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The Population Question: Unsustainable Demographics or Skewed Economic Development

Shri Manish Tewari & Shri Salman Anees Soz

This is a summary of points put forward by Shri Manish Tewari, during a discussion on the topic organized as a webinar by AIPC Delhi. The discussion was conducted as a conversation between Shri Tewari and Shri Salman Soz.
Shri Salman Soz’s opinions have been enunciated in his adjoining article.

The Question of Our Unsustainable Demographics

India’s demographics are completely and absolutely unsustainable. The entire myth of a demographic dividend is a very carefully constructed lie in order to sweep our collective inaction on the population question under the carpet. If you just look at the numbers, they are very interesting: In 1951, India’s population was 39.10 crores. By 1981, in three decades, it had increased to 71.54 crores. In 2011, it increased to 125.3 crores. Today, it is about 139.4 crores.

India occupies 2.4 percent of the world’s land area and hosts about 17 percent of the world’s population. We have increased our population by nearly four times in 70 years and, of course, we have not added an inch of land to our territory given that the whole South Asian dynamic is a very, very contested dynamic. So, if you were to compare us with China, you know China is just a wee ahead of India, with 141.1 crore in terms of population, but China occupies 6.3 percent of the world area.

So, essentially, it occupies a landmass which is almost double the landmass of India. Therefore, the Indian subcontinent could at best have taken a population of about 65 crores. In 1974, we were at about 60 crores and that was the time when the India Youth Congress was given in a five−point program by the then leader of the Youth Congress, Mr Sanjay Gandhi. And the five points included an emphasis on what used to be called family planning, dowry eradication, dealing with the caste system, and eradicating illiteracy.

Unfortunately, between 1975 and 1977, the manner in which the entire family planning program or the family welfare program was implemented has completely and absolutely thrown this very contentious question off the political radar, and from 1977 till 2020, no politician of any consequence, no political party of any consequence, has been willing to seriously debate the population question and how we are going to really be able to deal with this community’s completely unsustainable numbers. Covid-19, I think, brought to the fore our inadequacy, both in terms of social as well as health infrastructure.

In Delhi, there is virtually a pandemic tornado unfolding and the Delhi government has been artificially trying to suppress testing. Delhi’s hospitals are completely and absolutely overburdened. You see horrific videos coming out every day of how patients have been turned back from hospital after hospital and they have died in ambulances, they have died on hospital floors for the lack of any medical care. So, under these circumstances we have to wake up now and address some of these very serious issues with regard to our demographics, issues with regard to our healthcare infrastructure, issues with regard to our social infrastructure (I mean, one of the most enduring memories of this pandemic is going to be millions and millions of people walking home from our cities as a completely insensitive government looked on. They were crushed under railway trains, they were mowed down by trucks on our highways, and the Indian entrepreneurial class whom these people have enriched with their hard work, in fact, exhibited the most contemptuous insensitivity towards them by literally throwing them out on the streets within four or five days of the lockdown being declared, when there was no financial emergency really playing itself out).

So, therefore, under such circumstances I think it all comes back to one fundamental question: We do not have the wherewithal, we do not have the infrastructure to sustain our demographics and all those people who say that India’s moment in the Sun is going to come in 2047 when China’s demographics start declining and the baby era of the little emperors is over, I think it is living in cuckoos land, for the want of a better word. The fact is that India requires 30 years of consolidation, it requires space for consolidation, for that it requires peace on its periphery and all these delusions of being a rising great power, I think, have all been very rudely shaken by what has transpired in the past few months in our country.

Regarding Imposing Population Control

My contention is very simple: that our numbers are not sustainable. Now the question is if our numbers are not sustainable, and I take Salman’s point that you know it is not as if there is a uniform problem across India; there is more problem in certain states as compared to other states, but the difficulty is that if you start having state specific policies then you open yourself to the charge of actually targeting and singling out states and that policy is set up for failure.

Therefore, the Indian subcontinent could at best have taken a population of about 65 crores. In 1974, we were at about 60 crores and that was the time when the India Youth Congress was given in a five−point program by the then leader of the Youth Congress, Mr Sanjay Gandhi.

So, therefore, if you were to have a larger national framework then those states which are already implementing or let us say have achieved those goals, you know they don’t have anything really to worry about. The limited point that I am trying to make is that I also understand that coercion does not work and coercion can be counter−productive. The purpose of writing that piece (Tewari, Manish. 29 May, 2020. “Covid-19 Proved India’s Demographics Are Unsustainable. Time We Brought Our Fertility Rate Down.” Outlook. Accessed on 2 September, 2020 at https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/opinion−Covid-19−proved−indias−demographics−are−unsustainable−time−we−brought−our−fertility−rate−down/353724) was to actually kick start a discussion about whether we agree that India’s demographics are not sustainable, and if we agree that India’s demographics are unsustainable then what is the policy framework or what are the policy frameworks that we need to put in place in order to deal with it. Regarding targeting of communities for the population question, I can understand the point which Salman made. Unfortunately, the Right wing has been carrying out a campaign targeting certain communities, all that nonsense, but I think on this question, enlightened leadership has to emerge from within communities and people from within communities need to stand up and say that it is in their larger national interest and it is in the interest of us as a people, us as families, to be able to bring into this world those many number of children whom we can properly educate, properly cloth, give them a head start in life. I don’t think that is a communal question. Yes, there would be forces which would try and target particular communities, but that is unfortunately the nature of politics and we have to live with that. But rising above parties and such considerations, I think we need to seriously apply ourselves to a policy framework or a set of policy frameworks if we come to that basic minimum understanding that we need to do something about our demographics.

Population Question: Preparing for the Future

Let me say that when you plan for a country you don’t plan for your own lifetime. You actually plan beyond your lifetime because when you look at nation states you do not look at nation states in terms of your own life time. I take Salman’s point that it will take a while for things to stabilize but if India has to be a great power by the end of the 21st century, that is 80 years from now, or at the beginning of the 22nd century, you have to start planning now and, therefore, it is the policy prescriptions that you put in place today which future generations, hopefully, will build on, which is going to ensure the longevity and the prosperity of this nation. So, that’s why I am saying this is not about the Congress or the BJP or about political partisanship. This is about looking at the larger national interest over the horizon, taking the long view from Delhi, as I call it.

That’s point number one. Point number two, you know what Salman says is absolutely correct but they are subsets of the same problem so you can and have nutrition reform, you can have contraception reform, but if in the next 20 or 30 years you are going to add another 30 crore people to your population, then you are back to square one. So those other initiatives are only going to work provided you are willing to tackle the elephant in the room. And I find, given the political sensitivity which has been institutionalized around this question post 1977, that we are unable to or unwilling to grapple with it head−on.

Let me say that when you plan for a country you don’t plan for your own lifetime. You actually plan beyond your lifetime because when you look at nation states you do not look at nation states in terms of your own life time.

Point number two, you know what Salman says is absolutely correct but they are subsets of the same problem so you can and have nutrition reform, you can have contraception reform, but if in the next 20 or 30 years you are going to add another 30 crore people to your population, then you are back to square one.

I don’t think what late Shri Sanjay Gandhi did in terms of the conceptual framework was incorrect, but, unfortunately, events as they unfolded between 1975 and 1977 and the excesses which got committed… and the irony is that when you had three or four Commissions looking into those excesses, they were actually able to really pin down very, very few cases of forced sterilization. The fundamental thing is that you need to do all the rest also so it is not either/or. If you think by doing the rest you will be able to avoid doing the population question, I would respectfully disagree with that.

Population Question and Women Leaders

Possibly, there has been a failure of women leadership in South Asia because South Asia is perhaps one part of the world which, for the longest time, has been led by very enlightened women leaders: whether it was Mrs. Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka, or Mrs. Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan over two terms, or the very enlightened women leadership in India, or Bangladesh which continues to be led by successive women leaders, or Myanmar led by Aung San Suu Kyi. But somewhere it seems that given the fact that we are extremely feudal societies, the entrenched feudal character was not broken by them because when you break feudal alliances it comes at a political cost. So, I think, that’s the subject of a larger question about why women in this part of the world are not really in the forefront as they are in some other parts of the world despite the presence of such leadership.



Should India Legislate Population Control?

Shri Salman Anees Soz, Deputy Chairman, AIPC

India’s growing population generates much heat in political and policy circles. Every now and then, there are calls for enacting a national population control law. For some, such as those on the far right (RSS and Hindutva adherents), population control is a well−established dog whistle to highlight higher than average fertility rates among Muslims. According to them, Muslim population growth means that India’s Hindu majority is in danger. Then there is a second set of population control advocates who are concerned about the adverse economic impacts of rising population. They point to China’s one−child policy as a model to emulate and adapt to India’s circumstances. Just as China has developed rapidly, they argue, a population control law can help develop India. If we go by past experiences and evidence, both these arguments are deeply flawed.

Let’s assess the Hindutva argument. Do Muslims contribute to population growth? Of course, they do. But, so do Hindus. Between 2001 and 2011, Hindu population grew at an annual rate of 1.55 percent while Muslims grew at 2.2 percent. Clearly, Muslims have grown faster than Hindus have. But, that is not the entire story. In fact, Muslim growth rate is slowing down at a rate faster than it is for Hindus. Between 1991 and 2001, the annual growth rate for Hindus was 1.8 percent and for Muslims it was 2.6 percent. Besides, some groups within the Hindu community are growing at rates similar to those for Muslims. What does the RSS have to say about that? Well, Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS Chief, reportedly wanted Hindu women to have more children. So much for population control! Of course, now there is talk of the RSS pushing for a law to cap the number of children at two.

In fact, Muslim growth rate is slowing down at a rate faster than it is for Hindus.

If the RSS view of the population issue is coloured by their Islamophobia, we should turn instead to the economic development argument. Undoubtedly slower population growth would help raise living standards (everything else being equal). But, is legislation to cap the number of children the right way to go? To understand this, we need to dig a bit deeper into this issue. India’s total fertility rate is 2.2 children per woman, close to the replacement level fertility rate of 2.1. Most states and union territories have fertility rates below replacement levels. But some of India’s biggest and poorest states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan have the highest fertility rates. That offers us a clue about what may be driving population growth in India.

Some of the most important factors that drive population growth are socioeconomic in nature. Poverty is a factor with families opting for more children either because of lower chances of survival or as a means of increasing family income through labour. Women’s education and empowerment are important factors as well. As per the fourth National Family Health Survey (NFHS−4), the total fertility rate among Indian women with no schooling is 3.1 whereas it is 1.7 among women who have completed more than twelve years of schooling. Increased participation of women in the labour force postpones the process of starting families. Also, employed women report having fewer children. The NFHS−4 also reports a huge unmet need for family planning in India. Almost 40 million women and girls wish to delay or avoid pregnancy but do not have access to contraceptives.

On the other hand, coercive polices to restrict the number of children have often failed and can have dangerous consequences. A 2005 study of several Indian states found that the implementation of coercive policies produced unintended consequences such as a rise in sex−selective and unsafe abortions, men divorcing their wives to run for local body elections, and families giving up children for adoption to avoid disqualification in local elections. But did China not develop? Yes, it did but its population was already declining well before they enacted the one−child policy. There are myriad factors for why China has done well. Perhaps policymakers should study those carefully instead of zeroing in on a silver bullet argument.

Some of the most important factors that drive population growth are socioeconomic in nature. Poverty is a factor with families opting for more children either because of lower chances of survival or as a means of increasing family income through labour. Women’s education and empowerment are important factors as well.

The evidence is clear. The solution to India’s population problem is to look at the evidence and focus on improving socioeconomic indicators of progress. Quick fixes and coercion will not work. In fact, arguments in favour of a pollution control law could make things worse. Be careful what you wish for.

The Big Close Up

The Population Question: Unsustainable Demographics or Skewed Economic Development
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Chhattisgarh: People−focused Governance
Prophylactics, Cures, and Vaccines: The Fight Against Covid-19