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Does India need a population control law?

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Sameer Jena
Sameer Jena
The author is a practicing lawyer based in Delhi.

On the occasion of Population Day, UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath made a statement regarding population control. Yogi said that the population control program should proceed successfully but the situation of demographic imbalance should not arise. He said that it should not happen that the population of the original denizen decreases and on the other hand the population of any one section keeps on increasing. He expressed concern over an adverse fall out of disparity in the religious demography of India.

In any country when the population reaches an explosive state, it starts growing disproportionately with the resources, and it becomes necessary to bring stability in it. Resource is a very important component. In India the population growth rate is higher than the rate of development, which creates regional imbalance within country. For example, in Southern states of India the total fertility rate is about 1.8 which is considered as the stability rate, whereas in Northern states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, it’s about 3.0. When development is low and population is high, it forces people migrate from such places to other places in search of livelihood. The limitation of resources and excess of population create conflict; give birth to fights among people of different states based on ethnic group, region, and language.

English scholar Thomas Robert Malthus has explained population growth and its effects in An Essay on the Principle of Population. According to Malthus, population grows in a geometrical fashion, while resources increase in an arithmetic progression. Therefore the population doubles following every 25 years. Although the views of Malthus cannot be acquiesced literally; but it is veritable that the rate of growth of population is greater than the rate of growth of resources. On the coordination of population and resources, David Ricardo, the father of the land tax theory; Thomas Sadler; and Herbert Spencer have also expressed serious views on population growth.

India will overtake China by 2025

According to latest edition of World Population Prospects 2022 released by United Nations, India is projected to surpass China as the world’s most populous country during 2023. According to the report, India’s population stands at 1.412 billion in 2022, compared to China’s 1.426 billion. India is projected to have a population of 1.668 billion in 2050, way ahead of China’s 1.317 billion people by the middle of the century.

China is now ahead of us in population, so it is also very big in area. India accounts for a meager 2.4 percent of the world surface area yet it supports and sustains a whopping 17.7 percent of the world population. However, India’s population is expected to stabilize after 2050 and may virtually stop growing by the end of this century, due in large part to falling fertility rates. Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) projects a total fertility rate (TFR) of 1.29 births per woman in 2100 instead of 1.69 in the United Nations medium scenario for India, resulting in a population that is 433 million smaller than according to the United Nations projections at the end of the century.

Understanding ‘total fertility rate’

Total fertility rate refers to the average number of children that a hypothetical cohort of women would bear over the course of their reproductive life if they were subject to the age-specific fertility rates (usually referring to women aged 15 to 49 years) estimated over a given period and were not subject to mortality. It is expressed as children per woman. A TFR level above 5 children per woman is consider high fertility whereas below 1.3 children per woman is very low fertility. TFR levels of about 2.1 children per woman are replacement level fertility. According to the United Nations, “if replacement level fertility is sustained over a sufficiently long period, each generation will exactly replace itself in the absence of migration.”

The National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) 2019-21 found that India’s total fertility rate is 2.0 children per woman, which declined from 2.2 children in 2015-16 and is currently below the replacement level of fertility of 2.1 children per woman. This means that the population of India achieved the replacement level. At least the official figures tell the same. In most of the states/union territories the total fertility rate is well below replacement level. Bihar (3.0), Uttar Pradesh (2.35), Jharkhand (2.3), and some north-eastern states such as Meghalaya (2.9) were present as exceptions.

Economic Survey 2018-19: A different approach

The Economic Survey 2018-19 states that the rate of population growth in the country has hindered over the past few decades. During the year 1971-81 the annual growth rate was 2.5 percent, which has come down to 1.3 percent in the year 2011-16. Referring to the demographic trends in the survey, it has been highlighted that states like Bihar, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, which have historically had high population growth rates, have also shown a drop in the population growth rate. The states of South India and West Bengal, Odisha, Assam, Punjab, Maharashtra, and Himachal Pradesh have annual growth rate less than 1 percent. According to the survey, the population growth rate in India is expected to decline sharply in the coming two decades, with some states beginning to move towards the status of an aging society by 2030. The Economic Survey not only upholds an optimistic view of population control, but advocates that the focus of policy making in the country should be on the increasing number of elderly people in the future.

Demographic dividend or demographic curse

Population of youth and working population in a country and the economic benefits from it are seen in the form of demographic dividend. India currently has the largest population of youth in the world, if this population is used to accelerate India’s economy, then it will provide demographic dividend to India. But if education is not of quality, employment opportunities are limited, means of health and economic security are not available, then large working population can take the form of a curse. Therefore, different countries emphasize on population growth in proportion to their resources. In the present situation in India, the young and working population is large but only limited employment opportunities are available for them. In such a situation, unless the population growth is regulated, the situation can become catastrophic.

Key challenges of growing population

First, to provide citizens with a minimum quality of life, investments have to be made on the development of education and health systems, maximum production of food grains, providing affordable houses, clean drinking water supply, and work on strengthening infrastructure such as roads, transport, and power generation and distribution. Second, to take advantage of the growing population, India has to build a strong base of human capital so that they can contribute significantly to the country’s economy. However India’s low literacy rate (about 74 percent) can be the biggest obstacle in this path. Third, the country’s urban population will double by the year 2050; due to which there will be a challenge to improve urban facilities and provide housing to all, as well as it will be necessary to save the environment. Additionally, unequal distribution of income and increasing inequality among people may result in negative consequences of overpopulation.

Poverty and population growth

Family health, child survival, and number of children are closely related to the health and level of education of the parents (especially the mother). Thus the poorer a couple is, the more children they tend to give birth to. This trend is concerned with the opportunities, options, and services available to the people. Poor people tend to give birth to more children because child survival is low in this class, the desire to have a son has always been high, and children help in economic activities and thus meet the economic and emotional needs of the family.

According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) 2019-21, women in the lowest wealth quintile have an average of 1.0 more children than women in the highest wealth quintile. Thus moving from the richest to the poorest, the fertility rate is found to be 2.6 instead of 1.6. Similarly, the number of children per woman decreases with the increase in the level of schooling of women. The TFR was 2.82 for women who did not attend school compared to 1.8 for women who had been schooled for 12 years or more. This reveals that health, education, and inequality are closely related to fertility rates and people with less access to health and education remain trapped in the vicious circle of poverty and give birth to more and more children.

Political demand for population control law

From time to time, there has been a demand from political parties to make laws to stop the population growth. Such demand has increased significantly after the Modi government came to power in 2014. On 15 August 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while giving a speech from the Red Fort, said that the population explosion that is happening in India will create many troubles for the coming generation. He also recognized that a conscious section of the country, understanding the problems caused by rising population growth, keeps its family confined. These people display patriotism in a way, he held. Last year, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had also advised policy formulation regarding population control.

Many Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders keep raising this issue time and again. Rakesh Sinha, Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament of BJP, introduced the Population Regulation Bill as a private bill in July 2019. Even before Sinha introduced the bill, in May same year, a Delhi BJP leader and advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay had filed a PIL in the Delhi High Court, demanding a stringent law for population control. The Delhi High Court had disposed off the case. Now the matter is with the Supreme Court.

In 2018, around 125 lawmakers urged the President to implement the two-child policy in India. In 2016, BJP MP Prahlad Singh Patel also introduced a private member’s bill on population control. However, like most private bills, it did not reach the voting stage. Since independence, about 36 such bills have been introduced by MPs of different parties, out of which 15 have been introduced by Congress MPs.

Many states have already implemented penal provisions to control population or encourage small households. Soon after Prime Minister Modi’s speech, the BJP-led Assam government decided to implement the Assam Population and Women Empowerment Policy, which was passed in September 2017. Under this policy, no person with more than two children shall be eligible for government jobs in Assam from January 2021 onwards. Similar provisions are in place in about a dozen states that impose eligibility and entitlement restrictions if the conditions of the two-child policy are not met. These restrictions also include barring people from contesting elections to Panchayati Raj institutions in some states.

Population growth and the M-factor

Once again Muslims are in the thick of a hysterical debate in India. While some groups are successful in creating a common belief among the people in the country that Muslims produce more children, on the other hand allegations are being made that the government is trying to bring population control law by conspiring against the Muslim population. What’s the truth? Are Muslims growing faster than other religions or is it a population myth?

According to Census 2011 data, population growth rate of various religions has come down during 2001 to 2011. Hindu population growth rate slowed down to 16.76% in 2011 from previous decade figure of 19.92% in 2001 while Muslim witness a fall in growth rate to 24.6% in 2011 from the previous decade figure of 29.52% in 2001. Similarly, the TFR among women in Hindus has declined from 2.8 children in 1998-99 to 1.9 children in 2019-21 while Muslims witness a fall in TFR to 2.4 children (2019-21) from the previous figure of 3.6 children (1999-99).

Although these numbers look comfortable, people who have been pointing out these numbers as an indication of the ceasing of the religious imbalance are wrong. A study of religion data of Census 2011 by Centre for Policy Studies (cpsindia.org) reveals that at the national aggregate level there was an increase in the share of Muslims in the population of India from 13.43 percent in 2001 to 14.23 percent in 2011, which means there was an addition of 0.8 percentage points to their share in the population. This level of increase was significant as it was the third decade in a row when their share had increased by or above 0.8 percentage points. Another important aspect is that the share of Muslims has been rising every decade since independence.

During 1951-61, the decadal increase in the growth of Muslim population was 0.24 percent and it has jumped to almost four times at 0.80 per cent in 2001-11. Studying the growth of Muslim population in absolute numbers, it can be seen Muslim population in India has grown to 172.2 million in 2011 compared to 37.7 million in 1951, implying a multiplication factor of 4.6. The population of others in the same period has multiplied only 3.2 times. Given the upward, most demographers agree that within two or three decades India will be home to the largest Muslim population in the world.

A report by Pew Research Center backs these concerns about the changing religious demography of India. According to the study India is expected have the largest population of Muslims in the world (11% of the global total) in 2050. In 2050 the Muslim population in India will be 31.10 million, an increase by 76 percent compared to 2021. At the same time the population of Hindus is projected at 1.3 billion, an increase of 33 percent.

Youngest median age and highest fertility rates among major religious groups are the reasons Indian Muslims are expected to grow faster than Hindus. The median age of Indian Muslims was 22 in 2010, compared with 26 for Hindus. Likewise, Muslim women have an average of 3.2 children per woman, compared with 2.5 for Hindus. Due to these factors, India’s Muslim community will expand faster than its Hindu population, rising from 14.4% in 2010 to 18.4% in 2050.

Lessons from the past

With 350 million people India was one of the most populous countries even during its independence. This was the reason the world’s first state campaign for population control was started in the year 1951 in India. But this did not lead to success. During the Emergency of 1975, efforts were made to control the population on a large scale. Many inhuman measures were used in these efforts. Not only did this program fail, but there was an atmosphere of fear among the people about the program and its execution, which hindered the efforts of population control for many years. After the disastrous experience of forced family planning during the Emergency, the term was rarely used by politicians. Population control remained politically untouched since then.

Population support instead of population control

India has not seen population in terms of a problem and control over it, but as a thriving resource which is the life force of a growing economy. Seeing it in the terms of problem and control and acting from this point of view may not be a favorable step for the nation. This approach may stifle progress so far and set the ground for a weaker and worse health delivery system.

Despite supporting the population policy, experts are against making it a law and strictly implementing it. Many believe that the states should focus on the already existing system. At present, the work of family planning in rural areas is done by ASHA, Anganwadi, and ANM health workers. Their effort and work on the ground to the family planning program, specifically in rural India, is commendable. Modern contraceptive use by currently married women in the country has increased from 48 percent to 56 percent between 2015-16 and 2019-21.

The TFR among women in rural areas has declined from 3.7 children in 1992-93 to 2.1 children in 2019-21; it was 2.4 in 2015-16. Presently, the fertility rate in 23 states and union territories (including all the states of South India) has already reached below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. Thus a policy of support rather than control would be more effective.

Finally, do we need a law?

Although population growth has given rise to many challenges, legal course of action cannot be considered as a suitable step to control it. India’s position is different from China and unlike China, India is a democratic country where everyone has the right to decide about their personal life. In my view, instead of resorting to law, efforts should be made for population control by taking measures like awareness campaign, raising the level of education, and eradicating poverty. Financial incentives should be given to the families associated with family planning and such families who have not adopted family planning should be motivated for the same through various programs.

While everyone agrees that population growth rate of various religions has come down during past years, the fact that India’s Muslim community will expand faster than its Hindu population and the country is going to have the largest population of Muslims in the world cannot be repudiated. And this reality will continue to preoccupy a large section of the Hindu community and its leaders in this country.

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Sameer Jena
Sameer Jena
The author is a practicing lawyer based in Delhi.
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