In an announcement on 31 May, the Chinese government declared that it would allow couples to have up to three children, moving from its two-child regulation. This policy shift, while significant, is not surprising. Analyses have been coming in of China’s falling population growth rates, which have declined to their lowest levels since the Mao era.
Why China Suffered Under Earlier Population Policies
The strict population control measures that Beijing has imposed on its people, starting with the infamous one-child policy introduced by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, has had starkly negative effects on the country in the long run. It is proving extremely difficult for a declining young population to support an increasingly ageing population in an expensive world.
It is paradoxical that the one-child norm, after being very unpopular initially, had come to be accepted by people so much that the recent relaxation is being viewed with skepticism.
There simply isn’t enough financial stability in a mostly middle-income country for the young to be able to afford three children in addition to the elderly. “I am willing to have three children if you give me 5 million Yuan,” one young person commented in a Xinhua opinion poll immediately after the policy was launched. The poll has since been removed.
Harnessing India’s Demographic Dividend
China has been a role model for the advocates of harsh population policies in India, as India’s population was catching up with China. India’s estimated population was 1.3 billion in 2019 against China’s 1.4 billion (World Population Prospects 2019) and expected to surpass it by 2027. India is expected to reach its peak population of 1.6 billion by 2048 (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), as reported by The Lancet (14 July 2020) — after which it will start declining in both countries — India and China will reach populations of 1.1 billion and 732 million, respectively, by 2100 (IHME).
India, because of its more liberal population policy, has an advantage over China in terms of its young population.
A high proportion (about 30 percent) of India’s population comprises young people aged between 10-24. Every year, approximately 12-14 million people will enter the workforce. The ‘demographic dividend’, or the share of working-age population, has risen, implying a fall in dependency ratio, from 75 percent in 2001 to 65 percent in 2011. This is expected to fall further to 50 percent by 2021 and remain at that level for the next 20 years.
To take advantage of this demographic dividend, it is imperative to invest in improvements in health and nutrition, and skills development programs. Increasing investment in human capital, leading to greater labour force participation rates, will help India witness economic growth and better living standards — even with a high level of population.
Why Sri Lanka’s Population Model Is Better
India’s economy has improved substantially in the last three to four decades, thanks to its skilled workforce, (largely the IT sector) which is estimated to be a mere 4.69 percent against China’s 24 percent and South Korea’s 96 percent. Imagine if our skilled workforce was just to double, if not catch up with China and others — what impact would it have on our economy.
Investing in girls’ education, particularly secondary and higher education, is critical for increased participation of women in a more gender-equitable labour force. Women’s empowerment is often inversely correlated with fertility rates.
Can India take any lessons from China’s population policies — especially the discontinued draconian one-child norm, and now two-child policy?
China enforced the one-child policy but had to abort it, having found itself in the midst of a population crisis — with ageing, nonproductive people dominating. Its two-child norm didn’t help either, forcing them to resort to the recent three-child norm.
A better model is that of Sri Lanka, which stabilised fertility rates by simply increasing the age at marriage, with a concurrent focus on girls’ education. With increased access to education, economic and other development opportunities, fertility decline is the natural demographic phenomenon.
Negative Impact of China’s Former Two-Child Policy
The two-child policy has also proved to have adverse effects. A five-state study by Nirmala Buch found that two-child norms led to 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.
Sex selective unsafe abortions have led to skewed sex ratios at birth and beyond. Our Child Sex Ratio (CSR) has been on the decline: 945 in 1991, 927 in 2001, and 918 in 2011.
Indian Govt’s Stand On Population Policy
The government launched a nationwide campaign, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (BBBP) in 2015, to prevent gender-biased sex selective elimination, and to ensure the survival, protection and education of the girl child. The results should be visible in a few years.
In an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court on a petition, the Union Ministry for Health and Family Welfare explained its stand:
“The international experience shows that any coercion to have a certain number of children is counter-productive and leads to demographic distortions. India’s TFR is already down ‘substantially’ to 2.2 as per the 2018 Sample Registration System, which is part of the Census exercise, from 3.2 in 2000, when the (new) National Population Policy was adopted. The Family Welfare Programme is voluntary in nature, which enables couples to decide the size of their family and adopt the family planning methods best suited to them, according to their choice, without any compulsion.”
It is surprising, therefore, that two private members bills have been introduced last year on the two-child policy, one in each house, by the members of the ruling party. The honourable MPs would do well to read the affidavit submitted by their own government.
India Must Not Forget Fallout of Emergency Era Population Policy
India’s population policy has actually been quite a success with 24 of 29 states already having achieved a birth rate of 2.1 which is lower than the ‘replacement’ rate. The secret of this success has been the voluntary, persuasive nature of the policy. We must focus our attention on the remaining five states of the northern, Hindi belt.
We must not forget that when compulsion was used during the Emergency in 1975-79, there was a massive backlash from which we haven’t yet fully recovered.
Population has been a taboo subject, with only 0.15 percent Parliament Questions having been asked on family planning during the last four Lok Sabhas, according to an NIHFW study chaired by this author.
We should not allow the population issue to go off the political radar, but the debate should be well-informed and based on global experience, and not guided by narrow political motives.
(The writer is former Chief Election Commissioner of India and the author of a recent book ‘The Population Myth: Islam, Family Planning and Politics in India’. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)