Is India Moving towards Population Stabilization?

NEW YORK , Mar 1 2011 (IPS) - During a recent visit to India, I heard a great deal of talk among my friends and acquaintances about India’s ‘demographic dividend.’ Almost half of India’s current population is below 25 years of age. If properly educated and trained, this young work force could vastly accelerate the process of India’s economic growth in the next several decades and lift hundreds of millions out of poverty. India’s economy has been growing at the annual rate of about 9 per cent, for several years now, and this could go up higher as more young people join the work force.

At the same time as academics and journalists talk of the demographic dividend, they also continue to talk of India’s population problem. India’s population currently estimated at 1.2 billion is expected to grow to 1.5 billion by 2050. It could even grow to 1.5 billion if fertility decline did not continue at the current rate. Demographers predict that India will have by 2050 a population larger than that of China.

Six months ago, the Indian Parliament debated the topic of population stabilization. Almost all the major parties in India agree on the need to reduce the population growth rate in India, and during the debate there was general support for the goal of population stabilization. Some of the parliamentarians even talked of the need for severe ‘population control’ measures. Population control has not gone out of vogue in India, though nobody can clearly define what population control would mean in practice.

Those who are in favour talk of incentives and disincentives. A couple of states have adopted legislation in regard to government officials, withdrawing certain financial benefits from them and even denying promotion if they have more than two children. However, as far as I know, none of this legislation has been put into effect. It is being challenged in courts or has not received the assent of the state Governor. Besides, we do not know of any country where such legislation has had the desired effect.

More important, the central government in India is pushing a package of child survival, family planning and reproductive health measures, to reduce maternal and child mortality and increase access to family planning and related health services. Of course, its implementation varies from state to state. Advocacy of coercive measures fell into disrepute after the Emergency in 1975-1977, and it is unlikely that any coercive measures can be adopted, under the democratic set-up in India.

What then is the prognosis for the future? The annual population growth rate for India has declined to 1.4 per cent, and may decline further in the years to come. The Southern states (Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh) have reached or are reaching population stabilization. Several other states (such as Maharashtra and North Eastern states) have also registered significant progress…

Even in the Hindi speaking belt of the North which suffers from higher rates of illiteracy, poorer health services and lower status of women, there are signs of progress. In particular, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have registered, in the last decade, lower maternal mortality and a lower fertility rate… It is only in Bihar and some parts of Uttar Pradesh that the population growth rates have not come down in any significant manner. Bihar, however, has recorded significant economic and social progress in the past five years, and this may have had an impact in the health sector as well.

Several states in India are now offering cash incentives to couples for delaying marriage and the first child. Scholarships for female children and other incentives for the families that have female children are being offered in states like Haryana .These measures are aimed at reducing the gender imbalance and may also help delay marriages and promote spacing of children.

Many demographers and economists remain somewhat pessimistic about India’s chances to grow faster and to lift hundreds of millions more above absolute poverty, unless more urgent measures were adopted. There is certainly a clear need to bring family planning and other reproductive services to all the couples and individuals who need them. This requires significantly increasing and improving the outreach, quality and efficiency of health services.

Education for women, particularly young girls, and other measures to promote empowerment of women also need priority attention. Beyond these areas, there is no agreement on what additional measures should be adopted unless policy makers were thinking of coercive measures; and adoption of any coercive measures, in my opinion, is extremely unlikely.

I am among those who still feel optimistic about the future. I believe, in the final analysis, that India is moving slowly but steadily towards population stablization. In this context, I am looking forward to the result of 2010-2011 census in India. These, to be available in a few months, may provide clearer indications in this regard.

[* Jyoti Shankar Singh is the author of Creating a New Consensus on Population (Earth scan, London, 2009).He can be reached at at jyotissingh@ hotmail.com ]

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