In the seventh edition of India Today magazine from March 15, 1976, a cover story about India’s growing population was published and how it should be controlled. It was during the state of emergency and at that time the Congress Party announced a National Population Policy, which detailed population control measures. The intention was noble, but the implementation brutal. During the state of emergency, most of the opposition leaders were imprisoned. The government had unlimited powers and attacked the implementation of the sterilization program with a heavy hand. Doctors and bureaucrats roamed the countryside with sterilization targets. Between 1976 and 1977, more than eight million people were sterilized, some by force. This became a huge political problem in the 1977 general election in which the Congress Party suffered a dramatic loss and Ms. Indira Gandhi also lost her seat. The coercive family planning campaign was widely seen as a major factor in the defeat of Congress. This defeat seemed to have traumatized the Indian political class and population control became an unspeakable term in national discourse.
On July 11 this year, the topic returned to national consciousness when Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath unveiled his state’s new population control policy aimed at reducing the growth rate of the population to 2.1% over the next decade. The policy encourages the two-child standard for both government employees and private citizens. In 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointed out the country’s demographic challenge in his Independence Day speech and warned that a “population explosion” could cause problems in the future. Modi recommended that the Center and states take action to address the problem. However, the announcement of Yogi Adityanath’s policies in the run-up to the UP elections, scheduled for early next year, has sparked a controversial political battle, with opposition parties blaming the state government to use the question to polarize voters along religious lines.
We plan to overtake China as the most populous country by 2027. The hubbub over the UP announcement has raised new questions about India’s population growth and its policies. Our cover story, “India’s Population Policy: Myths and Realities,” written by Associate Editors Kaushik Deka and Shwweta Punj and Senior Associate Editor Sonali Acharjee, answers the big questions surrounding this debate. Is the population growth rate of Muslims a serious threat to Hindus? Is India still facing a population explosion? Are coercive methods, such as those proposed by the UP government and currently prevalent in other states, dissuasive? Is there a risk that India will lose the benefits of a young workforce – the so-called demographic dividend – if it pursues an aggressive policy of population control? Each of these questions has several associated myths that warrant a reality check.
The only fear that Muslims will outnumber Hindus is not based on facts. The population growth rates of all religious communities, including Hindus and Muslims, are declining. Yet while the UP and Assam have been talkative about demographic concerns, the measures they have taken or proposed are no different from what 11 other states, like Maharashtra, have adopted in the past. Fortunately, voluntary population control measures are nationally accepted. Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, India’s third most populous state, argued that focusing on educating women can lower the fertility rate. Economic development and the empowerment of women, as we have discovered, are effective contraceptives.
While it is necessary to control population growth, coercion rarely works. China’s strict one-child policy in the 1970s resulted in gender-selective abortions, depressed fertility levels, irreversible aging of the population, labor shortages and an economic slowdown . China abandoned the one-child standard in 2016 and now officially encourages a three-child policy. Experts we spoke to agree that instead of a punitive exclusionary approach, the focus should be on sensible and inclusive measures, such as the dissemination of education and raising awareness of family planning, making contraceptive options readily available, inducing subsequent marriages and childbirths, and promoting women’s participation in the labor force. Short-term electoral gains should never dictate any approach to population control. Development remains the best contraceptive and demography is inseparable from the economy. India is experiencing a demographic dividend: with an average age of 29, we will have, by 2026, the youngest population in the world. The young demographics are propelling growth and creating demand. The 2018-19 Economic Survey notes a slowdown in population growth but a significant increase in the share of the working-age population this decade. The national total fertility rate will be below replacement levels this year. Yet the working-age population would increase by around 9.7 million people per year between 2021 and 2031 and by 4.2 million per year between 2031 and 2041.
Every economist we spoke to stressed the need to harness our demographic dividend by maintaining our workforce and increasing its productivity. This is clearly not the case now, as 41 percent of our workforce is still engaged in agriculture, which contributes only 15 percent to GDP. Not to mention that India has the largest number of poor people in the world: 364 million or 28% of our population. If we do not address the issue of population growth in tune with economic prosperity, we will only add to the misery of the people. This must be done without infringing on the civil liberty of the individual, as we saw during the Emergency. We must also avoid unintended consequences of population control such as female infanticide. A delicate balance must be found.
We need to look at and work towards the ideal population figure that can be supported by our resources. Without a holistic approach to our demographic problem, India’s demographic dividend risks becoming a demographic catastrophe. To prevent this from happening, population planning must remain a topic of continuous public discourse. I am happy that the taboo has been broken.