Is India’s Population Stabilizing?

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Demographic Dividend or National Burden?

My demographer friends talk about India’s “demographic dividend” because almost half of Indian population is below 25 years of age. If properly educated, nurtured and trained, this young workforce could simply transform India beyond recognition in the coming decades and eradicate poverty of hundreds of millions. Indian economy is already growing at the annual rate of 8 – 9 per cent for several years now and can be further boosted if more and more of the young blood joins the workforce.

In the same breath, however, they also view India’s large population as a problem. Estimated at 1.21 billion in 2010, Indian population is growing at the rate of 1.41 percent per year. It means about 17 million people are added annually or about 42,500 per day.

Fifty years ago, average number of children per family was almost six and now it is half of that, but the population is still growing. Currently, the national fertility rate is 2.75; for population stabilization it should be around 2.1 (China’s current fertility rate is 1.77). Population stabilization is achieved when, on an average, every woman gives birth to just one girl. Statistically, it means she bears two children so that one is a girl. But to account for child mortality even in good healthcare system the total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1 is prescribed rather than 2.0. In India, child mortality is still somewhat high (though decreasing with improvement in healthcare system), so even a national TFR value around 2.4 is good enough to stabilize the population.

Where is the Problem?

Over 50% population of India’s population is in the reproductive age group which is imparting momentum to the population growth. Having said that what is really troublesome is that in India, fertility for many begins too early, in fact much before they reach adulthood. Most young or adolescent girls are caught in an unfortunate bind where social and cultural forces compel them to marry early and prove their fertility immediately. Those who are somewhat mature and want to delay pregnancy find it difficult in the absence of easy availability of contraceptives and counseling services. The public healthcare system is primarily geared to provide sterilization as the only option and does not offer other choices meant for “family planning.” It finally results in births in quick succession (contrary to what is desired) before a “full stop” is applied.

Recently, the National Commission for Women reported that the prevalence of child marriage is still”alarming” in India. In some large states like Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar around 65 – 70 percent girls are married below the legal age of 18. Looking at the nation level, about 46% of young women marry before the legal age and 63% by 20 years. According to UNICEF, 15 percent of girls in rural areas across the country are married before 13; and 52 percent of girls have their first pregnancy between 15 and 19.

What is the Solution?

The only commonsense solution is to stop the “Too Early, Too Many, and Too Frequent” pregnancies. This is the only way to reduce the momentum driven population growth as suggested by demographer Bongaart way back in the nineties. Speaking in practical terms, for India it means preventing all marriages before the girl’s legal age of 18. Moreover, married couples should be encouraged to delay the first birth and space further births by providing the easy access to temporary contraceptives. This requires a drastic change in the mindset of the family planning officials who are still obsessed with meeting sterilization based targets. Besides, this approach leads to distortions in the child sex-ratio.

Prognosis?

Talking about the performance of individual Indian states, ten states have fertility rates below the stabilization magic number of 2.1 and six are close to it. The real laggards are the most populous states like Uttar Pradesh (200 million), Bihar (104 million), Madhya Pradesh (73 million), and Rajasthan (69 million) where the fertility rate is still quite high, 3.5 – 4.0. Story is similar in backward states like Jharkjand (33 million) and Chhattisgarh (26 million). These states are responsible for India missing the fertility target of 2.1 by 2010 which would have led to population stabilization around 2045.

However, better governance in Bihar for last five years and initiatives in others states should bring the national fertility down to 2.1 levels by 2020. So, the Indian population should stabilize somewhere near 2055-60 at around 1.65 billion.

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