Despite having the highest level of female education and the lowest fertility rate, why is the Christian population growth rate the same as that of the average Indian?

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The headline data in the news is that the share of Muslims in the population has increased yet again, to 14.2 per cent in 2011 from 11.7 per cent 20 years ago.After a long delay — almost three years — the government has finally released the most basic of census figures: the religious composition of the population. Regardless of the findings, the time has come for political parties to stop dictating to number-crunchers when is a “good” time to release the data. As the just-released figures show, the people, political parties and experts will provide their own spin to the data, no matter when it is released. So can we please stop interfering, Congress and BJP? The Congress, because it sat on the data for two long years and the BJP for sitting on it for another year.

The headline data in the news is that the share of Muslims in the population has increased yet again, to 14.2 per cent in 2011 from 11.7 per cent 20 years ago. What causes the population share of a group to rise? Higher fertility rates, net immigration and a lower mortality rate. By far, the most important is the fertility rate.


What determines the fertility rate? Essentially, the education of the mother and family income. The three are obviously related — poor, uneducated families tend to have more children. So an important and defining way to look at the higher population growth rate of Muslims is to view it as a reflection of their relative poverty. Indeed, as documented well by the Sachar Committee, Muslims are the poorest community in India. They also do not benefit from the nonsense of the reservation system; practically every group has reservations for education and jobs, except for Muslims.

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In this regard, there is nothing but cheers for the demagoguery of Hardik Patel, who is demanding education and job reservations for one of the richest communities in India: the Patels. May he finally succeed in eliminating reservations from the Indian psyche and the Constitution, and replace them with affirmative action, which Muslims would also be eligible for.

The good news is that the gap between Hindu and Muslim annual population growth rates is narrowing. Between 1991 and 2001, the Muslim population grew at a decadal rate 1.2 (log) percentage points higher than Hindus (3 vs 1.8 per cent); In 2001-11, this gap has come down to 0.6 percentage points — 2.2 vs 1.6 per cent.

For all religious groups, the population grew at a 1.6 per cent per annum in 2001-11, a steep decline from the 2.3 per cent a decade earlier.

The census data shows up some other interesting facts. There is a sharp decline in the fraction of the Sikh population — a fall from a 2 per cent share in 1991 to 1.7 per cent in 2011. This is along entirely expected lines. Sikh women have the second highest educational-attainment level (behind Christians); and fertility, to a large extent, is determined by the mother’s education. But here is the surprising revelation in the data: several commentators have noted that the share of the Christian population has stayed relatively constant at 2.3 per cent; hence their conclusion that the much-hyped conversion issue is indeed hype.

That is a hasty and wrong conclusion. It is surprising that the share of the Christian population has stayed constant; it should have declined significantly. Why? Because, along with Sikhs, Christians are the richest community in India. In the early 1990s, mean per capita consumption of Christians was Rs 404 per month and the fertility rate was 3.8 children per woman. The corresponding numbers for Sikhs: Rs 473 and 3.9. Almost identical, right? If so, then the population growth rate of Christians should be virtually identical to that of Sikhs; actually, somewhat less because of the higher education level and slightly lower fertility rate.

But that is manifestly not so. Between 1991 and 2011, the Sikh population grew at an average rate of 1.2 per cent per annum, while the population growth rate of Christians was a relatively higher 1.9 per cent per annum. This growth rate was higher than that of Hindus (1.8 per cent) and almost exactly equal to the average for all religions. So, despite having the highest per capita consumption, the highest level of female education and the lowest fertility, the Christian growth rate is the same as that of the average Indian.

So what is going on? Conversions.

Christianity practises proselytisation in modern times. The analysis allows one to put a figure to the average per year conversions that modern Christian missionaries have been able to achieve. It is the gap between what the Christian population should have been in 2011 versus the reality of 27.8 million. If Christians had the same population growth rate as Sikhs (of 1.2 per cent a year rather than the actual growth rate of 1.9 per cent a year), the total number of Christians in India would have been 24.1 million. The “excess” Christian population of 3.7 million in 2011 is very likely due to conversions. This excess translates into an average conversion rate of 1.7 lakh per year between 1991 and 2011.

In an item based on the ministry of home affairs’ annual report 2011-12, ‘The NGOs that will come under the lokpal’s ambit’ (The Indian Express, January 3, 2012), Shyamlal Yadav reports that “In all, of the 958, at least 515 were Christian missionary organisations, which collectively received Rs 2,003.75 crore as foreign contributions.” In that year, a total of Rs 11,000 crore was received by all NGOs. Assuming this money was mostly for conversions, a lower bound estimate of conversion expenditures can be obtained: approximately Rs 1.1 lakh per person or Rs 5.5 lakh for a family of five (again, assuming that a family is converted together).

The actual conversion expenditures are possibly lower; equally, possibly higher. However, it is quite unlikely that a poor converted family gets an amount in the range of several lakhs — if so, newspapers would have reported it! Since souls are being saved by the modern evangelicals, one presumes they don’t charge a fat salary to convert poor, desperate Hindus. But apparently they do.

The writer is contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’, and senior India analyst, the Observatory Group, a New York-based policy advisory group.

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