Making sense of India’s Population Conundrum


Every year on the 11thof July the World Population Day is met with a mix of activities in India. On the one hand are the doomsday specialists who draw attention to the increasing population growth rate in India and how we are heading towards disaster adding more than one Australia to our population to quote a favourite comparison. On the hand politicians give long and sometimes comic speeches, my favorite being how India’s population growth can be reduced by providing TV sets to the poor. And indeed one CM had promised TV sets, but that was a state where the growth rate was not a problem. Later the TV set was replaced by the promise of laptops which probably have a greater population related relevance. No one seems to contest the fact that India’s population is growing dangerously and the sword of Damocles that hangs on our heads is that we will overtake the population of China in the next 10 to 12 years. The way this figure is repeated seems to be like a chant which could possibly the only way to avert this ‘disaster’.

India has come a long way since we became independent or launched the world’s first family planning programme. Since those days our population has increased thrice, but our life expectancy has also increased dramatically to more than twice and death rates have come down by 5 times. So many more people are now living longer than dying earlier. Population growth rates are affected by births, death and migration. And many of the developed countries especially in Europe are being propped up in-migrants because of their low birth rates, while countries like Japan are facing a dependency ratio problem as the number of older people, outnumber the younger productive population. Considering these circumstances, India has a very healthy ‘population’ scenario where the bulk of India’s population is  young and potentially productive. One of the ‘downsides’ if you call it that, of a young population, is the fact that while they can be very productive, they will also reproduce. What we see as ‘population growth’ in India today is the ‘limited’ reproduction of a large youthful population a phenomenon demographers call the ‘momentum’ effect. Considering population dynamics this is a healthy situation because we will continue to have a stable population base in the future, unlike in China where the one child norm and adverse sex ratio is soon going to create a population squeeze.  This has happened in the last fifty years in Japan and is also underway in South Korea.

The good ‘news’ is that India’s population is young and bodes well for the future, the ‘not so good’ news is that we haven’t probably invested enough to make it productive. Demographers call this advantage ‘demographic dividend’ and we have not yet been able to harvest this dividend. This shortcoming is captured in part by the Human Development Index (HDI) which is composite indicator with life expectancy, education and standard of living included. India’s rank on this index continues to be above 130, whereas even our Southeast Asian neighbours like Malaysia (59), Thailand (87), Indonesia(113) or Phillipines (116) are all ranked above us. Without any disrespect to our South Asian neighbours, if India counts itself among the global leaders in economy then it cannot be consistently ranked alongside with Bangladesh, Nepal or Pakistan. As a young country we need to invest in health, education and livelihood opportunities, and it is in these matters we seem to be moving at a glacial pace.

Many people opine that India’s population is a drain on our economic resources and if we had fewer mouths to feed, the economic status of the country would be jumped up, simply by the denominator effect. This is a false argument, because India today is a country of potentially ‘productive’ hands. In simple terms hands that can generate income are more valuable than ‘ill’ or unproductive mouths. Caught in the ‘myth’ of number our policy makers are letting the productive population status pass us by. We need investment in technical or skill education so that our rural youth become a workforce. The myth of the ‘university’ education is still being pursued through a common school system for everyone. Germany a powerhouse for engineering and technology has 5 different kinds of secondary schooling. Only one type is preparing students for universities. The others prepare students for vocational education. Germany also has a strong tradition of apprenticeship for period of three years, contributing to its technically qualified workforce. Instead of reorganising our education system bottom up, an adhoc skill training system has been adopted without adequate standardization. The livelihood potential of this approach is yet unproven as the ‘Make in India’ slogan remains mostly unfulfilled. The rapid and unplanned urbanization that is taking place in India is the most direct impact of changing demographics without any substantive change in livelihood possibilities.  A young potentially productive population is moving to cities seeking jobs, adding to the overcrowding which unfortunately gets seen as a ‘population problem’.

Another key dimension of population is the issue of ‘equity’ or fairness or how are key indicators of development or well being distributed across ‘people’. The historical ‘BIMARU’ classification by well-known demographer the Late Professor Ashis Bose gave a simple mnemonic of inequality. The number of states within this grouping, have increased as three of these states split in between, but what is more worrisome is the recent incidents of religious intolerance in different forms across the country. Religious intolerance and gender based violence show new dimensions of social, economic and political inequities are on the rise and it would be naïve to ignore these inequities and only count numbers on the occasion of the world population day.

Any discussion on population has to touch upon family planning, as these two terms have been synonymous in India. Unfortunately the Department of Family Planning in India does not seem to be keeping up with the demographic transition that is underway in the country. Couples in India, for the most part, no longer want more than two children, and most of the children born are also either first order or second order births. In this situation, spacing is the most important option that couples need. However both the data and the field experiences show that terminal methods like female sterilization are the ones which are being used the most or being provided the most. In name of male participation vasectomies are being promoted but the uptake is low. New long acting IUDs have become popular in recent years, but these too, do not aid spacing or delaying of pregnancies, which is the need of young couples. So the FP programme in effect is caught in a time-warp, providing services which were appropriate twenty or thirty years ago for a population of older couple with four or five children to a younger population with a desire for a small family size. It would appear that while the rhetoric of the ‘small family’ has succeeded the family planning department hasn’t yet adapted to this change.

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Abhijit Das is a doctor with training in obstetrics, paediatrics and public health with thirty years’ experience in clinical work, training, research and policy advocacy. He is Director of Centre for Health and Social Justice ( a health policy research and advocacy organization in India and Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Global Health, University of Washington, Seattle, USA.