New Delhi: There’s heartening news on an age-old Indian problem. A report released by the United Nations Population Fund earlier this month indicates that India’s population growth rate has slowed substantially in the 2010-2019 period.
According to the report, India’s population may have grown at .4 percentage points lower in the 2010-2019 period as compared to the decade between 2001 and 2011.
The report, titled State of World Population, 2019, has estimated that India’s population grew at an average annual rate of 1.2 per cent in the period ending 2019 and pegged the country’s current population at over 1.37 billion people.
The report indicates that India’s population growth rate has considerably slowed as the 2011 census had calculated the average annual growth rate to be 1.64 per cent for the 10-year period between 2001 and 2011.
The UN report has found that more Indian women are using contraceptives for birth control and are using modern methods of family planning. But child marriage remains a problem with a growing number of women getting married before the age of 18.
The sharp decline
The UN report has found that in many of the states, the population growth rate has reached replacement-level fertility rates — a few large northern states being the exception.
Replacement level fertility rate is the average number of children borne by a woman to keep the population size constant.
The decline is sharper than estimated, demographers and economists pointed out, adding that population growth rate no longer remains a pressing problem for policy-makers.
Amitabh Kundu, a distinguished fellow at the policy think-tank, Research and Information System for Developing Countries, is among those who believe that the decline in population growth rates is sharper than what had been anticipated.
“There has been a significant decline in the total fertility trend in India and this is a happy trend. Much more than the success of family planning programmes, social awareness has increased with rising education levels,” Kundu said. “The percentage of women reporting becoming a mother at the age of 18 has halved.”
Kundu added that the disparity in the fertility between the north and the south will lead to labour shortages and migration.
“The fertility rates remain high in some of the northern states and is a cause of worry. Southern India will move towards stable population levels but the north will continue to report high population levels,” he said. “The southern states will see a labour force shortage for the next two to three decades and this will lead to migration.”
A.K. Shiva Kumar, a development economist, said population growth is no longer as catastrophic a problem as is often made out to be even today.
“India’s population growth rates have been steadily declining, particularly in the recent decades. Our birth rates have fallen from 30 in 1991 to 20 per 1,000 population today,” he said. “The total fertility rate (TFR) has declined from around 5 in the mid-1970s to 2.2 today — close to the replacement rate of 2.1.
“In fact, 24 states and union territories reported a TFR of 2.1 or less. And India’s urban TFR is 1.8,” added Shiva Kumar. “So there is no overall cause for concern as population growth is slowing down and fertility rates are declining.”
S.V. Subramanian, professor of Population Health and Geography, Harvard University, said an improvement in living standards and levels of educational attainment are contributing to the declining growth.
“I think the issue is the ‘base’ population. With a base population of 1.2 billion and above, even lower rates of growth have a substantial absolute impact,” he said. “The key issue is not population growth per se but how resources needed to sustain such a large population are being distributed.”
The UP, Bihar and MP problem
Official government data shows that states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh have an average fertility rate of well above 3, reflecting the challenges that the government still faces.
The all-India average fertility rate, however, is around 2.3, close to the ideal replacement level fertility rate of 2.1.
Maharashtra, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are among the states where the fertility rate has fallen well below the ideal fertility rate, the previous edition of the UN population report had found.
Shiva Kumar pointed out that fertility rates are falling even in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh but not at a fast enough rate as women in these states do not enjoy sufficient freedoms to exercise their reproductive and sexual rights.
“Young girls lack access to universal schooling, women are not permitted to work for wages outside the home, and most cannot access family planning services even when they are available,” he said.
“Ultimately, how well India does in the population front will depend on how well the rights and dignity of women are assured.”
The report also points out that more than two-thirds of India’s population is in the working age group of 15-64 years. More than one-fourth are in the 0-14 age group and around 6 per cent are over 65 years of age.
The economists also flagged the fact that India will have to do more in education and health to reap the benefits of this demographic dividend.
“Having a large number young population is perhaps (and maybe not always even) a necessary condition for the ‘dividend’ to be realised but not at all a sufficient one,” Subramanian said.
“India’s capacity to realise any ‘dividend’ based on the demographic composition of its population will depend on the ‘quality’ (healthy and educated) of its population — young or middle-aged or old.”
Shiva Kumar said the so-called demographic window of opportunity is shut for most Indian states and these northern states will be supplying the bulk of the labour force to other states.