OPINION

India’s population story

getty images

getty images  

Evidence from India’s last Census in 2011, confirmed by data from the recent National Family Health Survey 2017 (NFHS-4), shows that fertility in India is fast approaching replacement levels. This means that couples will have children who will essentially replace their number, to stabilise population growth. The NFHS-4 shows that in the past decade, the average number of children per family has come down from 2.7 to 2.2. With replacement fertility being 2.1 children per woman, this is good news for the land and the people.

Even after fertility rates drop to replacement levels, the total population will still grow, and is likely to reach 1.7 billion by 2050. The thrust of this growth will come from the youth bulge, with 365 million (10-24 years old) already in, or soon to enter, their reproductive ages. Even if they have children only in numbers that replace themselves, the resultant growth due to such a large base of young people will drive the growth momentum for population. For India as a whole, 75% of population growth in the coming decade will be due to this momentum.

In States like Assam, Gujarat and Haryana, which are about to reach replacement levels, it would be more effective to adopt policies for delaying childbearing rather than limiting births. Fertility reduction, where it still needs to take place, must come from increased availability and use of quality family planning services.

Demand-supply of working population

When States are clustered in terms of fertility levels, one foresees a predominantly youthful north and an ageing south. Most of the current and future demographic potential is locked in the northern States and largely located in Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. In the south, there will be a dearth of young working people to keep up and expand the level of economic development. Investing in young people in the north to realise the demographic dividend will be a win-win situation for all India, north and south.

From the policy perspective, this means that for India as a whole, it is time for the emphasis to be on momentum-focussed policies and programmes.

Several newspapers reported that the Prime Minister will soon chair a meeting of the National Population Commission, in order to take stock of the situation and chart out the path ahead, especially keeping population stabilisation in mind. This is welcome news indeed. The National Health Policy 2017 emphasises quality of care and commitment to sustainable development, and positions improved access, education and empowerment as the basis for population stabilisation. It is now for States to align their own health and population policies to the national ones.

Diego Palacios is country representative, India, and country director, Bhutan, for the United Nations Population Fund

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