How declining fertility in India will be a great boon in the long run

Being the most populous of countries is an economic no-no. The good news on population control has arrived at last, close to our 75th year o...

Being the most populous of countries is an economic no-no. The good news on population control has arrived at last, close to our 75th year of Independence. The latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS), the fifth in series, released by the Ministry of Health on 24 November 2021, indicates Indians have stabilised their numbers on average, at just about replacement rate.

There is, in addition, a sharp bias in some states and Union Territories towards declining population. Overall, and in all regions, female births have increased holistically. 2.1 children per child-bearing woman is globally considered to be the ‘no growth’ statistic. India overall now has 2.0. Some states have rates as low as 1.6. The highest has a rate of 3, with several states returning a range between 2 and 3.

Fortunately for India, 65 percent of the population are younger than 35 and 50 percent are younger than 25 at present. This will change as the population ages rapidly post 2035. Then the edge to our often discussed ‘demographic dividend’ will reduce, but as the world changes rapidly through technological innovation, this will not matter.

We need to accept that this is the era of mechanisation growing as fast as supercomputing. The earlier models based loosely on the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century onwards are out of date. Today we are in the age of factories and trains that run themselves, with very small human staff requirements. Competitiveness and efficiency dictate this. This is the age of robotics, artificial intelligence, preventive medicines, cloning, surrogacy, gene splicing, drones, digital commerce, software-based controls. In short, the dominance of high technology and not population in everything. The labour-intensive models are going obsolete in most areas of endeavour.

In India, we already have a problem with rampant unemployment and under employment. And to an extent, jobless growth. Skilling and reskilling to take on new roles constantly will be imperative for both the young and not so young.

This does not mean that the present momentum from more fecund states with high growth rates of between 2 to 3 per child-bearing woman, won’t stop us overtaking China as the most populous country by 2031, a decade later than earlier expected.

It is further estimated we will reach figures of 1.5 billion by 2036, and 1.7 to 1.8 billion by 2050. The decline, as per current projections, can come only after that. However, the survey shows a holistic decline in the birth rate in all cases from the earlier survey of 2011. We need to accelerate this.

Part of this present reduction in population trends can be attributed to a 67 percent contraceptive usage, again sharply up from earlier figures of 54 percent in 2011. Greater health awareness in women, spacing of children, better nutrition, medical care, connectivity, aspiration towards education and upward mobility for progeny, have also changed things greatly.

Too many mouths to feed may not be India’s threat going forward. We have surplus production of food grains today. Storage, inventory management, distribution, will have to be improved. Currently, there is much waste, further vitiated by mandatory MSPs in many instances resulting in inappropriate water-intensive crops being grown in unnecessary abundance, such as paddy and sugarcane. MSPs distort market economics, but few involved care about this.

India is a net exporter of food grains, but the quality is not very good. Water, including irrigated water, ground water, and rainwater is under immense pressure. Ditto electricity, often unpaid for by farmers. This is not going to get better with more people around urban and manufacturing hubs also demanding more and more.

India is now a leading producer of milk, cereal, pulses, vegetables, fruit, cotton, sugarcane, fish, poultry and livestock in the world. But there are too many underemployed farmers. Land holdings are tiny. The recent NFHS survey 2021 expects 60 percent of the population to stay rural in 2036 even after the broadly declining trend in population. This is not a happy 21st century statistic. The US works its productive mechanised farms, albeit subsidised, with just 4 percent of its population of around 334 million stabilised for decades now.

The population growth in India however has been stabilised at last without having to resort to draconian measures like China’s One Child Policy. But it needs a declining trend across the board of the minimum obtained so far, which is just 1.6.

India’s population has more than trebled to 1.39 billion in the 75 years since Independence. This is already 17.7 percent of the world population. This percentage will grow unless our own slowdown in population is accelerated.

The dream of a decent standard of living as obtained in the developed countries can only come with a sharp rise in per capita income. Life expectancy has soared. The death rate has declined. Millions have been lifted above the poverty line. All this is good.

Despite stellar GDP expectations of 9 percent year-on-year, the highest in the world for a major economy, making one child per second is a huge problem.

At present India has the fifth largest economy, at about $3 trillion, but even when it gets to third, after the US and China, expected by 2030, there will be a strong divide between haves and have-nots. There will be more billionaires, millionaires, upper and middle class, but also more paupers. As things stand, unless the next survey shows a much rosier picture, a net reduction in population will occur only in the last decades of the 21st century.

For countries in Europe with small 20th century populations in the first place, and zero population growth for decades since, wolves of the forest have reclaimed deserted villages. Immigration from poor, often war-torn countries such as Syria are the norm. But this causes societal rifts, religious tension and culture shocks.

But this is certainly not going to be India’s problem. But as the population keeps growing, so will conflict between followers of different religions, cultural practice and linguistic diversity. People will live cheek by jowl as the fastest population growth will be in urban India. Life will become far more competitive with resources always outstripping demand. So let us hope the good news on declining population is a case of well begun is half done.

The writer is a Delhi-based commentator on political and economic affairs. The views expressed are personal.

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