The Census Commissioner has been castigated, rightly, for distorting the population growth rate of Muslims in the decade 1991-01. The correct rate is 29.3 per cent, not 36 per cent as originally announced.
Still, why is the Muslim rate so much higher than the Hindu population growth of 19.9 per cent in the decade? The BJP would like Indian Muslims to learn from Hindus. I disagree. Indian Muslims should actually look to Bangladesh for role models.
Attitudes to birth control do not explain much. From the first Census in 1981, Muslim population growth has always exceeded Hindu growth, even when contraception was unknown.
Why? For three reasons. First, widow remarriage was encouraged by Muslims but shunned by Hindus, and this greatly affected fertility rates.
Second, men migrating for work had fewer children, and migrant workers were disproportionately Hindu (construction workers from Rajasthan, household workers from Garhwal).
Third, Hindus and Sikhs had a tradition of killing newborn girls in Punjab and Tamil Nadu. None of these birth-reducing practices should be regarded as role models for Muslims.
The latest Census says that the number of females per 1,000 males is 936 for Muslims and 931 for Hindus, not a significant difference. Clearly female infanticide by Hindus and Sikhs has diminished.
But this is now more than offset by the rise of female foeticide, using sonography followed by selective female abortion. For children below six years, the number of girls per 1,000 boys is 950 for Muslims, 925 for Hindus, and a deplorable 786 for Sikhs.
Female infanticide and foeticide reduce population indirectly as well as directly. Even after contraception lowers the total fertility rate (lifetime births per woman), population growth can be rapid for two decades because of what demographers call population momentum: future mothers have already been born.
But female infanticide and foeticide ensure that future mothers are not born, and so reduce population momentum. This is part of the reason for falling Hindu population growth, but not something Hindus should boast about.
Religious attitudes can indeed influence fertility, but tend to be flexible globally. In the 1960s and 1970s, Middle East countries had the highest fertility rates in the world, but those rates have plummeted in the last two decades.
Iran’s fertility rate is now just 2.0 per woman, signifying zero population growth. In Bangladesh, fertility has fallen dramatically from 6.1 in 1980 to just 2.9 in 2001. India’s rate in the same period declined from 5.0 to 2.9.
So, Bangladeshi Muslims have reduced fertility much faster than Indian Hindus (and without the benefit of female foeticide).
How so? I believe that NGOs like Grameen Bank and Bangladesh Rural Advancement Centre (BRAC) have played a major role in changing traditional attitudes in Bangladesh. Grameen Bank pioneered micro-credit, giving small loans to groups of women.
This empowered women in several ways. It gave them control over money, and hence a new status. It helped women think of themselves as decision-makers and entrepreneurs, not dependents on males. It helped women join the workforce.
Empowered women the world over give more attention to education, health and small families. These trends are evident in Bangladesh.
BRAC runs 70,000 schools in Bangladesh, and is an educational force paralleling the government. Almost all teachers in BRAC schools are women, and BRAC encourages women teachers to ride motorcycles.
In rural Bangladesh (or India) the motorcycle is the ultimate macho symbol, and a woman on a motorcycle represents a gender revolution.
Indian Muslims need to learn from Bangladesh. They too need to create micro-credit institutions that empower women. They too need to set up schools with female teachers (which in turn increase female school attendance).
Micro-credit in India is concentrated in the southern states, and it is no coincidence that these have the lowest Muslim population growth.
The Census puts female literacy at 50.1 per cent for Muslims against 53.2 per cent for Hindus, only a small difference.
But female participation in the workforce is as low as 14 per cent for Muslims, against 27.5 per cent for Hindus. Global research shows that fertility drops when women enter the workforce and earn cash.
As long as women do unpaid work at home and on the family farm, husbands expect them to keep bearing children. But once a woman earns cash from wages or business, having a child means a temporary stoppage of cash income.
Suddenly men see female labour as valuable, and opt for smaller families. Micro-credit and education will surely encourage more Muslim women to join the workforce, with important consequences for fertility.
So, forget attempts to make a communal issue out of population growth. Forget schemes to penalise people for having more children.
If we empower women with micro-credit and education, if we facilitate their entry into the workforce, fertility will take care of itself.