Decoding India's population problem

The Prime Minister touched upon an unusual, or at least unexpected, subject in his Independence Day speech: India’s population. It was not a reference made in passing, and he had prepared a note on this, which said the following: That the population was “rapidly increasing” (the old phrase “population explosion” was used) and that this was a challenge now and for the future, unless it was addressed. He added those who had small families were patriots. 

I say it is unusual because a large population as a national liability is the sort of thing that hasn’t been articulated by our leaders in decades. What was the intent and what was he preparing the ground for? I have a theory and will share it. 

But first: There are three ways to understand demography and population growth. The first and the oldest is the Malthusian, which looks at it from the scarcity of resource point of view. 

For most of modern history this has been our understanding of population growth: Humans are increasing in number and land, food and water are limited. If we did not stop multiplying, many would starve.

The work of Norman Borlaug and others on high yield varieties of grain, producing what is called the Green Revolution, all but ended this line of Malthusian concern. 

In 1986-87, I was working on this as part of a high school project in the United States, and the famous lobby group I engaged with was called Zero Population Growth, known in Washington by its initials ZPG. This group has since renamed itself to Population Connection and on its website has explained why they made the change: “Schools stopped welcoming our Population Education programme, the media avoided using us as a helpful resource, and members of Congress were wary of meeting with us and our members because we sounded to them like an extremist group. Basically, the heyday of the ZPG movement that started in the 1960s had ended, and we were finding it more difficult to do our important work with a name that no longer resonated with activists, lawmakers, and educators.”

This is the same period in which the phrase population explosion and its related concerns began to fall into disuse. 

The second way to look at the issue is more nuanced and examines the benefit of a large population from the perspective of its median age and change in fertility levels. This is the sort of thinking that looked at “demographic dividend”, a phrase that so far as I know did not exist in that 1986-87 period.

A nation shifting its fertility rate will find itself, for the first time, with a working population that is larger than the non-working population. That produces the dividend in terms of economic output. Asia’s so-called tiger economies went through this phase a few decades ago. 

illustration: Binay Sinha

Fertility rates shift with economics and education and this is true of all societies. 

In the 20 years between 1991 and 2011, the fertility rate of India’s Muslims fell from 4.4 to 3.1. That of Hindus declined from 3.3 to 2.7. Of course, religion is not a good indicator to understand this and many Hindus have more children than Muslims. Bihar has a fertility rate of well over 3, but even the cow belt is producing fewer children per capita. 

The next census will confirm this decline across all parts of society. Pakistan’s fertility rate has fallen in the last 20 years from 4.5 to 2.8.

India’s fertility levels at the moment are thought to be equal to the replacement rate of 2.1 (meaning that the population is on the cusp of not growing). 

So then where is the problem of a “population explosion”? It doesn’t exist, and trends indicate that it will begin an implosion soon. That brings us to the third way of looking at the issue, which is not through fertility rates but communities. 

In Europe and the United States, the right is fearful of losing their ethnic majority (much more far fetched in Europe of course). It is immigration as well as fertility rates that such concerns amplify.

In India the bogey is that Muslims are driving the “population explosion” and this is, in the words of the Prime Minister, through “hum paanch hamarey pachchees”. Meaning a Muslim man and his four wives who totally produce 25 children. Any examination of the data shows this to be false. 

In the decade between 2001 and 2011, the share of Hindus in our population declined marginally from 80.5 to 79.8. As the fertility rate falls across the country, this will also stabilise around this number and the fear or worry that demographic change is coming or in the offing is misplaced.

So what is the reason that this subject was brought up in an Independence Day speech? My speculation is that the target is polygamy, the real reason for the Hindutva push for the Uniform Civil Code. We should expect some movement that is related to this soon. Perhaps some well-meaning person will file a public interest litigation on this, if one hasn’t already been filed, and beg the judiciary to save the nation from exploding.

Totally fact-free, the argument will be pushed as an economic emergency just as the reckless criminalising of Muslim divorce law was argued as the advancing of women’s rights.