Population Explosion in India? Get the Facts Straight
The Myth of Population Explosion
Population explosion in India is a myth created in the West by the Malthus philosophy. It is an irrational fear of large human population.
Leaving aside immigration from neighboring countries, the current annual population growth rate is about 1.4 percent; five decades ago it was 3 percent. Reflecting this decrease, average children per couple also dropped from about 6 to about 2.3 in fifty years. The census data of 2011 slow that there is decline in fertility across the whole country; though the rate of decline is not uniform but the demographic transition is taking place at different paces in different parts of the country.
A district wise analysis of the 621 districts revealed that in 190 districts, representing 31% of the population, the fertility rate has gone below the replacement level of 2.1; in 192 districts where the fertility rate is between 2.2 and 3.0 will go below replacement level by 2021; and the 239 districts have fertility rate over 3.0 despite significant drop from the last census.
It is a widely recognized fact that now there is country-wise awareness about small family size. The current population growth can be attributed to 2 major causes: poor access to contraceptives and early marriages resulting in early pregnancies, particularly in the rural areas.
Western thinkers have traditionally seen large populations as threat – a psychological fear of being outnumbered which has justification in the population theory of Thomas Malthus of 1798. He had argued that population growth, if left unchecked, can easily go beyond limited resources of the nature and create widespread conflicts. His theory has greatly impacted thinkers and sociologists in the Western capitalistic societies and even shaped the international politics after the second WW. However, the assumptions on which Thomas Malthus based his population theory are no longer valid in today’s world; it is not the primitive world anymore.
The correct and more relevant way to look at the population issues was shown by several International conventions of early nineties, particularly the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) of 1994 held in Cairo. It emphatically propounded that “population issue” is not a fertility control issue but a “development issue” because population growth automatically reduces as societies develop because it brings in education, awareness and medical facilities. Development is the best contraceptive as well an antidote of poverty. This is the new mantra for all free and democratic societies of the world.
Why is the Indian population still increasing if the average family size is decreasing?
About 18 million people continued to be added every year in India because more than 50% of its population is in the reproductive age. This large base of young people imparts momentum population growth. The high birth rates of the previous decades have added large number of people in the reproductive age group. According to population projections by the Registrar General of India, about 60% growth is due to momentum alone.
What exactly is population momentum?
Population momentum is the tendency for population growth to continue even after replacement-level fertility (2 children per woman) has been achieved. It is caused by a relatively high proportion of people in the reproductive age. As the proportion of young people decreases the population momentum also reduces. So, momentum operates through the age distribution. It is important because of the magnitude and duration of its effects.
The importance of momentum led population growth has increased as fertility levels throughout the world have declined. In 1994, John Bongaarts estimated that population growth due to momentum could account for nearly half of world population increase during the twenty-first century.
Often there is a gap of few decades between achieving replacement level fertility (two children per couple) and population stabilization – when birth and death rates become equal. This is similar to stopping a car by applying breaks; it continues for some distance before coming to a halt.
Over a decade ago, India had set the goal of attaining replacement levels of fertility (of 2.1) by 2010 so that the larger goal of population stabilization could be achieved by 2045 – after a gap of about 35 years to account for population momentum. However, it missed the target and now population stabilization would be achieved somewhere around 2050 - 60.
Is it possible to check population momentum?
Bongaart has pointed out that the momentum driven growth could be reduced simply by raising the average age of childbearing. He also calculated that a 2.5 year increase in age at first birth would reduce population growth momentum by 21%. Typical ways to check population momentum are by delaying marriage and first pregnancy, and by spacing subsequent births.
If all unwanted births were prevented, India’s total fertility rate would immediately drop to replacement level fertility of 2.1. Given the not-so-good health indicators in India many experts take the fertilities of 2.2 -- 2.3 to be replacement level in many parts of the country.
What are other factors contributing towards population growth?
There are two major contributors to the population growth at present: Although the awareness about small family size can be seen practically everywhere but in many areas women are unable to prevent pregnancies because of poor availability of contraceptives and lack of reproductive healthcare services. Births due to these unwanted and unplanned pregnancies - unmet need - is particularly common in rural areas where facilities and services are rather weak.
…one day my husband told me that he wanted a child after 2–3 years. I told him that I also want a child after 2–3 years. But he said that he did not know how not to have a child so he would ask someone, but then next month I found that I was pregnant. (18-year-old, first time pregnant woman in a small town)
Sterilization, which is still the most available and widely used of birth control, is not suitable for the young couples and actually has an adverse impact on population momentum. When there is no access to temporary contraceptives, it encourages people to have babies in quick succession and then terminate permanently, which in reality add to population momentum. Most Indian family planning officials are still not educated on the role of momentum and continue to remain obsessed with the idea that sterilization is the “best choice.”
Another dominant reason is somewhat traditional: early marriages of girls. This is a bigger cause than the 'unmet need' and preventing all marriages below 18 for girls will almost immediately bring the fertility rate below 2.1.
Perhaps, the obstacle comes from the mindset of planners who still don't appreciate the importance of preventing pregnancies whether from 'unmet need' or from early marriages. They need to learn from neighboring Bangladesh which has brought the fertility down from 6.3 in 1975 to 2.2 in 2012, largely by expanding the use of contraceptives throughout the country.
What is a demographic transition, in simple terms?
Stated simply, it is a transition from a stable population with high mortality and high fertility to a stable population with low mortality and low fertility. During the transition population growth and changes in the age structure of the population are inevitable. Most of India’s population growth in next two decades will be caused by increased numbers of people in the 15 to 59 years age group - the working age.
In India the demographic transition has been relatively slow but steady. As a result India was able to avoid adverse effects of too rapid changes in the number and age structure of the population, as is seen in China. Read, for example, The Dark Side of One Child Policy of China.
What one action can significantly reduce population momentum in India?
According to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), raising mother’s age at first birth from 18 to 23 could reduce population momentum by over 40%.
Although the legal age of girl’s marriage is 18, it is not followed in several areas of India. Many pockets of the country have tradition of child marriage. About 46% of young women marry before the legal age (18 years) and 63% by 20 years. The proportion of child marriage is significantly higher in rural areas of some states such as Bihar, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, and Rajasthan as shown in the chart at the right.
Early marriage leads to early pregnancies and early child birth. The young woman has hardly any idea about contraceptives and the patriarchal traditions denies them the freedom to even talk about sexual behavior and pregnancies. Thus, they end up giving birth within the first year of marriage. According to 2001 census, about 3,00,000 young women (girls) below 15 years gave birth to at least one child in the state of Karnataka which is a rather economically developed state in south India. Therefore, it is a serious issue that needs collaboration among the sociologists, social workers, educationists and the policy planners.
So, how are the policy makers trying to control population momentum?
Historically, the Indian family planning efforts have revolved around permanent termination of pregnancy – with strong bias towards female sterilization. Even at present this is the most popularly offered method of birth control. Needless to say it is totally unsuitable for those who are just starting families and for that growing population which enters into physical relations outside marriage. Their prime need is spacing methods and temporary contraceptives, respectively. These are either easily or timely not available. It has been estimated that over 20% of all live births are the result of unplanned and unexpected pregnancies. Many of these unwanted pregnancies are terminated through abortions. The growing numbers of abortion provide an indication of the magnitude of the problem. Thus, increasing the availability of temporary contraceptives is an area where policy planners are concentrating.
The population planners now seem to be coming to terms with population momentum as seen by a recent policy of 2011. In an effort to increase spacing between births, the government is promoting a scheme called the post-partum insertion of intra-uterine contraceptive devices (IUCD). Under this scheme, pregnant women are counseled for use of IUCD during the antenatal period and the IUCD is inserted immediately after delivery of the babies. In China, the usage of IUCD is as high as 60 percent; it is only 2 percent in India right now.
Other initiatives are emphasis on girls’ education through various schemes and encouraging women for institutional delivery to reduce both infant mortality rate (IMR) and maternal mortality rate (MMR). They also toyed with "Two-Child-Norm" through coercive methods of advantages and disadvantages but the results have been dismal.
The fear of population "explosion", whether in India or world, is pure fiction. Fertilities are declining across India. The current national average is about 2.3 in 2015; it should definitely fall to around 2.1 in next few years. All attention must be focused on preventing early marriages and widening the spread of contraceptives and reproductive medical facilities.
Rather than targeting people for sterilizing, the population planners will look wise if they target population momentum. Female education and women empowerment are two best and dignified solutions to go about it. This the message from the ICPD for the whole world.
For Further Reading
- The Overpopulation Myth
How feminism and pop culture saved Earth from getting too crowded -- and are helping to avert planetary catastrophe
- Low Fertility Rates – Just A Phase?
Government policies must adjust to sharp worldwide decline in fertility rates
- Population Policy
Pravin Visaria, population expert shares his ideas on family planning efforts in India.