If you grew up in India in the ‘90s you often heard the government slogan. “Hum Do Hamare Do”, meaning ‘We Two, Our Two’, urging families to have no more than two children each.
A just-released government study says India has achieved this aim. It is a mystery why we are not celebrating this landmark moment.
The just-released National Family Health Survey-5, a government study conducted in 2019-20, shows India’s total fertility rate (or average number of children produced by a woman) has come down to 2.0.
The replacement rate is 2.1, when it is said a population size is stabilised. Below 2.1, the size of the population starts shrinking. In other words, India no longer has to worry about population “explosion”. India’s population size should now start decreasing.
This is a huge win for population scientists, women’s rights activists and public health experts who managed to get the Indian government to shift its focus to maternal health, access to contraceptives and awareness campaigns in the ‘90s. Credit also goes to “ASHA” or Accredited Social Health Activists who have taken the revolution to the village doorstep.
A win for democracy
This was a policy of emancipation of women and enabling families to make their own decisions, rather than forcing family planning on people against their wishes.
To that extent, it is also a win for India’s democratic ideals. In some years, India’s population size may surpass China’s, because China’s total fertility rate is even lower than India’s (1.7 in 2020). But in a few decades, India will be facing the same problem as China, an ageing, shrinking population with not enough young people to add to workforce.
Democratic India has always had the impulse to force population control upon people. During Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in 1975-77, her out-of-control son Sanjay Gandhi made the government forcibly sterilise some young men. The move is attributed to be the main reason why she lost the 1977 election.
Don’t despair for Bihar
The state-wide variations are fascinating. Only 5 states are above the replacement level of 2.1. These are Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Meghalaya and Manipur. Before you despair, it is to be noted that even these states have seen a significant decline and are well on their way to reach 2.1 in a few years. At least UP, Bihar and Jharkhand here are proof that family planning is proportional to literacy and access to health services.
When a woman can’t get an abortion or easy access to abortion pills or a poor labourer is not given free contraceptives at a government hospital, it is the failure of the government. India’s population “explosion” has been defeated with these policy interventions.
It is telling to look at the urban-rural difference. The total fertility rate of urban India according to the survey is 1.6, whereas rural India is 2.1. So while rural India has reached replacement rate, urban India is far below it. People today no longer need extra children to work as child labour. They increasingly see children as a financial responsibility, not to be undertaken lightly.
In Bihar, the worst performer with a TFR of 2.98, the rural TFR is 3.1 and the urban one is 2.4. In populous Uttar Pradesh, the urban TFR is 1.9 and rural is 2.5.
The Muslim bogey
Population “control” has long been used as a bogey against Muslims. Majoritarian extremists have spread the canard that Indian Muslims deliberately produce more kids to ensure India becomes a Muslim-majority country. Every 5 years, the National Family Health Survey has been proving this myth wrong.
The TFR for Indian Muslim women as a whole has fallen from 3.6 in 1998-99 to 2.36 in the latest survey (2019-20). Indian Muslims have seen the sharpest decline in the fertility rate. If their TFR is still slightly higher than national average, it is proof that they are socio-economically worse off.
Just like the states of UP and Bihar, the TFR of Indian Muslims is directly proportional to literacy, and access to maternal health and family planning services.
Demographic opportunity lost
This achievement should be a cause for national celebration because people have worried about population size for decades. The worry was always a little misplaced, because a young population also means cheap labour. India failed to exploit this “demographic dividend” by missing the manufacturing bus.
In some decades — sooner than you think — we will have the opposite problem. We will be ageing and poor, and politicians will face the pressure for better services for the elderly.
But for now, we should celebrate. Anyone who has walked on an Indian street can tell there are too many of us. It is a relief to know most Indians now want only one or two children.
(This article by Shivam Vij first appeared in Gulf News on 27 May 2022.)