Given the compelling evidence on declining fertility rates across India, including Assam, it seems odd to limit the family size, writes Ajit Ranade

India’s young demography has been considered to be its structural advantage. Half the population is below the age of 27. Of course, there are poorer African countries whose median age is much lower. For example, it is 14.8 years for Niger, 15.8 for Uganda, 19.7 for Kenya. India’s own median age in 1970 when it was much poorer, was just 19.3 years. India is still below the world’s median age of 31. The median age in Japan is 47.3 and is similarly high in Northern European countries.

One consequence of an ageing society such as Japan is that productivity gains are slow. A 2016 research paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, using data for different states of America, showed that a 10 per cent increase in the share of population above the age of 60 reduces the growth of per-capita GDP growth rate by 5.5 per cent. This effect is due to slower growth in labour productivity and lower growth in the active labour force.

Ageing societies

The flip side of ageing societies is the decline in their total fertility rate (TFR). This is the average number of children that a woman of child- bearing age will have during her lifetime. This number is 1.4 for Japan and 1.1 for South Korea and these are among the lowest for countries of their size. For Taiwan it is 1.1. One stylised fact that seems to emerge is that developed and rich economies are ageing, and their fertility rates are rapidly declining. This is true even within countries, where richer and more educated folk tend to have smaller families.

When fertility rates fall below 2.1 that is below the replacement rate. When a woman produces two children, they replace the two parents. Adjusting for infant mortality, the replacement rate, which corresponds to zero population growth is 2.1. If this rate stabilises for some time, then the population will cease to grow. Indeed, due to sustained low TFR, the populations of countries like Japan, Germany and Russia are actually shrinking.

16 states with falling TFRs

Demographic projections, unlike those of economic growth, are much more reliable. The fact of today’s India is that more than 16 states already have TFRs below the replacement rate of 2.1. These are 1.5 for West Bengal, 1.6 for Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, 1.7 for Kerala, Karnataka and Maharashtra. The country as a whole has a TFR of 2.2. The states with high TFRs are Bihar (3.2), Uttar Pradesh (2.9), Madhya Pradesh (2.7), Rajasthan and Jharkhand (2.5). Assam has 2.2 and Gujarat has 2.1. This data is from the Sample Registration System of 2018.

Based on this data, the Economic Survey, the official document of the government of India in 2018-19 had flagged the issue of ageing dynamics in India (see chapter 7). It said that by 2031, all the states of India would reach TFR levels below the replacement rate of 2.1. This trend is attributed to an increase in female education levels, postponement of marriage, access to family planning methods, and the continued decline in infant mortality. So, it is fair to say that on an average, across India, families are choosing to have fewer children.

Why then are we imposing the two-child law? The fact is that due to various socio-economic factors, identified by the government’s own reports, high GDP growth, rapid urbanisation, increasing female literacy will all lead to a quick fall in fertility rates in any case. This is an organic process. But unfortunately, we are pushing the law to punish families with more than two kids. Such parents won’t be allowed to stand for elections, won’t be eligible for government jobs or food subsidy and other government schemes.

Aimed at a certain section?

The latest to join this bandwagon are the states of Uttar Pradesh and Assam. The chief minister of Assam addressed the immigrant Muslim community and urged them to adopt “decent family planning norms”, in the context of the new Assam law. So, this statement implies that the law is aimed at a particular section, rather than all of society. Otherwise, in the light of compelling evidence on the decline of fertility rates across India, and in Assam too, it seems odd to limit the family size.

Former Chief Election Commissioner Dr S Y Quraishi, in his book ‘The Population Myth: Islam, Family Planning and Politics in India’ has clearly shown with data and analysis, that fertility rates are determined more by socio-economic factors and not religion. Indeed, as even the National Family Health Survey - 4th round has documented, the fertility rate of a Muslim from Tamil Nadu is much lower than a Hindu from Bihar. So, it is region, not religion, which seems to be the predominant factor, apart from socio-economic characteristics.

Two-child norm

Coercive population planning policies do more harm than good. Former Chief Secretary of Madhya Pradesh Nirmala Buch has extensively studied this issue on the ground level, and in her 2006 book, ‘The Law of Two Child Norm’ has documented that due to the two-child law adopted in various states, there was a rise in sex-selective and unsafe abortions; men divorced their wives to run for local body elections; and families gave up children for adoption to avoid disqualification. Thus, it is women who bear the disproportionate burden and negative consequence of the two-child law.

Unfortunately, such a law pertaining to being disqualified from contesting local body elections, is in force in the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Odisha and Haryana. It is interesting that the law does not apply to those contesting elections to the state assembly or Parliament. Does it not imply elitism?

China adopted a strict one-child policy for more than 30 years, which it abandoned in 2016, realising the folly of this approach. And this year, it is officially encouraging a three- child norm. Singapore offers generous incentives for families with more children. Apart from the socio-economic angle of the ill-effects of coercive family planning, we must also acknowledge that it infringes upon the individuals’ right to choose. The policies to focus on are to increase female literacy and their participation in the workforce and measures that increase productivity and per-capita incomes. The small family norm will automatically emerge, as seen across the world.

The writer is an economist and Senior Fellow, Takshashila Institution

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