Population control: Not the panacea for all states
There is a growing clamour for a national population control law. A public campaign, that began on Republic Day, to demand a law to control the country’s population received endorsements from celebrities and support from thousands of social media users. A Member of Parliament (MP) has drafted a law that proposes to restrict the number of children per couple to two.
According to the draft of the bill, people who want to have more than two children will have to take permission from a District Board which will include a senior government doctor, the district collector and representatives from local urban and rural administrative bodies. The District Board will decide whether there are medical reasons — the reasons are not explained in the draft — which require the applicant to have a third child. Other sections in the bill require the government to ‘encourage, promote and motivate married couples’ to opt for small families. Citizens who break the law will not be able to avail any benefit under any government-sponsored welfare schemes. The bill says that the rapid growth in population is creating pressure on natural resources. There are other MPs who believe that the country needs a population control law. One union minister has said that the country’s efforts to enact a law was being derailed by opponents who claimed that it was a covert attempt to control the rapid population growth in a religious minority.
The provisions in the bill resemble that of China’s one-child policy that is claimed to have prevented hundreds of million births. China, which is now looking at the prospect of a steep population decline, has withdrawn the policy, but the Chinese, who are now more prosperous, urban and educated than they were in 1979 when the law was introduced, do not want more children. China’s population is expected to start declining after 2029.
India has never used coercive means to control its population growth, except during a brief period in the 1970s, but local administration and co-operative housing laws have clauses that restrict people with more than two children from contesting elections to these organisations.
The question is: does India need a population control law? Most areas of the country are witnessing a decline in population growth. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 4, done for 2015-16, shows that fertility rate— the number of children per woman — is below 2.1, which is called replacement level, where two children replace their parents (the 0.1 accounts for mortality). Nearly 60% of the country’s population live in states where the fertility rate —the number of children per woman – has fallen below two.
For instance, Maharashtra — which has a tenth of the country’s population, is seeing a rapid decline in population growth. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) has revealed a fall in the number of children in primary schools, indicating that people are having fewer children. The NFHS 4 for 2015-16 says that the number of children below 15 years, as a percentage of the total population of Maharashtra, fell to 24.5% in 2015-16 compared to 30.6% in 2005-2006 when NFHS 3 was compiled. The fertility rate — the number of children born to a woman —has declined from 2.1 to 1.9 between the periods of the two surveys. So Maharashtra may not need the law.
NHFS surveys over the past decades indicate that women’s educational status is a major factor in the number of children they decide to have. For instance, in Bihar, when the percentage of literate women grew from 37% of the population in 2005-06 to 49% in 2015-16, the fertility rate declined from 4 to 3.4. In Uttar Pradesh, where women’s literacy rate improved from 44.9% to 61% during the period, fertility rates fell more sharply — from 3.8 to 2.7. Higher literacy rate means fewer children. In Goa, where women’s literacy was 89% in 2015-16, the fertility rate was 1.7. In Kerala, the literacy rate for women was 97% and fertility 1.6.
Better enforcement of laws, which requires the government to ensure free and compulsory school education, will help states where fertility is still above replacement rates to make the transition to low population growth.