It’s time to discuss depopulation

Rates of fertility are falling fast enough in parts of India that population declines are on the horizon

Updated - November 28, 2022 12:47 pm IST

Published - November 28, 2022 12:15 am IST

People assemble to watch the ‘Thrissur Pooram’ in Thrissur, Kerala.

People assemble to watch the ‘Thrissur Pooram’ in Thrissur, Kerala. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock photo

Two weeks ago, when the world population touched 8 billion, several headlines focused on how India was the largest contributor to the last billion and is set to surpass China as the world’s most populous nation by 2023. China’s population has begun to decline, while India’s population is expected to grow for another 40 years, they said. But missing in this conversation is the real threat of depopulation that parts of India too face, and the country’s complete lack of preparedness to deal with it.

By current United Nations estimates, India’s population will begin to decline only in 2063, by which time it will be just shy of 1.7 billion. The world’s population is expected to grow until 2086. Given that China’s population has begun to decline, these estimates about India have led to alarmist calls for restrictions on family sizes. Such remarks have increasingly assumed an anti-Muslim tone.

On the other hand, demographers, policy experts and politicians in countries such as Japan, South Korea and Europe, which are experiencing falling fertility and nearing the inflection point of population declines, are beginning to talk about what the future holds and whether reversal is possible. However, the global conversation around depopulation is missing some key elements. Without talking about equitable sharing of housework; access to subsidised childcare that allows women to have families as well as a career; and lowered barriers to immigration to enable entry to working-age people from countries which aren’t yet in population decline, the narrative can sometimes be tinged with anti-feminism and ethnic superiority. And that is precisely why India needs to step into and have this conversation.

Fertility in India

It is now well-established that fertility in India is falling along expected lines as a direct result of rising incomes and greater female access to health and education. India’s total fertility rate is now below the replacement rate of fertility. However, what needs more urgent policy intervention is the fact that parts of India have not only achieved replacement fertility, but have been below the replacement rate for so long that they are at the cusp of real declines in population. Kerala, which achieved replacement fertility in 1998, and Tamil Nadu, which achieved this in 2000, are examples. Moreover, even in States with relatively high fertility, many cities have been at the replacement rate or below the replacement rate for over a decade, if not more; the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) estimated India’s urban fertility rate in 2019-21 to be 1.6, which places it next to the U.K.

Yet, India, especially States and cities with below-replacement fertility, is not having the urgent conversation that the U.K. is having about what a future with an ageing population and a declining workforce is going to look like. In the next four years, both Tamil Nadu and Kerala will see the first absolute declines in their working-age populations in their histories. With falling mortality (barring the pandemic), the total population of these States will continue to grow for the next few decades, which means that fewer working-age people must support more elderly people than ever before. Among the female elderly in particular, economic dependence is a serious concern.

Against this backdrop, both States will also need to re-examine the continued sustainability of low in-migration. In 2011, the median Tamilian was 10 years older than the median Bihari. By 2036, they will be separated by over 12 years and the median Tamilian will be over 40 years old; the working-age population of the future will skew northwards. Yet, even though political and popular rhetoric in Tamil Nadu and Kerala often makes it appear as if these States are facing a surge of migrants from the poorer, more populous northern States, the fact is that both States had negative net migration rates, which means they sent out more migrants than they received, as of 2011, the most recent year for which this data are available. This will make access to working-age persons notably different from the situation in other States with low fertility. These include Delhi and Karnataka which are both net recipients of migrants, and will not confront population decline in the near future (though the future is uncertain given strident nativist political rhetoric across India).

Three challenges

A depopulating future poses at least three unique challenges to India. First, a skewed sex ratio remains a danger. As the latest round of the NFHS showed, families with at least one son are less likely to want more children than families with just one daughter. Second, the stark differences between northern and southern States in terms of basic literacy as well as enrolment in higher education, including in technical fields, will mean that workers from the southern States are not automatically replaceable. Third, the sharp anti-Muslim tone in the conversation has remained even though fertility between Hindus and Muslims is converging.

Conversations around fertility reductions in the southern States are often framed around the price that these States are having to pay in relation to others in terms of the share of federal tax receipts or political representation. But there is also the question of the price their own citizens will have to bear in terms of economic productivity and welfare sustainability. With decades of focus on lowering fertility, the conversation in India is stuck in a rut. It is for the southern States to break away from this outmoded, data-free rhetoric and join the global conversation on depopulation.

(Rukmini S. is an independent data journalist based in Chennai. Ramakrishnan Srinivasan contributed to the data analysis.)

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