Thursday, 10 November 2011

Are we too many?

The seven billionth baby has many in India worried about our burgeoning population and poor family planning. A look at the numbers reveals something else.

The symbolic seven billionth baby may have arrived in the world to great fanfare, but here in India, should that development make us guilty or worried about things to come, considering our population is already around 1.2 billion?
 Some in India certainly think so. In Kerala, a state that has the lowest total fertility rate, a committee headed by VR Krishna Iyer recently recommended stringent punishment for those couples having more than two babies. This was in the context of a third of the population reporting a high fertility rate.

According to projections by the US Census department, India would be the most populous country in the world in 2050 outnumbering even China. While China is projected to have close to 1.38 billion then, India is projected to have 1.6 billion, as against 1.2 billion now.
The country, which has 13 per cent of the adult population with unmet needs of contraception, a high rate of teen marriages and early child births, should be worried about our population as it would add to inequalities, says Ritupriya who teaches in the department of community health in the Jawaharlal Lal University, Delhi. While dismissing the one child norm as population fundamentalism which could distort the social fabric, she says that unless economic structures for distribution of resources were readied, the increasing population is a real danger to the poor, as it would add to their exclusion. Others are far more pessimistic. “We are heading for a demographic disaster with India being squeamish about birth control,” says Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh.
And yet, despite this handwringing, many demographers are less perturbed than you would imagine by our growth in numbers. Professor Irudaya Rajan of the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram points to four districts in Kerala which have reported negative fertility rate. And by 2025 or 2030 the whole state would have more deaths than births, he says.
Rajan predicts the same for the rest of the country by 2060. “I don’t say that the family planning departments should be closed down. But they should not press too hard especially in the northern states,” he says. In fact, he says that pushing for a low fertility rate would affect the country’s economy adversely too. Labour supply, for instance, could get severely affected with a declining birth rate which could be a death knell for a developing country like India. China which has been on a one child norm for decades is already talking of relaxing the one baby norm, points out the demographer. Let us emphasise instead on the quality of children, says Rajan. “Give them education, skills and a good health,” he adds.
Fact is, the population growth rate in the country has been declining and the total fertility rate (TFR) at 2.5 is close to the level where death rate and birth rate even out. Death rates begin to take over when the TFR is less than 2.1 and population begins to decline. India would achieve that level according to projections in 2050 when the aging population would vastly increase.
Ashish Bose, veteran demographer, is another who doesn’t accept the disaster scenario of 1.6 billion people jostling each other for space in India with nothing to eat and drink. “The West had predicted a similar doomsday scenario in 1970s and we were food sufficient in 1975 and yet went for that dark chapter of targeted sterilisation,” he says.
Even if we did nothing to control population, the death rate and birth rate periodically and naturally overlap each other and maintain a balance, he says. At some point the two become equal a point that India is nearing, according to demographers.
Bose completely rules out any return to enforcement of birth control and targeted sterilisation. The women who are targeted are mostly illiterate and there is no meaning in having a fantastic birth control programme and a wretched life, he says. Instead, Bose believes that the first priority should be compulsory literacy.
The second priority should be enrolment and upgrading the quality of education and teachers. Along with this there should be investment in health care so that children don’t continue to die in droves, forcing people to have more children, says Bose. India has just 13 per cent of students going for higher education up from 10 per cent in 2000. China in comparison has about 27 per cent going for higher education up from just six per cent in 2000. The slow growth in education and health care, given the high maternal and infant mortality rate does not promise a demographic dividend.
Yet, Bose wisely warns that India’s 1.2 billion population is a not a dependable “demographic dividend’’ in terms of labour. It is a potential source of labour, but if left untrained and unskilled it could become a big liability, he says. He says that the two pre-conditions for decline in fertility are education and health care. Without these two no efforts can see a positive change, he says.
All in all, the growth in population has a positive side to it since it indicates the improvement in health care with life expectancy doubling from 40 years in 1950 to 80 years now. Demographers have projected a boom in the population of young working age people in the coming decades, followed by a tripling of 60 plus population too by 2050 to 316 million. The 80 plus population would quintuple too.
The major question is whether the nation will become equipped to take care of its aged and provide its youth with skills and work without which we will undoubtedly face a whole new wave of social problems than the problem of population growth.

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