Religion and fertility behaviour: canards and facts


A JOURNALIST has to be prepared for both hate mail and informed criticism. In response to an article I recently wrote on the facts behind the so-called "appeasement" of Muslims in India, I received one letter accusing me of ignoring the "hard facts" on the demographic behaviour of Hindus and Muslims. The writer "Laura Kelly" (no address) said "Hindus will become minority (sic) by 2051."

She also enclosed extracts of an article purporting to analyse fertility behaviour in the sub-continent. As in all such demagogy that passes off as an intellectual effort, this article (original publication not mentioned) used statistics very selectively and did not always mention where the data came from.

I had thought that the pseudo-champions of Hinduism had moved on to a far more sophisticated demagogy than talking about Muslims having more children, as part of an effort to whip up anger among the Hindus of an India in which they would soon be reduced to a minority. But as the recent use in public discourse of the obscene saying "Hum panch, hamare pachis (We five, our 25") suggests, the issue continues to be the source of manipulative and combustible politics. Tiresome as it may be to point out the obvious and self-evident as the facts should be, here are the findings of recent research on this subject

On the face of it, yes, Muslim Indians do have more children than Hindu Indians. According to the National Family Health Survey-II — an exhaustive survey conducted by the Mumbai-based International Institute of Population Studies — in 1998-99 the Total Fertility Rate of Hindu women was 2.8 and Muslims 3.6. (The TFR is the average number of children a woman bears during her reproductive life). But two aspects of the fertility behaviour of Hindus and Muslims must be borne in mind before jumping to any conclusion.

The first is that India's Muslim population is concentrated in a few States — 36 per cent reside in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Now fertility levels in these two backward States are in general (among Hindus and Muslims) higher than elsewhere. So the national average for Muslims could be more indicative of their backward economic and social position, rather than of religion determining how many children a woman should have.

K.S. James, a professor at the Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Hyderabad, points out that in Andhra Pradesh, the TFR for Muslims is not very much higher than for Hindus (2.5 versus 2.2). Others have pointed out an even starker comparison. According to information generated by the census, Muslim women in rural Tamil Nadu and Karnataka had considerably fewer children than Hindu women residing in the rural areas of backward States of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan (1978). In some cases the gaps were huge. The Muslim TFR in rural Tamil Nadu was 3.6 while that of a Hindu woman in U.P. was as much as 5.8. There were similar gaps in the towns and cities. Social and economic backwardness, rather than religion, then seems to influence fertility.

It is also a fact that Muslim fertility rates are falling and the gap between the Hindus and Muslims is closing. The TFR among Hindus was 3.3 in 1992-93 (NFH-I); this had declined to 2.8 (1998-99). But the fall among Muslims was even more rapid: from 4.4 to 3.6. A related canard is that Muslims do not practise family planning. The NFHS (and many other surveys and field studies) have shown that they do. Today, there certainly is a gap between contraceptive usage among the two communities — 49 per cent among Hindus and 37 per cent among Muslims — but this too is narrowing and the use of modern practices is increasing.

The most absurd fear, which is repeated ad nauseam in the pseudo-Hindu circles, is that soon Muslims will outnumber Hindus in India. What is the real situation? Between 1961 and 1991, there was a small increase in the share of the Muslims in the total population (from 9.8 to 11.7 per cent) and a corresponding decline of the Hindu population (from 84.3 to 82.4 per cent). But these shifts are not of any significance for the relative sizes of the two population groups. The Hindu population grew by 2.1 per cent a year over these three decades, while the Muslim population in India increased by 2.7 per cent. If the population growth rates of these two groups did not change, it would take another 306 years before Muslims outnumber Hindus! In any case that would not happen because we do know that Muslim fertility rates have been falling and will decline further. With that the Muslim population growth rate too will decline. We also know that India's population will stabilise around 2005 at 1.6 billion — long before the Muslim population can even in theory overtake Hindus.

Demagogy always forgets statistics that are uncomfortable. While much is made of the higher fertility of Muslim women, the demagogues never care to mention that the sex ratio (the number of girls for 1,000 boys) among Muslim Indians has been consistently higher than among the Hindu Indians. That is, Muslims do not discriminate against girl children to the same extent that the Hindus do. Second, infant mortality is lower for Muslims than Hindus — 59 versus 77 for every 1,000 births in 1998-99 (NFHS-2). Third, child mortality too was lower among the Muslims than Hindus — 83 versus 107 for every 1,000 children under the age of five. This means that in spite of their lower economic and social status, Muslim Indians look after their children (girls and boys) better than the Hindu Indians. Now, why should that not be cause for concern?

(Unlike my anonymous correspondent, here are references to a few recent studies on this subject: P.M. Kulkarni, "Special Population Groups", Seminar, March 2002; (2) K. Moulasha. and G. Rama Rao, "Religion-Specific Differentials in Fertility and Family Planning", Economic and Political Weekly, Oct 16, 1999 and (3) Roger Jeffery and Patricia Jeffery, Religion and Fertility in India, EPW, August 26, 2000).

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