Future demographic shocks

The growing prosperity of India’s population has had a mixed impact on its demographics. The latest data from the Sample Registration System shows that Indians are planning smaller families — but also prefer fewer daughters. The upshot is that India’s total fertility rate (TFR) — or the number of children expected to be born to a woman during her reproductive period — has fallen from 2.3 in 2016 to 2.2 in 2017, with both rural and urban India registering a steady fall. This is marginally more than the World Health Organization’s recommended replacement-level fertility of 2.1 children per woman; in urban India, in fact, the TFR is well below this average, indicating improving education levels and access to health among urban Indian women. The obvious and encouraging implication of this is slowing population growth. As a result, projections for India’s population overtaking China have been postponed by five years to 2027.

This good news, however, is leavened by the alarming deterioration of the sex ratio at birth, where Indians’ traditional preference for the male child appears to have reinstated itself to startling effect. After steadily improving for two trienniums (three-year periods) between 2009-11 and 2011-13, the sex ratio has plummeted from its peak of 909 females per 1,000 males to 896 in the triennium ending 2017. Behind the broad all-round deterioration is the potent point that the sex ratio in cities is worse than in rural areas: 890 and 898, respectively, in the 2015-17 triennium. As before, it is the relatively prosperous states that have recorded the worst fall: Telangana, Delhi, and Kerala join backward Bihar in the top rankings. Both the urban and state-wise data confirm the established trend that sex selection is being practised with greater frequency among affluent Indians who have the wherewithal to use technology (illegal, legal, or semi-legal) to ensure the delivery of a male child.

This ingrained gender prejudice has implications for the India demographic dividend as well. With the TFR slowing and longevity increasing owing to access to better health care, India’s population will also begin ageing a little over a decade from now. According to the Economic Survey, the share of India’s young, i.e. 19 years and below, is projected to drop from 41 per cent in 2011 to 25 per cent by 2041. In the same timeframe, the share of the elderly population (60 years and above) will nearly double from 8.6 per cent to 16 per cent. Not only does this have implications for the dependency ratio, but with fewer women producing fewer children the trend could worsen rapidly.

All of this suggests the need to augment such creative missions as Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, designed to alter behavioural models by incentivising the birth of the girl child. Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao was launched in 2015 in Panipat, Haryana, the region with the country’s worst sex ratio. But the scheme is targeted at poorer people, for whom a girl is traditionally seen as a cost and burden. It is unclear why richer, more educated Indians should harbour what the Economic Survey calls a “meta preference for boys”. These biases have deep social and economic roots and there is an urgent need for messaging targeted at more sophisticated audiences so that India is able to regain some measure of demographic balance.