If you grew up in India in the 90s, you often heard the government slogan. “Hum Do Hamare Do”, meaning “We two, our two”, urging families to have no more than two children each.
A government study which has just been published indicates that India has achieved this goal. It’s a mystery why we don’t celebrate this historic moment.
The just-released National Family Health Survey-5, a government study conducted in 2019-2020, shows that India’s total fertility rate (or the average number of children produced by a woman) has fallen at 2.0.
The replacement rate is 2.1, when a population size is said to be stabilized. Below 2.1, the population size begins to decrease. In other words, India no longer has to worry about a population “explosion”. The size of the Indian population should now start to decrease.
This is a huge victory for population scholars, women’s rights activists and public health experts who have been successful in getting the Indian government to focus on maternal health, access to contraceptives and awareness in the 90s. Credit also goes to “ASHA” or the credentialed social health activists who brought the revolution to the doorstep of the village.
A victory for democracy
It was a policy of empowering women and allowing families to make their own decisions, rather than forcing family planning on people against their will.
To that extent, it is also a victory for India’s democratic ideals. In some years, the size of India’s population may exceed that of China, as China’s total fertility rate is still lower than India’s (1.7 in 2020). But in a few decades, India will face the same problem as China, an aging and shrinking population with an insufficient number of young people to add to the workforce.
Democratic India has always had the impulse to impose population control on the people. During Indira Gandhi’s emergency in 1975-77, her out-of-control son Sanjay Gandhi forced the government to forcibly sterilize some young men. This decision is attributed to the main reason why she lost the 1977 election.
Do not despair of Bihar
The statewide variations are fascinating. Only 5 states are above the replacement level of 2.1. These are Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Meghalaya and Manipur. Before we despair, it should be noted that even these states have seen a significant decline and are on track to reach 2.1 in a few years. At least UP, Bihar and Jharkhand here are proof that family planning is proportional to literacy and access to health services.
When a woman cannot have an abortion or easily access abortion pills or a poor worker does not receive free contraceptives in a public hospital, that is government failure. India’s population “explosion” has been overcome by these policy interventions.
It is revealing to look at the urban-rural difference. Urban India’s total fertility rate according to the survey is 1.6, while rural India is 2.1. So, while rural India has reached the replacement rate, urban India is well below. Today, people no longer need extra children to work as children. They increasingly view children as a financial responsibility that should not be taken lightly.
In Bihar, the worst performer with a TFR of 2.98, the rural TFR is 3.1 and the urban TFR 2.4. In highly populated Uttar Pradesh, the urban TFR is 1.9 and rural 2.5.
The Muslim Scarecrow
Population “control” has long been used as a bogeyman against Muslims. Majority extremists have often suggested that Indian Muslims deliberately produce more children to ensure that India becomes a Muslim majority country. Every 5 years the National Survey of Family Health has proven this myth wrong.
The TFR for Indian Muslim women as a whole fell from 3.6 in 1998-99 to 2.36 in the latest survey (2019-20). Indian Muslims have experienced the largest drop in fertility rate. If their ISF is still slightly higher than the national average, this is proof that they are socio-economically less well off.
Similar to the states of UP and Bihar, the TFR of Indian Muslims is directly proportional to literacy and access to maternal health and family planning services.
Lost demographic opportunity
This achievement should be cause for national celebration as people have worried about population size for decades. The concern was always a bit misplaced, because a young population also means cheap labour. India has failed to harness this “demographic dividend” by missing the manufacturing bus.
In a few decades – sooner than you think – we will have the opposite problem. We will be aging and poor, and politicians will face pressure for better services for the elderly.
But for now, we should celebrate. Anyone who has walked down an Indian street can say that there are too many of us. It is a relief to know that most Indians only want one or two children.