Is India equipped to deal with population bulge?

Checks and Balance: Can we reap demographic dividends? Do we need a population control law? Geetanjali Minhas discusses ramifications with two economist and an MP

GN Bureau | December 28, 2022


#economy   #demographics   #Population   #society   #health  


India is projected to surpass China in terms of population in 2023, becoming the most populous country in the world, according to the United Nations. More than half of India’s population is under 25 years of age and over 65% is below the age of 35 years. Despite its huge demographic opportunity, 27.8 crore people in India need jobs but are unemployed.

Overpopulation and unemployment are deepening the economic divide and increasing crime too. For a developing economy, to be the world’s most populous nation is hardly a matter of pride.

In the latest episode of Checks and Balance, Geetanjali Minhas of Governance Now discussed the ramifications of the UN projections with a number of experts.

Watch the episode here:


Some experts said that India’s population growth rate is declining and the total fertility rate (TFR) has also gone down below the replacement level.  

Quoting the UN population projections that India’s population will peak in 2061, Alok Vajpeyi, Lead, Knowledge Management and Core Grants, Population Foundation of India, said that India is on course to achieve population stabilisation in the next few decades. Making a reference to the Global Burden of Diseases 2017 study findings published in the Lancet, Vajpeyi said India’s population will peak to 1.6 billion by 2048 and decline to 1.1 billion by 2100. The TFR will be 1.3. In case of the Muslim community whose TFR is higher than that of the Hindus, the decline now is higher than that among Hindus too.

“There is huge unmet need for family planning in country. Women want fewer children. It is important to stop child marriage and educate girls so they acquire skills, join workforce and delay marriage and having children. This way they will also contribute to the country’s development. Demographic dividend will come by providing quality education, skills, employment and jobs, quality health services and nutrition to India’s young population,” he said.

Calling for a targeted approach by the government to focus on districts with high fertility rates and provide family planning services in mission mode, Vajpeyi referred to the union government’s official position that India does not require ‘two child’ norm or coercive policies and said that such policies can have adverse effects, going by the global evidence, and the official stance is on the lines of the position taken by Population Foundation of India.
 
Santosh Mehrotra, economist and visiting professor, Centre for Development Studies, University of Bath, UK, said focus on health, education and manufacturing jobs is necessary to reap demographic dividend.   

Like Vajpeyi, he said that if a country invests in health and education, it is able to raise the level of living, autonomy and agency of women in particular and they have control over their bodies and say in the number of children they are going to have.

“Demographic dividend will last for another 15-20 years but for that India will have to generate jobs not only in government but also private sector and construction,” he said.

“The country needs cross-sectoral, horizontal industrial policy focused on MSMEs and small enterprises concentrated in clusters. PLI [productivity linked incentive scheme] is not industrial policy. The government needs to adopt industrial and employment policies. We realise demographic dividend only if we create non-farm jobs. We need more jobs in labour intensive and construction sectors and not depend modern services sector job growth,” he said, adding that policy mistakes made in last seven-eight years need to be corrected so that the job growth rate resumes, especially in manufacturing sector.

On education, he said that, despite gender parity and enrolments getting universalised, quality of education has not improved, remains poor and for that reason skill development is not working.
Further, he said that 1.3% of our GDP is allocated to heath at national level, our level of per capita income is extremely low and our health services are unfortunately privatised. “The National Health Policy of 2017 says that 2024 India will achieve 2.5 % of GDP … but we are making no progress towards that. Countries where women are better educated and manage to get jobs and have fewer children have managed to reduce their population growth.

“A combination of inputs and investments in programmes like National Rural Health Mission at a time when level of education of girls was also rising enabled population numbers to come down,” he said.  

He added that missteps like the mass sterilisation campaign spearheaded by Sanjay Gandhi in the 1970s and China’s One Child policy entrench the Hindu preference for sons and they start killing their daughters which in certain north Indian states have led to gender disparity with shortage of women.

Professor Mehrotra called for policies that generate jobs and increased public health expenditure with required infrastructure so that people can go to primary health centres and need not incur out of pocket expenditure on healthcare. He emphasised that investing in health and education will not only slow down population growth but also raise per capita income, raise tax revenues of the government which in turn will help the government to invest more in health and education, infrastructure, etc.

Can a population control law help bring down population numbers? Vajpeyi said that due to large young population the absolute population numbers will grow for the next few years even if a couple chooses to have only one child. “So, population control cannot be exercised.”

Professor Mehrotra said it is not a good approach and a complete red herring. “There are very good historical reasons and international evidence to suggest that what works best is … you reduce among households, specially poor… which have the highest number of children due to low education levels and poor health services … the demand for children. If you meet the unmet need for quality health services with primary health centres at lowest levels and family planning services and after completing their education girls get jobs outside farms, their agency and autonomy improves.

“With deep-rooted democratic culture, a population control law will not work in our country and can potentially provide a cover to state governments that have avoided spending on health and education at the lowest level,” he cautioned.
 
However, Anil Agarwal, a Rajya Sabha MP and BJP leader, said that for a country to prosper it must control its population, and preserve its limited resources. He said people must rise above caste, religion, and society to control population.

“India’s has the world’s 17%-20% population and 2.7% land mass. It is best if everyone participates in controlling population and decides not to have more than two children for sake of the country’s prosperity,” he said.

Agarwal said that despite huge government spending on health, primary health and wellness centres everywhere as well as in education, due to increasing population numbers, it is not enough and there is always a shortfall. “If a 100-bed hospital designed for 5,000 people has to accommodate 50,000 people, you can understand what will happen. No matter how much we invest in infrastructure development like trains, colleges, universities, airports, road network or hospitals, it is never enough due to our increasing population. Compared to other countries, India has less water and we can also have food security problems in future,” he said.

Vajpeyi, however, said that the richest 10% people are using maximum resources and producing highest greenhouses emissions. “You have to look at the root cause of problem.”

Alluding to a report highlighting that those who cannot afford to give proper education and maintain a standard of living for their children have more children who are getting malnourished, Agarwal reiterated having smaller families for better quality of education, food and life.

He said prime minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Beti Padhao Beti Bachao’ initiative was intended to lead towards a balanced sex ratio. “If our daughters are educated, they will contribute to our country’s progress. Similarly, Ayushman Bharat Digital Health Account [health card for citizens] is a great initiative but it is our own responsibility to take care of our families, provide them decent lifestyle and control population.  

“Today we are the fifth largest economy in the world and by 2025, we will become the third largest if we control and educate our population so that it becomes our demographic dividend,” said the BJP leader.
 

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