The recent and surprise decision by the Chinese government allowing couples to have three children is a panic reaction to the alarming decline in their working age population and a significant increase of the elderly, as indicated by the latest decennial census.
The annual population growth rate has come down to 0.5 percent and the total fertility rate (TFR) – the number of children a woman will have in her lifetime – is 1.3.
There were only 12 million children born in China last year, the lowest since 1961.
But going by China’s past experience, this new policy shift will most likely fail as had happened to the earlier governmental decision in 2016 to allow two children, which did not attract many couples.
The changing attitudes towards smaller families and the increasing cost of education and housing work are a deterrent for many young couples, as observed by few research studies. The recent announcements by authorities in a way recognises these concerns of common man, by suggesting measures to bring down the educational cost of children.
As seen in many European countries in the past, even financial incentives and child care support will not boost the fertility when young couples consider many other factors, including standard of living as more important.
The Fallout of the 1-Child Policy
The Chinese authorities realised much later that the forceful implementation of the intrusive one-child policy in 1980s had many adverse social and economic implications, including highly skewed sex ratio among children, leading to huge deficit of girls in the society.
The emerging situation in China is likely to revive a wider debate among population scientists and policy makers across the globe towards the unintended consequences of coercive family planning programmes.
When the one-child policy was rolled out with stringent measures, the fertility rate came down drastically from 2.75 in 1979 to 1.69 in 2018. The Communist party took pride in its achievements of preventing 300 million “unwanted’’ births as a result of this policy and its effective implementation, which ultimately resulted in abortions, forced sterilisations, and an alarming level of female foeticides.
China in a way is in the midst of a population crisis of its own making — by enforcing stringent fertility regulations, resulting in dwindling workforce, rapidly growing aged populations, and highly imbalanced sex ratio with far-reaching adverse consequences.
The rapidly greying population has put tremendous pressure on China. According to 2020 census, the elderly population constitutes about 19 percent of the total population.
India’s Population Problem and Solutions
As per some reliable estimates, India will reach this level by 2050, with an ageing population of about 320 million.
China’s population of 1.41 billion in 2020 will peak in few years from now, and if we go by the recent UN forecasts, India will overtake China as the most populous country of the world by 2025, much before than earlier projections. Chinese citizens are also concerned with the increasing burden of looking after old parents, given the lack of day care centers as well as the long working hours.
Any attempt by the state to influence the demographic changes will not provide the expected outcomes, rather it may boomerang, as evident from the failed policies of China.
India’s experience of coercive birth control measures during the internal emergency of 1975 to 1977 taught us a lesson of not directly interfering with personal choices and aspirations. India’s family planning programme is essentially a voluntary programme throughout, except certain aberrations happened in 1970s.
Instead of considering a “pro-active” birth control measure by stricter implementation of two-child norm across the nation, what is required now is the strengthening of reproductive health programmes and family planning services to meet the unmet need for contraception. With better awareness campaigns and user-friendly quality contraceptive services, more and more couples will come forward voluntarily to accept the small family norm.
This is very much evident with the current fertility rate (TFR) of around 2.1, which was more than 5 when we initiated an official family planning programme in 1950s.
Except for few bigger states, most parts of India are moving towards the replacement level fertility of 2.1. The percentage of couples deliberately opting for only one child has gone up considerably in urban areas.
In some states where the fertility decline is much faster, like Kerala, there is an emerging concern for its long-term implications. Given this scenario, it would be ideal for the government to focus our efforts on those few states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh by providing them with better services and contraceptive choices. When it comes to choosing between individual reproductive rights and governmental population policies, the experiences demonstrate that intrusive child limitation programmes were not acceptable to the majority across the world.
(The writer is the Professor and Head of the Department of Population Policies and Programmes at the International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)