Dear PM Modi, Let’s Not Mix ‘Population Explosion’ & Patriotism

When a government with an authoritarian streak speaks of ‘population explosion’, Emergency-era fears are stoked.

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Opinion
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reference to ‘population explosion’, and him linking the idea of small families with patriotism in his Independence Day speech, is likely to create apprehensions within the Muslim community whose relatively high (though falling) fertility rate is seen by his party and its ideological mentor, the RSS, as a ‘threat’ to India’s demographic balance.

The ruling BJP’s ally, the Shiv Sena, didn’t lose much time in targeting Muslims. On Saturday, 16 August, it welcomed the prime minister’s comments, and deplored that a section of the Muslim community did not share the PM’s anxiety. “However, fundamentalist Muslims are not concerned about population explosion and are not ready to come out of the mindset of ‘hum do hamare pachhis’, (we two, ours 25),” news agency PTI reported, quoting an editorial in the party’s mouthpiece, Saamna.

Governments should do their bit by making available quality education, ensuring healthcare, providing access to contraception, and boosting job opportunities.

These views reflected the ones expressed by senior BJP leaders in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots. They had called the relief camps housing violence-affected Muslims ‘child-producing centres’. The community was said to be ‘coming in the way of progress’ because of its tendency of ame paanch, amara pachees, (we five, ours 25). The need for a family planning policy and its determined implementation was voiced at that time.

Stoking Emergency-Era Fears Of ‘Population Control’

Population control became a touchy issue after forced sterilisation drives during the Emergency. A ‘cafeteria’ approach, which respected people’s autonomy and gave them a voice in the choice of contraception, was then adopted. In subsequent years, a young and growing population, skilled and healthy, was seen as an asset that could yield a ‘demographic dividend.’ So, when a government with an authoritarian streak, speaks of ‘population explosion’, Emergency-era fears are likely to be stoked.

Senior BJP leaders, in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, had reportedly called the camps housing violence-affected Muslims ‘child-producing centers’. 

The PM’s statement cannot be seen in isolation. On 12 July, Rakesh Sinha, a BJP MP, introduced the ‘The Population Regulation Bill, 2019’. It calls for punitive action against people with more than two living children, including disqualification from being an elected representative, denial of financial benefits, and reduction of subsidised, rationed food grains.

So, is there really a ‘population explosion’? India’s population grew by 17.64 percent in the last decade, compared to China’s 5.43 percent. This was the first decade after 1911-1921, when India added fewer numbers compared to the previous decade. Although India’s population continues to grow, the pace of net addition is decreasing.

What Total Fertility Rate Stats Tell Us

The National Population Policy of 2000 had set 2045 as the target for achieving population stability. But the population in 2011 was 110 million more than the target set for 2010. Thus, achieving population stability by 2045 will be a difficult task. But fertility trends show that India is at an inflection point. The number of children that a woman can be expected to have in her lifetime, known as the total fertility rate (TFR), fell from 3.1 children in 2001 to 2.2 in 2011. This is slightly more than the replacement level of 2.1.

Even in populous Uttar Pradesh, where the share of Muslims is 19 percent, the gap between Hindu and Muslim fertility rates is shrinking.

Official reports show that 24 states and union territories are already at or below the replacement fertility levels. Twelve of them have a fertility rate which is below the replacement level: Delhi (1.5, the lowest); Andhra, Himachal, Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu (1.6); Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra and Telangana (1.7); and Odisha and Uttarakhand (1.9). Some of these states have a sizeable share of Muslims: Jammu and Kashmir at 68 percent, West Bengal at 27 percent, Kerala at 26 percent, and undivided Andhra at 10 percent.

Total Fertility Rate Comparison: Hindus And Muslims

According to the latest National Family Health Survey, the TFR of an average Hindu woman in 2015-16 was 2.13. That of Muslim women was 2.62. In 2005-06, the TFRs were 2.59 and 3.4 respectively. A steeper decline in fertility has been seen among Muslim women.

Even in populous Uttar Pradesh, where the share of Muslims is 19 percent, the gap between Hindu and Muslim fertility rates is shrinking. UP’s TFR is 2.74. Hindu women have a TFR of 2.67, a decline of 1.06 children per woman from a decade ago, while that of Muslims is 3.10, a reduction of 1.23 children.

In Bihar, which is 17 percent Muslim, the TFR is 3.41. The fertility of Hindu women at 3.29 is below the state average, while that of Muslim women is 4.11. A decade earlier it was 3.86 and 4.81 respectively.

In 2001, Muslim women on average had one child more than Hindu women. By 2011, it had declined to 0.6 children. So the gap in fertility rates between the two communities is narrowing.

Instead Of Blaming People, The Govt Must Take Onus

Women interviewed for the National Family Health Survey 2015-16, said the ‘wanted’ fertility rate was 1.8, which means they did not want to have more than two children. (The wanted TFR for Hindu women was 1.7 and for Muslim women 2.0). Thirty million married women in the age group 15-49 years wished to delay or avoid pregnancy, but did not have access to contraceptives.

Coercive measures are not needed when people are willing to change their attitude towards fertility. 

Instead of blaming people, the government must take responsibility. The Population Foundation of India, a voluntary group set up by enlightened philanthropists like JRD Tata, says there is a need ‘re-prioritise’ family planning. In a statement issued before the budget in July, it deplored the low budgets for primary health care and sought a hike in the outlay for family planning which, it said, had remained unchanged at 4 percent of the National Health Mission budget since 2014-15.

Coercive measures are not needed when people are willing to change their attitude towards fertility. PFI says there is a need to “improve awareness and showcase positive behaviours for motivating people to adopt family planning.” It advocates a ‘rights-based, voluntary approach’.

Population Spike In Hindi Heartland: What The PM Must First Address

People’s attitudes towards contraception are shaped by education, income, urbanisation, social security, and chances of children surviving. Delaying the age at marriage shrinks the reproductive span and results in fewer children. Increasing the enrollment of girls in schools, checking their drop-out rate, and providing them with opportunities for higher education and employment, delays the age by which women get married.

People do not need governments to tell them that large families are a burden. Governments should do their bit by making available quality education, ensuring healthcare, providing access to contraception, and boosting job opportunities. The population spike in the Hindi heartland states is an indicator of the failure of governance. The prime minister should address it first.

(Vivian Fernandes is a senior journalist and runs a website calledSmart Indian Agriculture. He tweets @VVNFernandes. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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