Population and patriotism

Speaking from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi equated population control and patriotism: “Population explosion will cause many problems for our future generations. But there is a vigilant section of public (who) …  have a small family and express their patriotism to the country. Let’s learn from them.” The PM is not wrong that India’s large population has stressed its infrastructure, its natural resources, and its administrative and educational capacity. But, in a sense, the population problem is yesterday’s problem. While the population will continue to grow, it is not an increasing problem. Indeed, according to the United Nations’ population division projections, the number of Indians under the age of five peaked in 2007. The number under 15 peaked in 2011 and is now falling. The current generation of under-25 years will be India’s largest ever — its demographic “bulge”. India’s own figures on the total fertility rate, or TFR, from the Sample Registration System of the Office of the Registrar General of India back up this slowing of births. The nationwide TFR has steadily declined from 3.24 in 2001 to 2.53 in 2011 to an estimated 2.2 now, and will be lower by 2021. The larger part of future population growth, therefore, is going to be on account of increased longevity and the growth of the 60+ age group as a result of better health, nutrition, and care. This is, of course, a desirable outcome.


This overall improvement conceals considerable geographic and social diversity. In many parts of India, such as the South Indian states, Kashmir, and West Bengal, the TFR is particularly low — at European levels or below, in fact. Many minority communities, such as Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains, have their TFR below the replacement level of 2.1. But areas like Uttar Pradesh (with a TFR of 3), Bihar (a TFR of 3.2), and other parts of the Hindi heartland continue to see significantly high birth rates. Thus, if the PM is serious about managing the population increase, these are the areas that should be targeted. In other words, the challenge is development; population control is a derived benefit. The lessons of India’s past experience with family planning should be taken on board. Behavioural change comes about as a product of external stimuli. The most important factors are increased urbanisation, access to income security, lower infant and child mortality rates, improved public health standards, occupational patterns, and so on. Female empowerment, including the number of women working and the effectiveness of female education, may have an even greater role to play.


Linking the issue of birth rates to patriotism is a wrong way to look at the problem. Most differences, including between communities and regions, can be best explained through other development indicators. Any policy framed as a result should take these facts into account. The government might want to consider giving incentives to those with two children or fewer. However, the fiscal situation at the moment is far from being comfortable, and there are many other calls on the government’s purse — so new items of expenditure to address this problem might be unwise. The focus should be on extending health care, expanding urbanisation, and female empowerment in left-behind areas.