Scared off by the popular backlash to family planning excesses during the Emergency, India’s political and social leadership abandoned the subject of population growth decades ago. The 10-year goals set out in the Population Policy 2000 were mostly neglected. So when Shanta Kumar, Himachal Pradesh’s former chief minister, resurrected this long forgotten issue and even sought the prime minister’s intervention, it came as a surprise. His fears are genuine but his idea of an all-party meeting is off-track. The problem does not need a political solution. It needs the dedicated attention of the chief ministers of three states — Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh — in whose hands lie the attainment of a goal that 24 states have already realised: Reducing fertility rates to replacement level.
With over 26 million births each year, the country’s population momentum is akin to a super-fast train which cannot be stopped. With determination, it can, however, be slowed down. Stopping the momentum is impossible: It is like telling generations of Indians, including newly-weds, to not have children or to mandate a small family norm. Fortunately, neither strategy is feasible in a democracy.
But chief ministers can certainly encourage people towards an optimum family size and provide couples with the tools to space and limit the arrival of their children — but voluntarily. Such an approach — soft and easy-going as it may sound — has, by and large, succeded.
But what is “optimum”? Demographers agree that if women in child-bearing years produce an average of 2.1 children per head — so as to replace both parents — the population gets stabilised. This number is referred to as the total fertility rate (TFR). Both low and high TFR can pose problems. With Japanese and European couples opting for fewer children, TFR in Europe and Japan has fallen below 1.5; that raises fears of societies disappearing. India’s TFR is presently at 2.3 with huge variations between states.
Kerala and Tamil Nadu achieved the ideal TFR of 2.1 in 1989 and 1992. The good news is that since then, several big states — Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab and West Bengal — have brought down fertility rates to replacement levels. Three other states — Gujarat, Haryana and Assam — are poised to join them in a year. The TFR in some states like Goa and West Bengal has fallen to nearly European levels.
Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh (30 per cent of India’s population) are, however, responsible for pulling the country back. Their neighbours, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand (10 per cent of the country’s population) have also been tardy but they are moving towards the 2.1 TFR goal; for them the target looks attainable by 2020. The National Family Health Survey and the District Level Health Surveys show that most poor families if assured of two living children do not want more. But this is not the case in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan where poor parents consciously want more than two children; it is also ironical that the unmet need for contraception is also the highest in these states. Higher fertility levels, early marriages, repeated pregnancies and mothers giving birth in their 40s are exacerbating the problem. Contraception is not used by 50 per cent of those who need it the most.
According highest primacy to population stabilisation in these three states is, therefore, essential. By tracking every married couple in underserved villages, a lot can be achieved. One strategy would be to give incentives to the local health volunteers who should be remunerated for every year’s delay in child birth after the age of 19 (the legal age for women to marry being 18), promoting a gap of three years between children and facilitating family planning methods.
The health minister has recently announced that his ministry will focus on high TFR districts, mostly in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. While this is a good strategy, the engagement of the top leadership is indispensable.
Only chief ministers carry the authority to extract work from the state health bureaucracies. As Tamil Nadu’s example shows, they can requisition the workforce of every department as well that of the private sector. At stake is not just population stabilisation but more importantly women’s liberation and a greater chance for the unborn children to live, learn and become employable. Such reasons to reduce population can swing elections, if presented intelligently.
India’s “demographic dividend” boast is sounding more and more clichéd when one sees the abysmal impact of health and education on millions of young men and women, particularly in the northern states. In the West, the term is used to signify the proportion of working people vis-a-vis the retirees. In India, the so-called dividend is actually represented by disproportionately high number of young people in six high fertility states, many of whom are unemployable. Malnutrition and illiteracy persist.
Shanta Kumar has shown initiative by raising the population issue. He should now find a way of making it worthwhile for the CMs of the lagging states to give primacy to population stabilisation. He should also distinguish between natural growth and population growth caused by unplanned in-migration from other states which is largely responsible for the polluted, slum-ridden picture that he has painted for urban India. That, however, is a matter for another story on how appeasement politics is replacing basic governance.