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Population explosion: Myth vs. reality

By DM Deshpande

Speaking from the rampart of Red Fort on Independence Day, the Prime Minister stressed upon the need to control the rapid growth in population in the country. Implying that, it is the national duty of every citizen to ensure a small family as otherwise the situation would be catastrophic. 

Amongst the leading academicians, Malthus was the first to theorize that the world population would rise far more quickly than the increase in goods and services and eventually lead to population explosion. Thereafter, famines and other disasters would set right the balance for some time before again leading to rapid growth in population in course of time.

Fortunately, nothing of this sort has happened. Socio-economic development resulted in bringing down the fertility rates drastically. The developed west never ever faced problem of surge in population growth. On the contrary, several nations in this group are facing problem of ageing population. On this basis it was predicted long time back that countries with huge population would stand to gain in terms of demographic dividend. India, too, along with other nations, did gain from this demographic development but whether the gain was in keeping with the full potential of the nation is something which is a matter of debate.

Fertility rates are falling across the states in India. In fact, the census 2011 saw the biggest fall in decadal growth of population estimated at 17.7 per cent. Several national family health sample surveys have pointed out the consistent fall in fertility rates in India. A large sample of 2017 puts the average national fertility rate at 2.2, a tad above the desirable 2.1 level at which a nation replenishes and maintains its total population.

The results of national family health survey 2018-19 are not yet out; fertility rate might have already reached 2.1 level. There is a profound confidence amongst the demographers that when the 2021 census counting begins, it will have a totally different story to tell.

Fall in fertility rates go along with regional variations, definitely not on religious lines as is the popular belief. In fact, among the large states, J&K, NCT Delhi and West Bengal with large Muslim population have seen steep fall in fertility rates. In fact, J&K and West Bengal have among the lowest fertility rates in the country, at 1.7 and 1.6 respectively.  Similarly, gap between the fertility rates of the largest and second largest communities is falling sharply from 31 per cent in 2005-06 to 23 per cent now. In all probability, with further empowerment and socio-economic development of minority community this difference will come down to a negligible level.

China enforced a strict one-child rule for 30 years and is now facing a difficult prospect of ageing population. While without any coercive measures, India achieved a drastic fall in fertility rates in recent times. This is a matter of pride and needs to be highlighted in the larger interest of the nation and its people.  Decisions about the size of the family are best left to individuals with the state keeping an arm’s length distance. Responsibility of the state should be to create an enabling environment.

Rather than controlling population growth, government will do well to address the problem of falling sex ratio in the country. While fertility rates have fallen, sex ratio has worsened. If the trend is not arrested, the result will be social instability. As it is, there are reports of shortage of brides in certain parts of the country and migration from far flung areas to set right skewed sex ratio.

Government will also do well to commission a study on regional variations in population growth. Bihar and Odisha have similar socio-economic indicators but while fertility rates are down in the latter Bihar is about the worst performer among the larger states.

Economics, education and empowerment will largely determine change in levels of population. Government should leave it at that rather than contemplating any coercive policy intervention to restrict the individual size of family.

The author has four decades of experience in higher education teaching and research. He is the former first vice chancellor of ISBM University, Chhattisgarh.

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