The accusation of the BJP is not without some truth though. Since independence, thanks to the higher fertility rates of Muslims as well as the migration of Muslims from Bangladesh, their share in India’s population has risen from some 8% at the time of independence to about 13.5% in 2001. Even in the last ten years, the share of Muslims has risen to 14.6% and there is an expectation that their share may rise to 15.9% by 2030 (growing a little slowly now). Even in Kerala – a highly educated state and a state with low poverty levels – the Muslim population has a high TFR of 3.0 while the Hindus and Christians in that state have managed to go below the 2 mark – 1.7 for Hindus and 1.8 for Christians. A number of 2 is considered to be an important “cut-off” point – since that should lead to stability of population in the future.
The Muslims surely have reasons to think about the TFR data. None of the states which boast the best TFR in India are high-muslim population states. Goa (TFR of 21.7, muslim population less than 7%), Punjab (TFR 2.0; muslim population less than 2%), Himachal (TFR 1.9; muslim population less than 2%), Tamil Nadu (TFR 1.8; muslim population just under 6%), Maharashtra (TFR 2.1; muslim population just about 10%) and AP (TFR 1.8; muslim population 9%) are all examples of states with low TFR and low Muslim populations. Only Karnataka (TFR 2.1; Muslim population 12%) is a state that has a low TFR and a Muslim population at the level of the national average. I was initially hopeful that Muslim TFR in Kerala would be below 2, but was disappointed to learn otherwise.
In contrast, both the highest TFR states are states with high Muslim population – much higher than the national average……Bihar (TFR an astonishing 4; muslim pop 16.5%) and UP (TFR 3.8, muslim pop 18.5%). No wonder then that the BJP thinks of this as a conspiracy!
The reasons to understand the higher TFR amongst Muslims are not difficult to find. Firstly, Muslims are socio-economically worse off than the Hindus and Christians; even in literacy terms, they are behind. Poor education and poor economic status are both factors that affect TFR. Secondly, even though Islam does not specifically prohibit birth control measures, there are at least some who believe that when the Prophet asked the people to “marry and procreate”; he meant to grow without restraint. We know that that was said at a different time when the world’s population was just about 200 million. Today, things have changed a lot. The planet is now home to 7 billion people and there is urgent need for all to reduce the population growth rates. Unfortunately, Muslims haven’t taken to family planning measures the way others have. Thirdly, apparently, the Muslim population is more “urban” than other religions and this urban life makes infant mortalities in Muslims lower than in Hindus by 12% or so. This leads to a higher growth rate.
To be sure even….even today, the TFR for Muslims at 3.1 is higher than the national average, which is around 2.7 or so. But the gap between the TFRs of Muslims and the national average has reduced in the last seven years from 0.75 (1998-99: Muslims 3.6; National average 2.85) to just 0.4 (2005-6: Muslims 3.1; national average 2.7). This is a very positive sign and one must hope that both numbers reduce in the years to come. If in the next 20 years or so, all communities in India can hit the 2 figure, then not only will the Indian population stop increasing, it will also mean a stability of the shares of each religion – this will put paid to politics played by both Congress and BJP on grounds of religion.
There are of course other reasons for high TFR. One of the other major characteristics of states with high TFR is their tribal population. Nationally, the TFR for Scheduled Tribes is about 3 – similar to the TFR for Muslims. States like Madhya Pradesh (TFR 3.1; muslims 6.4%; tribals 20%), Chhatisgarh (TFR 2.6; muslims 1% or so; tribals 32%) and Rajasthan (TFR 3.2; muslims 8.5%; tribals 13%), Gujarat (TFR 2.4; muslims 9%; tribals 15%), Orissa (TFR 2.4; muslims 2%; tribals 22%) and Jharkhand (TFR 3.3; muslims 14% and tribals 26%) are examples of states with high TFR, low muslim populations and high tribal populations. In these states, it’s not the Muslim population but the tribal population that is leading to the higher TFR.
The big hope for India is that as education levels increase, the TFR is bound to fall. In the last ten years, the literacy levels in many of the worst states (Bihar, Jharkhand and UP) have all risen very significantly over their previous levels (Bihar for example has gone from 47% in 2001 to 64% in 2011). There is bound to be a reduction in the TFRs following this.
The real truth is that once the population of the country stabilizes – and each religion achieves its final stable numbers, the politics of the country will change. Politics based on creating and exploiting divisions between religions will matter less and less with every passing election. That should be good – making politics more inclusive and focused on other factors like hopefully, economic growth…..propelling India faster towards its rightful perch at the top of the world…..