The old slogan, “Hum do hamare do, woh panch unke pachchees (We are two, we have two; they are five and have 25)” is probably still potent enough to appeal to popular perceptions of “uncontrolled” Muslim population growth — despite scientific evidence to the contrary.
At a critical juncture, when the states and Union territories in India are experiencing a sharp decline in fertility rates, population laws are back in the conversation. Though there is nothing on “record” that these are specifically for Muslims, the writing on the wall is clear. And it is a travesty, given the facts and figures available from government agencies.
The recently released empirical data from the National Family Health Survey 2019-20 (NFHS-5) for 22 states and Union territories provides that except for three states — Bihar, Manipur and Meghalaya —the fertility rates have gone below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman.
The total fertility rates (TFR) in the Union territories of Lakshwadeep and Jammu & Kashmir, which have sizeable Muslim populations, have gone substantially below the replacement level with 1.4 children per woman. In Jammu & Kashmir, this is on account of a modest percentage of women with 10 or more years of schooling (51.3 per cent), fewer women marrying before the age of 18 years (4.5 per cent), declining infant mortality (20 per 1,000 live births) and more current users of family planning methods (59.8 per cent).
In all the seven Northeastern states, the fertility rates range from 1.1 in Sikkim to 1.9 in Assam, except Manipur (2.2) and Meghalaya (2.9). In nine out of 10 states, fertility rates range from as low as 1.3 in Goa to as high as 1.9 in Gujarat. Among populous states, the TFR has gone down to 1.6 children in West Bengal. It is only 1.7 each in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. In Telangana and Kerala, the fertility rate is getting stabilised at 1.8 children per woman. Even in Bihar, where the TFR is 3, there is a relative decline in fertility from 3.4 in NFHS-4 (2015-16). In NFHS-4 itself, as many as 23 states and Union Territories, including all the states in the south region, showed fertility below the replacement level. In Uttar Pradesh, too, there is a declining trend in TFR from 3.8 in NFHS-3 (2005-06) to 2.7 in NFHS-4 (2015-16).
In West Bengal, the figures for women with 10 or more years of schooling (32.9per cent) and women marrying before age 18 years (41.6 per cent) are almost similar to Bihar and worse than Uttar Pradesh. But it seems that West Bengal reached a TFR of 1.6 on account of sharply declining neonatal mortality rate (15.5 per cent), infant mortality rate (22.0 per cent) and high contraceptive prevalence rate (74.4 per cent). In brief, the probable fruit of better health facilities and wider contraceptive choices.
If an alarm bell is to be pressed, then it is not for population laws but for declining fertility. Replacement level fertility demands heavy investment in education, health and employment opportunities so that the “limited working population” in the near future is robust and skilled enough. What is needed is a comprehensive policy ensuring dignified living — easy access to quality education, better health services and sound livelihood opportunities.
Let the data speak on the “need” for population laws. The NFHS-4 (2015-16) shows interesting linkages of fertility with education and economic well-being. For example, women with no schooling have an average of 3.1 children, compared with 1.7 children for women with 12 or more years of schooling. Among Hindus, TFR was 2.1 and among Muslims it was 2.6, that is a difference of 0.5 children. For the same period, the most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, had a TFR of 2.7; in the case of Muslims, it was 0.6 points more than that of Hindus. In some states with high Muslim populations, the TFR of Muslims was little more than that of Hindus — 0.6 in West Bengal, 0.8 in Assam and 1.0 in Bihar (NFHS-5). For sure, this difference in TFR does not support the charade that Muslim population will overtake Hindus.
Lest there be any doubt left, one must understand that there is a steep decline in the fertility of Muslims from NFHS-1 (1992-93) to NFHS-4 (2015-16) (by 1.78 in comparison to 1.17 for Hindus). There is also a continuous decline in the population growth rate over decades. The decline in decadal growth rate was sharp in Census 2011 and sharper for Muslims. The decadal growth rate (2001-2011) for Muslims was 24.6 per cent in Census 2011. Though high, it marked a sharp decline from 29.5 per cent, which was registered in Census 2001. This decline of 4.9 per cent among the Muslims is higher than the corresponding 3.1 per cent decline for the Hindu community, whose decadal growth percentage declined from 19.9 (1991-2001) to 16.8 (2001-2011).
Before we forget the propaganda of Muslims “having more wives”, last available figures from Census 1971 provide that the incidence of polygyny (two or more wives) is highest among Adivasis (15.25 per cent) followed by Buddhists (7.9 per cent), Jains (6.27 per cent), Hindus (5.80 per cent) and Muslims (5.70 per cent).
Fertility rates are reflective of the progress in respective states on schooling, income levels, decline in neonatal and infant mortality rates and increase in the contraceptive prevalence rate. States with relatively higher TFR like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh need to work on these fronts. Hence, any talk of population laws in India at this juncture would at best be like putting the cart before the horse.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 25, 2021 under the title ‘On population, let facts speak’. Shahid teaches at Maulana Azad National Urdu University; Jha is a Member of Parliament