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What explains Kolkata’s falling fertility rate? Aspiration, financial strain, contraceptive coverage

The West Bengal Health Department says Kolkata’s TFR is around 1, making it the metro with the lowest fertility rate in the country.

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Kolkata: Kolkata has been witnessing a sharp decline in its total fertility rate (TFR) systematically over the past three decades, and now stands as the metro with the lowest TFR in the country. 

According to the 2021 census, Kolkata’s TFR (average number of children born to one woman) was 1.2; which rose to 1.4, according to the last NFHS 5 (National Family Health Survey) data for 2019-20.   

Even as the Census data for 2021 has not been published due to the pandemic, the TFR for Kolkata has gone below 1.2 and is now at around 1, top officials in the West Bengal Health Department said. 

During a recent survey for the vaccination process, the state’s health department found that around 42,000 babies were born in the city of 44 lakh people (Census 2011 data) in the past year. 

“Fertility rate is as low as 1 in Kolkata, and the birth rate has also gone below 10 in the city,” said a top health official, who did not want to be named.

This also makes it the metro with the least TFR. Of the other metros and major cities, Delhi has a TFR of 1.6, Mumbai has 1.5, Hyderabad has 1.8, Pune has 1.7 and Chennai is at 1.4, according to the last NFHS report. 

Kolkata, however, is no anomaly in West Bengal.  

According to the NFHS 5 data, TFR for the state’s urban population is 1.4, while the figure for rural Bengal is 1.7.  

This falling fertility rate and the birth rate (the ratio between the number of live-born births in the year and the average total population of that year) in Kolkata and across West Bengal have now set off alarm bells among social scientists and demography experts. 

Researchers, social scientists and demography experts, say there are multiple factors behind the flagging fertility rates among Bengali couples. 

They include aspiration for self and for the child, falling income, financial strain and uncertainty. Conscious use of protection and emergency contraceptives have also caused the steady decline in fertility rate in the city and across the state. 

According to the NFHS 5 survey, Bengal’s urban population had 77.5 per cent contraceptive coverage in 2019-20, up by 3 per cent from the figure in 2015-16.

For the rural population, the coverage was now around 73 per cent, up by 2 per cent from what it was in 2015-16. 

Professor Saswata Ghosh, whose thesis, funded by the London School of Economics (LSE) on the declining TFR, has extensive research of Bengal’s urban and rural populations, told The Print, “According to the published data and local government’s survey, Kolkata’s TFR and birth rate are both falling steadily in the past 30 years. There has been no sign of revival and this looks worrying now. Hesitancy to bring a child has been a common phenomenon among the elite and educated couple in Kolkata for long. In 1977-80, TFR in Kolkata was 2.2 and in 40 years, it is almost 1 now. In no time, it will be negative, if there is no intervention.” 

Ghosh added that a survey in 1947-48, which is now documented with the government, found out that the educated women of Kolkata had over 30 per cent contraceptive coverage back then. 

“It happened because of the western influence, education, liberal ideas. Bengal has been a place for colonisation and it has been bearing the influence of British, Dutch and French colonies over the period of time,” said Ghosh, a professor at the IDSK (Institute of Development Studies) in Kolkata.

“But, now the line between elite and non-elite, urban and rural, Hindu and Muslim couples have blurred. Birth rate and fertility rate across Bengal districts are sharply falling.” 


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Bengal’s dropping birth rate

According to the Sample Registration System (SRS) report, published this month, Bengal is among the bottom three states with a birth rate below 15. Bengal now has a birth rate of 14.9, while Tamil Nadu and Punjab have also gone down to 14.5 and 14.7 respectively. 

Birth rate is a crude measure of fertility of a population and is a crucial determinant of population growth. It gives the number of live births per thousand population in a given region and year. 

“The birth rate at all India level has declined drastically over the last four decades from 36.9 in 1971 to 19.7 in 2019. The rural-urban differential has also narrowed over these years. However, the birth rate has continued to be higher in rural areas compared to urban areas in the last four decades,” states the SRS report, accessed by The Print.

Ajoy Chakraborty, the Bengal director of health services, said there are several factors for birth rate and fertility rate falling across Bengal. “Apart from the NFHS 5 survey, we have our own data. But, the 2021 census report will make things clearer to us and we are waiting for the census to be conducted.”

Rural-urban divide blurring 

Professor Ghosh further said that the distinct difference between rural and urban, educated and uneducated, Hindu and Muslims in terms of birth rate is now disappearing. 

“Bengalis have gone for a conscious trend of between quality and quantity of children. In Bengali society there has been no overt preference for sons, which often drives a couple to have more children in the northern states,” Ghosh said.

“Female foeticide is low here and an average Bengali family is not averse to the idea of raising a daughter. But the primary factor is falling income and financial strain. Bengal is suffering from unemployment, job losses, while most rural families are surviving on government doles. Agriculture has become completely non-profitable, and the land holding in the state is hugely fragmented. These are  the factors for the rural population to opt for one or maximum two children,” he added.

The TFR has declined from 3.1 to 2.1 (i.e., at the replacement level) among Hindus and from 4.1 to 2.7 among Muslims — a decline of 1.4 children per woman. Apart from all southern states, most of the north-western states and eastern states have achieved replacement-level fertility in 2011 at the aggregate level,” Ghosh said.

“There are a number of states such as West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Kerala, where TFRs among Muslims are close to the replacement level. Decline of the number of children per Muslim woman was found to be substantial in the states such as Haryana, Assam, Delhi, West Bengal and Jharkhand (almost two children per woman).” 

Professor Kakoli Das, a senior research fellow of IDSK who has been working on fertility decline among rural women in Bengal for the past four years, said one factor was that work participation and awareness have increased among rural women in Bengal.

“Apart from the socio psychological factors, the tools for contraception have also come handy,” she said. “The rural women are not into use of emergency contraceptives, and other such available with the ASHA workers. They talk more about their poverty and inability to raise a quality child under such financial strain.” 

(Edited by Arun Prashanth)


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