India, like the rest of the world, is intensely debating population explosion. But while countries are struggling to keep their numbers at replacement level, India is on the right path towards stabilising population sooner than expected. So what’s the discussion all about? 

By Kundan Pandey

Be it a political meeting, a hot TV debate or just a healthy tea-time chat, the topic would most often veer around population. That was about four decades back. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has brought the debate back to the discussion table after he used the term “population explosion” in his Independence Day speech last year.

The term had not been used by any of his predecessors since the country’s disastrous experience of forced family planning during the Emergency period in the 1970s. Since then, population control remains a political pariah. But Modi set the debate on a new trajectory. He equated population control to patriotism. “A small section of society, which keeps its families small, deserves respect. What it is doing is an act of patriotism,” he said. 

Of late, politicians have been vocal in pushing the population control debate. It has erupted in a paroxysm of deep fear of demographic disaster and complete exhaustion of natural resources due to over consumption. At this age of the sixth mass extinction and the Anthropocene, India is talking about its population, policy and the environmental fallout in the same breath. 

In July 2019, Rakesh Sinha, Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha and subscriber to the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, tabled the Population Regulation Bill as a private member bill. The proposed legislation intends to penalise people for having more than two children.

Sinha says “population explosion” would irreversibly impact India’s environment and natural resource base, and limit the next generation’s entitlement and progress. The bill proposes that government employees must not produce more than two children, and suggests withdrawal of welfare measures from the poor who have more than two children. 

“Even opposition leaders have appreciated my effort in private,” claims Sinha. In September last year, Congress politician Jitin Prasada, too, demanded a law to check population growth. Even before Sinha tabled the bill, in May last year, Delhi BJP leader Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay had filed a public interest petition in the Delhi High Court demanding stringent legislation to control population. The Delhi High Court dismissed the case, which is now with the Supreme Court.

In 2018, around 125 MPs had urged the President of India to enforce the two-child policy in India. In 2016, Prahlad Singh Patel, a BJP MP, had also tabled a private member bill on population control. It could not reach the stage of voting, like most such private bills.

In 2015, then Gorakhpur MP Yogi Adityanath conducted an online poll asking if the Modi government should formulate a policy to control population. Adityanath is now the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state. Since Independence, 35 such bills have been tabled by MPs from various parties, including 15 from the Congress. 

But the country cannot possibly enact a central legislation to regulate the family size of its citizens. In 1994, when India signed the International Conference on Population and Development Declaration, it honoured a couple’s right to decide on the size of its family and the space between childbirths. In that sense, private member bills are merely a way to stress the need to formulate rules on reducing population. 

Many states have already enacted penal provisions to control population, or to encourage smaller families. Just after Modi’s speech, the BJP-led Assam government decided to implement the Population and Women Empowerment Policy of Assam, passed more than two years ago.

Under this, “no person having more than two children would be eligible for government jobs in Assam from January 2021”. Twelve states have similar provisions restricting access and eligibility conditional to two-child policies. It includes debarring people from contesting elections to Panchayati Raj institutions. 

A debate on population is inevitable in a country that would surpass China’s, currently the most populous country. According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimates, India’s population will reach 1.5 billion by 2030 and hit 1.64 billion in 2050. China’s population will reach 1.46 billion by 2030.

At present, India hosts 16 per cent of the world’s population with only 2.45 per cent of the global surface area and 4 per cent of the water resources. 

Globally too, the debate over population explosion has erupted after recent ecosystem assessments pointed to the role of human population in driving other species into extinction and precipitating a resource crunch. Biologist EO Wilson gives a scary estimate of three species being driven to extinction every hour.

In the planet’s natural course, the rate of extinction is one per million species per year. It is now well known that humans are the driving force behind what is regarded as the sixth mass extinction. That’s why scientists are closer to declaring the end of the current geological epoch called Holocene, and the arrival of Anthropocene, which is characterised by human influence on the planet.

Is population really exploding? 

Answer to the question disrupts the entire debate. Recent trends show that 12,000 years after organised agriculture started, the population of Homo sapiens might well be on the downslide. And for India, population growth might have already stabilised.

During Independence, India was still one of the most populous countries with 350 million people. That was the reason it became the first developing country to start a family planning programme in 1951. Since then, the country’s population has quadrupled, with 1.37 billion people in 2019.

Population scientists have postulated a threshold to the number of births to keep population under control. This is expressed as the total fertility rate (TFR), which is the average number of children a woman of childbearing age must have. Population above TFR means growth, while that below TFR means decline. At TFR, population is maintained. 

For Homo sapiens, a 2.1 TFR would keep the country’s population stable. The number accounts for one child per mother, one per father, and an extra 0.1 for children who die in infancy and women who die before childbearing age. The UN Population Division terms this as the replacement-level fertility.

“If replacement-level fertility is sustained over a sufficiently long period, each generation will exactly replace itself without any need for the country to balance the population by international migration,” says the UN.

India is very close to this point now, as many states have, in fact, TFR below 2.1. This means India’s population is about to hit the replacement level. Or, there will be no effective population growth. India’s official data suggests this.

The National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-4, conducted in 2015-16, found India’s TFR had reached 2.2. Most Indian states had already achieved or were below 2.1 TFR. Himachal Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh had TFR well below the replacement level. The exceptions were Bihar (3.4), Uttar Pradesh (2.7), Jharkhand (2.6), Rajasthan (2.4), Madhya Pradesh (2.3), Chhattisgarh (2.2), Assam (2.2) and some north-eastern states. 

Darrell Bricker, author of the book Empty Planet that predicted an unprecedented global decline in fertility, also says: “India’s TFR has already reached replacement rate.”

Demographer and social scientist Shireen Jejeebhoy writes that 17 of the 28 states and 8 out of 9 Union Territories have reached the replacement level. The Economic Survey 2018-19 tabled in Parliament and with a chapter on population, says, “India is set to witness a sharp slowdown in population growth in the next two decades.”

According to it, population in the 0-19 age bracket has already peaked due to sharp decline in TFR across the country. The Economic Survey, in fact, suggested massive reorientation of public infrastructure like schools to prepare for less population.

“Further, the national TFR will dip below the replacement level by 2021,” says Srinivas Goli, assistant professor of population studies at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. 

Close to stabilisation, not growth 

Clearly, the debate on population control has missed the current trend. Instead of celebrating an eminently successful campaign to control population, it has put the focus on further control that might negate what has been achieved. Starting from reduction in child marriage to increase in education level of women to rise in contraception, this is a success story that has not been debated. 

Comparison of two groups of states helps understand the reasons for population control. Kerala and Punjab have 1.6 TFR, while Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have 3.4 and 2.7 TFR respectively.

“The number of children per woman declines with her level of schooling,” says Poonam Muttreja, executive director of Delhi-based non-profit Population Foundation of India. NFHS-4 data shows only 22.8 per cent women in Bihar attended school for 10 or more years in 2014-15. In neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, the figure was 32.9 per cent.

In contrast, 72.2 per cent women in Kerala attended school for 10 or more years, while the figure was 55.1 per cent in Punjab. Countrywide, women with no schooling have an average 3.1 children, compared to 1.7 children for women with 12 or more years of schooling. 

A historical analysis of NFHS establishes how fertility rates have declined over the years. From 1992-93 to 1998-99, India’s TFR decreased from 3.4 to 2.9. During this time, the number of women in 20-24 years age group who had married by the age of 18, declined by 7.7 per cent. At this time, the use of contraceptives by married women increased by 17.26 per cent. 

NFHS-4 shows increase in TFR in states with high number of child marriages. The number of women aged 20-24 years, married before 18 years, was 42.5 per cent in Bihar and 21.1 per cent in Uttar Pradesh. But it was only 7.6 per cent in Kerala and Punjab.

From 1998-99 to 2005-06, TFR declined from 2.9 to 2.7. During this period, the country witnessed a change in women’s mindset. Use of contraceptives increased by 13.3 per cent and child marriage fell by 5.2 per cent. Data shows an increase in use of contraceptive by married women aged 15-19 years from 8 per cent to 13 per cent from 1998-99 to 2005-06.

From 2005-06 to 2015-16, TFR was down from 2.7 to 2.2 children, close to the replacement level. However, during this period the use of contraceptives strangely decreased by 1.4 per cent. According to Muttreja, almost 30 million married women in the 15-49 age group and 10 million women in the 15-24 age group wish to delay or avoid pregnancy, but they do not have access to contraceptives.

A study by Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organisation, says that in 2015, as many as 15.6 million abortions took place in India. This means the abortion rate was 47 per 1,000 women aged 15-49 years.

Similarly, a 2018 study by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) says, “From NFHS-3 to NFHS-4, TFR declined even more, by 18.5 per cent. The decline was due to increases in abortion (62 per cent) and in the age at marriage (38 per cent).”

Also, there is a surge in the number of women opting for smaller families. Devendra Kothari, former professor at the Indian Institute of Health Management Research University, Jaipur, says that only 24 per cent of the married women between 15 and 49 years want a second child.

He, on the other hand, attributes India’s current population growth to unplanned pregnancies. Around 5 in 10 live births are unintended, unplanned or simply unwanted. Of the 26 million children born in 2018-19, about 13 million could be classified as unplanned. Based on NFHS 1 to 4, it is estimated that 135 million out of 430 million births were the result of unplanned pregnancies. 

In effect, India is on path to stabilise population. Therefore, the stress on introduction of punitive measures to ensure population control is misplaced. In fact, a few states that imposed restrictions in various forms to enforce the two-child norm are on the back foot now. Four of the 12 states which introduced the two-child norm have already revoked it.

Goli says punitive actions have failed to check population around the world. A study by former Madhya Pradesh chief secretary Nirmala Buch on laws restricting the eligibility of people with more than two children in Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Rajasthan concluded that two-child norm violates the democratic and reproductive rights of individuals.

“A high number of women (41 per cent) among our respondents faced disqualification for violating the two-child norm. Among Dalit respondents, this proportion was even higher (50 per cent),” Buch’s study finds. 

In 2013, China relaxed its infamous one-child policy imposed in 1979. The policy resulted in undesirable consequences like sex-selective abortions, depressed fertility levels, irreversible population ageing, labour shortages and economic slowdown, according to The History of the Family Journal, a 2016 study by the Institute for Population and Development Studies, Xi’an Jiaotong University, China.

Darrell Bricker feels punitive measures are unwise from the perspective of human rights. Providing Indian women greater access to education would have a bigger impact on reducing fertility, he says. 

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Politics over population 

Population has exploded. There is no argument over this fact. It took millions of years for world population to reach one billion in 1800 AD. It doubled within just 100 years and soon hit the six-billion mark.

This exponential growth was driven by progress in agriculture, science and medicine, which increased people’s lifespan. As a result, in the 20th century, there was an overwhelming focus on population control and management of the planet’s limited resources. 

Political parties have raised this issue because they need to deliver services and resolve problems hindering better lives for the people, be it easing traffic jams, better transport facilities or better income. When policy-makers fail, rising population works as a shield for them. Right-of-the-centre parties, such as India’s ruling dispensation, have been observed to be more vocal — rather militant — about population growth. 

In 2010, then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said while campaigning that she did not need a serious climate change policy to win elections. Instead, she put “sustainable Australia” as her agenda, which advocated low population growth. Such was the buying in of her campaign that opposition leader and climate-denier Tony Abbott claimed he was even more committed to it than Gillard. 

US president Donald Trump made immigration the centrepiece of his campaign. He offered a detailed policy agenda on this. He sold the fear that low American population would ultimately lead to a takeover by immigrants. In the UK, long before becoming the prime minister, Boris Johnson led the campaign to leave the European Union in 2016.

Migration became the crucial issue of public debate on Brexit at the time and ever since. In his first speech as the prime minister, Johnson stressed he would make irregular migration guidelines tougher. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has blamed climate change on population growth. 

Evidently, these leaders targeted one section of society for increasing population. This is why environment journalist David Roberts said he would never write about overpopulation.

“When political movements or leaders adopt population control as a central concern… let’s just say it never goes well. In practice, where you find concern over ‘population’, you very often find racism, xenophobia, or eugenics lurking in the wings. It’s almost always, particular populations that need reducing,” he wrote.

Half of the world in midst of a baby bust 

Globally, the debate over population has now veered towards consequences of population dipping below the replacement level (TFR 2.1). A forecast by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, in its paper The World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, shows the world population will reach 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion by the end of this century. This is being contested now. 

Norwegian scholar Jørgen Randers, co-author of The Limits to Growth (1972), which warned of a catastrophe caused by overpopulation, now says the world population will peak around 9 billion before 2050 and fall to half of this by 2100.

“What happened is that the world managed to reduce fertility dramatically from 4.5 in 1970 to 2.5 children per woman now by giving more education, health and contraception to women. This has made them free to be able to choose smaller family size,” says Randers, who is also professor emeritus, climate strategy, department of law and governance, BI Norwegian Business School, Oslo. 

Randers is not alone. Paul Morland, author of The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World, says much of the world is in a “fertility free-fall”. A new report by Melbourne-based think tank, Institute for Family Studies, shows that very low birth rates are becoming normal. Except sub-Saharan Africa, almost all countries are below replacement-level fertility or about to reach there. 

The signs are clear. A 2017 report in British journal The Lancet found that half of the countries in world is in the midst of a “baby bust”, as opposed to the earlier “baby boom”. They have insufficient children to maintain their population size.

Populations of many countries are shrinking — Greece (1.3 TFR), Bulgaria (1.58), Hungary (1.39), Poland (1.29), Italy (1.40), South Korea (1.26) and Japan (1.48). Even the developing world is witnessing this trend. China now has a fertility rate of 1.5 and Brazil just 1.8. Since 1976, the number of countries that officially say they are trying to increase their birth rates has risen from under 9 per cent to almost 30 per cent now. 

Urbanisation is an important reason for the decline because, for the first time, majority of population now lives in cities. “In the countryside, a child can help by working on the land, but in cities a child becomes an economic liability. Also in cities, women have less social pressure to have more children. Access to media, schools and contraception increase,” says William Reville, emeritus professor of biochemistry at the University College Cork, Ireland. 

Darrell Bricker concurs. The more a society urbanises and the more control women exert over their bodies, the fewer babies they choose to have. According to him, the demographic transition model, first developed in 1929, had only four stages. In stage four, life expectancy would be high and fertility rate low at 2.1. This would sustain the population.

Bricker says there is a fifth stage which was not visualised earlier. In this stage, life expectancy keeps increasing while the fertility rates fall, resulting in a declining population. The developed world has already entered this phase. 

Since 2016, Poland has been paying £100 per month per child and has strict anti-abortion laws. Hungary has also tried. South Korea has been attempting to revive its precarious fertility rate through tax incentives, better child care, housing benefits, special holidays for baby-making, support for in-vitro fertilisation and generous parental leaves. China, too, now expects its people to produce more children. But there has been no significant impact anywhere, raising doubt whether population after decline can be brought back to the replacement-level. 

It is not impossible to revive fertility rate once it declines, says Bricker. But only Israel has been able to do that. Few governments have managed to increase the number of children couples are willing to have through child care payments and other supports. But they never managed to bring fertility back up to the replacement level. Also, these programmes were extremely expensive and unsustainable during economic downturns.

Consumption has emerged as the key factor to control population. Humans take up 42 per cent of Earth’s annual net primary productivity. In fact, 50 per cent of the planet’s landmass is being used by humans. In 1798, English scholar Thomas Malthus postulated a population higher than the total food available. To balance food supply, population would be controlled.

In the 1972 book The Limits to Growth, the authors argued that either civilisation or growth must end. This was when India took its strongest measure to control population while China imposed the one-child policy.

Does rising population impact environment? 

In the 1970s, many environmentalists warned of a possible crisis due to population explosion. In 1968, Garret Hardin wrote a paper The Tragedy of Commons, expressing concern about possible crisis humanity would face due to the exponential rise in population.

Stanford professor Paul R Ehrlich and his wife Anne Ehrlich wrote Population Bomb in 1968. It became an overnight sensation. Their major fear was that “mass migration”, especially from the developing countries with higher fertility rates, would lead to overpopulation and environmental catastrophe in the United States and the West.

Contrary to their fear, however, the developed world is suffering from a fertility implosion. This is why environmentalists have gradually distanced themselves from commenting on drastic measures required to control population. 

Rising population impacts environment in two major forms. The first includes the consumption of resources, including land, food, water, air, minerals and fossil fuels. The second can be seen as waste products, including pollutants (air and water), toxic materials and greenhouse gases. But there is no unanimity over how much population would consume how much of the planet’s resources.

Source: UNEP Global Environmental Alert Service

The threshold at which the planet would not be able to sustain a population is being debated. Six studies estimate two billion people; seven say four billion; 20 guess eight billion; 14 put it at 16 billion; six claim 32 billion; seven say 64 billion; another two estimate 128 billion, while one study each supports 256 billion, 512 billion and 1,024 billion people. Consumption does not seem to be a concern. The bigger worry now is the utter inequality in consumption and, thus, in distribution of resources.

“An average middle-class American consumes 3.3 times the subsistence level of food and almost 250 times the subsistence level of clean water. So if everyone on Earth lived like a middle-class American, then the planet might have a carrying capacity of around 2 billion,” writes Stephen Dovers, director of Fenner School of Environment and Society, College of Medicine, Biology & Environment, Australian National University and Colin Butler, professor, Faculty of Health University of Canberra.

The developed world consumes maximum energy and food. At the end of the 21st century, Europe and the US would have consumed 80 per cent of the world’s resources. Better economic status increases consumption. A 2009 study published in the journal Sage has established that blaming population growth as the driver of climate change is misleading. The research The implications of population growth and urbanization for climate change, concludes:

“A review of carbon dioxide emissions levels for nations, and how they changed between 1980 and 2005 (and also between 1950 and 1980), shows little association between nations with rapid population growth and nations with high GHG emissions and rapid GHG emissions growth.” A few countries, though with relatively lesser population, had caused more damage to the planet.

John Wilmoth, director, Population Division, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, says, “Research shows that, all circumstances equal, a larger population has a higher demand on resources and impact on the environment.”

However in practice, the impact of population on the environment is highly related to the consumption and production patterns, as stated in the United Nations-mandated Sustainable Development Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

Randers says that reducing population by 10 per cent has the same effect on emissions as reducing average consumption by 10 per cent. It makes life better for the remaining 90 per cent. However, it is more important to limit the rich population because they do much more damage per person by their high consumption levels, he says.

This was first published in Down To Earth‘s print edition (dated 1-15 February, 2020)