is yet to happen.

Q. What are the immediate challenges for India once we approach or hit peak population?

Kerala, Sikkim, Goa, Chandigarh, have (or will soon have) a large portion of elderly people. We need to plan for greater geriatric care. We also need a migration policy and invest in rural communities, in young people’s higher education and skills. India has the chance to send skilled workers aboard, as caregivers, to countries with ageing populations. It’s an opportunity to reimagine India’s future. But we have to move fast. This window will shrink by 2041 and close by 2061.

Q. Of all the data that an eventual census will bring, which numbers are you keenly looking forward to?

India has so much diversity that even on the district level, there are cultural differences that affect family size. I’m interested in the data on nuclear families, migration, urbanisation and district-level changes. This will highlight exiting disparities in population growth.

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