Committee will study ‘fast population growth’ and demographic changes: Nirmala Sitharaman

No accurate data available on population growth as Census was last held in 2011; NFHS, SRS data show a decline in fertility rates; border security concerns being raised on basis of purported demographic changes

Updated - February 02, 2024 06:57 am IST

Published - February 01, 2024 07:13 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement comes against the backdrop of an indefinitely postponed Census, which means that there is little reliable data to back up her assertion of “fast” population growth in the country.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement comes against the backdrop of an indefinitely postponed Census, which means that there is little reliable data to back up her assertion of “fast” population growth in the country.

Interim Budget 2024

A high powered committee will be constituted to consider the challenges arising from “fast population growth and demographic changes”, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said in her Interim Budget speech on Friday. She added that the committee would be mandated to make recommendations to comprehensively address these challenges in relation to the goal of Viksit Bharat, or a developed India.

Her announcement comes against the backdrop of an indefinitely postponed Census, which means that there is little reliable data to back up her assertion of “fast” population growth in the country; the little data that exists suggests that the country’s fertility rate is, in fact, falling below replacement levels. Despite the absence of sound statistics, security concerns in border areas are also being highlighted on the basis of purported demographic changes.

In response to a question from The Hindu on whether the committee announced by Ms. Sitharaman was aimed at population stabilisation and if it would be set in motion after the next Census, Economic Affairs Secretary Ajay Seth said: “India’s demographics are an opportunity as well as a challenge. The committee will look at those aspects and the final terms of reference will reflect the focus.”

Fertility rate dropping

Though the details of the committee are still awaited, the Minister’s speech suggested there has been a “fast” population growth in the country, even though there is no accurate data reflecting such a trend. India has not had a Census since 2011. The latest Sample Registration System (SRS) report for the year 2020 said that the total fertility fate (TFR), or the average number of children born to a woman over her lifetime, has actually dropped to 2, from 2.1 in 2019.

The National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5 for 2019 to 2021, released in May 2022, stated that the TFR has further declined from 2.2 to 2 at the national level, in comparison to the last such survey held in 2015 and 2016. NFHS-5 said that there are only five outlier States which have a TFR above the replacement level of 2.1 — Bihar (2.98), Meghalaya (2.91), Uttar Pradesh (2.35), Jharkhand (2.26), and Manipur (2.17).

Also read: Key takeaways from interim Budget 2024-25 in charts

According to Sabu Mathew George, a girl child rights activist, the NFHS data does not give a complete picture as its sample size is too low and the survey is spread over many years. “SRS, which is released every year gives us a better statistical picture than NFHS. Notably, the SRS for the year 2020 was published in 2022. There has been no fresh publication since then. The NFHS-5 was conducted over a period of two years and the data cannot be said to be statistically sound,” Mr. George said.

Missing population data

On September 20 last year, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said in the Lok Sabha that the Census and delimitation of parliamentary seats would only be conducted after the 2024 general election, but did not specify the year that the exercise would take place. The Census, that was to be conducted in two phases in 2020 and 2021, has been postponed indefinitely.

The deadline to freeze the administrative boundaries of districts, tehsils, and police stations in States has been extended nine times by the Registrar General of India (RGI) that conducts the Census.

Another key report — ‘Vital Statistics of India Based On The Civil Registration System (CRS)’ — was last released for the year 2020. It has not been published for the years 2021, 2022, and 2023.

‘Essential for transparency’

Mr. George has petitioned the Supreme Court for the timely publication of the report, as it is “essential for transparency and effective demographic research and interventions in socio-economic planning”. The petition is expected to be heard this month.

The activist said that in 2011, the top court had directed all States to publish the data on their website up to the gram panchayat level. “In the case of sex-selective abortions, it was transparency and demographic research that revealed an alarming drop in sex ratios,” the petition said.

Demographic security concerns

At the annual Director General of Police (DGP) conference in 2021, police officers from Uttar Pradesh and Assam submitted a research paper flagging concerns about demographic changes in districts along the international border with Nepal and Bangladesh. The officers highlighted an increase in the number of mosques and seminaries, as well as a high decadal growth in population in these areas.

The Assam police paper said that the decadal growth in population, between 2011 and 2021, within 10 km of the Bangladesh border stood at 31.45%, which is higher than the projected national and State averages of 12.5% and 13.54% respectively.

In November 2021, the then-Border Security Force (BSF) director General Pankaj Kumar Singh had said that demographic changes in certain border districts of Assam and West Bengal could be one of the reasons for the Home Ministry notification issued a month earlier, enhancing the jurisdiction of the BSF upto 50 kilometres from the border. He had said that the 2011 Census reflected the demographic changes and the “demographic balance has changed in Bengal and Assam leading to revolt among the people… voting pattern has changed in the neighbouring border districts … the government thinking was that this notification can help in catching the infiltrators.”

The Uttar Pradesh police paper said that out of 1,047 villages in the seven border districts of Maharajganj, Siddharthnagar, Balrampur, Bahraich, Shravasti, Pilibhit, and Khiri, 303 villages had a Muslim population between 30% and 50%, while 116 villages had a Muslim population of more than 50%.

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